Three Longhorns in the Music Business Share How They Have Fared During COVID-19

Back in early March 2020, which feels like 100 years ago, the thriving Austin music industry felt the rumblings of a catastrophic event: the cancellation of South by Southwest (SXSW). It would be the first time in the 34-year history of the annual conference—once solely dedicated to music and now expanded to education, film, and interactive—that venues across the city would go dark. Faced with the implications of creating a superspreader event, as hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of countries prepared to crowd together and sway and sweat as guitars rang out around them, the City of Austin did the unthinkable and pulled the plug. It was a bellwether for the immense economic impact on the global music industry, as live music basically ceased to exist.

As of this writing, the industry is still largely reeling; any live show today looks nothing like it did before. On a given night, Austin residents were spoiled with dozens of live music options on its multitude of stages. Now, those stages are mostly bare, and fans are resigned to catching their favorite artists over Zoom or Instagram Live from their living rooms. And SXSW, which promoters, venue owners, and musicians count on for a huge chunk of income, will be 100 percent virtual in 2021, marking a second straight year of lost revenue for locals.

In the self-proclaimed—and much-disputed—Live Music Capital of the World, COVID-19 has ravaged the industry. Victims include large country music rooms like Threadgills and small punk clubs like Barracuda; vaunted music promoters like Margin Walker; and a slew of other businesses that make up the fabric of the Austin music community. Of the clubs that are still open, most are hanging on by a thread.

And that’s saying nothing about musicians, who in the age of streaming have largely relied on ticket and merchandise sales to keep their dreams afloat. We spoke with three Austin music professionals to understand what happened, what remains, and what the future might hold.


Co-owner, Antone’s, Arlyn Studios, Lamberts, and more

A native Austinite, Will Bridges grew up in the thriving Austin blues scene, sometimes getting woken up by his father to catch luminaries of the genre like Albert Collins at Antone’s on school nights. Bridges is now co-owner
of the iconic blues club, as well as other essential Austin music spaces like Arlyn Studios and Lamberts.

Do you remember when the pandemic began?

It’s just crazy to think in late February [2020], losing some South By clients and thinking, It’s OK, well, we’re going to still do South By anyway. I don’t think anybody could have ever fathomed the scope of this.

What was your first thought when they were talking about canceling SXSW?

We went into damage-control mode and stayed in that mode for a while until it became apparent that, wow, OK, this is so much bigger.

 I don’t like to sound insensitive to what other clubs or teams have gone through because everybody’s situation is different, but I’m an optimist. And so from the get-go I told our team, “Hey, we’ve got the luxury of not having an option. Like, we can’t close. Antone’s can’t close. We gotta survive. We will survive. Does that kind of simplify it for everybody?” And people actually were like, “Yeah.” All of my team agreed and we were still having weekly manager meetings on Zoom.

It’s not like Antone’s has some special secret sauce where it’s any easier for us. There’s a brand and name recognition and a legacy that gives us an advantage, but only if it’s utilized. You could still run Antone’s into the ground. We’ve seen it done before. But I know that we probably went into this in a much better position than a lot of music venues.

Did you get federal assistance?

I turned into a professional grant writer for all of my businesses for about three months. I got my MBA at UT, so I know I have an advantage in that regard. Our city and some of the programs could have done a lot better job of walking people through those processes. It’s a shame that we were put in this every-person-for-themselves mentality, but that’s what it was like when everything was crazy. A grant would come out and it would be like I was competing because nobody knew how much money there was going to be or how the process was even happening. We did get some Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money: $88,900. We just don’t have a very big payroll. I got an [Economic Injury Disaster Loan] and a Creative Space Assistance Program grant. I told myself I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, so there’s no excuse. We exploited every possible resource and we’re gonna probably need some more. We’re not out of the woods yet.

Was there ever a moment when you thought that you might have to close Antone’s?

An advantage we have is that people agree that Antone’s is an important part of Austin history. People say a lot that they don’t want to live in an Austin without Antone’s. I knew that sentiment and support was there and there were ways to leverage that if needed. Fortunately—knock on wood—we haven’t gotten to that yet. I haven’t had to go to investors and say, “We need some cash.” We did do a fundraiser to help our staff and our inner circle of musicians that considered Antone’s to be kind of their main employer.

This whole thing is really just liquidity versus time. But I am 100 percent optimistic we are going to eventually arrive at a new normal—it’s not going to be the same, but it’s at least going to closely resemble the old normal. The only question is: How long? It’s just surviving until then.

When do you think people will go to shows again?

Where I kind of get a little bit controversial is that we’ve been doing a lot of shows. We’ve been doing shows at Lamberts since we were allowed to be open as a restaurant. Not any headliners—not even announced shows—like a weekday dinner show that we would have had in the old days. We were doing that kind of stuff as early as May or June. It was only two or three times.

In September, we started to do some bigger shows. We had three nights with Paul Cauthen, we had a couple nights with Nikki Lane, and we did some Doyle Bramhall shows. We were the first to do downtown shows in an indoor room.

We’ve been doing what we can, when we can. That has been my motto. I feel like part of what got us into this, and part of the spirit of the music and the art form, is to be free-thinking and make our own assumptions about things. I feel like we’ve done a really responsible job of creating safe environments for artists and staff.

We had a plan all along to convert Antone’s to a seated-only, safely distanced, mask-while-seated venue that served food. We kicked it off with two nights of Jimmie Vaughan in October and then Doyle Bramhall II did another two nights. We just had four nights of Gary Clark Jr. this past weekend that were amazing. But we’ve had so many shows cancel and have to get postponed.

Did you get any pushback?

We didn’t get a lot of pushback. We didn’t promote it that widely on social media—not just to avoid pushback, but also just because we knew they would sell out so fast. We did put a little teaser on Instagram and there was one person who said, “You want all of your customers and your artists to die.”

It’s like, if you don’t feel 100 percent comfortable coming out, you shouldn’t even consider it. We’ve retrofitted our air conditioners to accept the highest rating filters. We installed ionization units in our HVAC units downstairs, but we don’t advertise that because we don’t want to incentivize people or talk somebody off the fence to come. Everybody has to make their own decisions. And some people are in a position where they can do certain things that other people can’t.

We are at 20 percent capacity, so lots of table Tetris, as we’re calling it. We’re somewhere in between closed and open. We’re definitely not open. I call it “closed-plus.” But it’s good for the brand, good for our souls, for the music fans, and musicians, and our staff.

How will the pandemic change live music for you even after it’s over?

I think post-pandemic it’s going to be more compelling for folks to get that peek into an intimate venue. We’re so spoiled in Austin that a lot of people don’t even know about a show until it’s sold out, nobody cares until it’s sold out, and then everybody wants to be there. We’re just like, I wish I could convert this interest somehow. Well, we’re going to be set up to do totally turnkey streaming stuff. We’ve partnered with a company on the networking and broadcasting side and we’ve been building our team and our model so that we can have that option on every single show we do.

What would be your dream lineup to book at Antone’s when we get back to normal?

The first artist to christen the stage at Sixth and Brazos on July 15th, 1975, was Clifton Chenier, zydeco king of New Orleans. He played the anniversary as many times as they could get him. And then when he passed away, his son C.J. started carrying on that tradition. C.J. christened our stage. We had our 45th anniversary on July 15th. We taped a performance with C.J. and streamed it for free. My favorite New Orleans show for sure is Dumpstaphunk with Ivan Neville. Jimmie Vaughan, of course. He was part of the original house band. Doyle Bramhall II. Ian Moore, Bob Schneider, Marcia Ball, the Peterson Brothers, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, Bun B, Red Young, Barbara Lynn, Miss Lavelle White. Gary Clark Jr., of course. Eve Monsees and Mike Buck and Sarah Brown and Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien … seven of those people I just mentioned were original Antone’s resident musicians and the fact that they are still in Austin and accessible and part of our world is just amazing. It would basically be just like the biggest Antone’s jamboree and revue. It would be everybody, man.


Artist, Reach Records

The mononymous Wande is a Christian musician who now calls Atlanta home. Characterized by her hybrid singing and rapping of clean, uplifting lyrics, she cultivates an upbeat brand of hip-hop, as heard most recently on her 2020 Exit EP. Now signed to Reach Records, the journalism major blossomed at UT, where she honed her artistry while simultaneously interning with record labels to learn the business side of the industry and earning a McCombs Business Foundations Certificate. She is working hard in quarantine, performing virtual shows, collaborating with other artists, and consulting for musicians on how to stay afloat during this difficult time.

What were your plans for 2020 and how did the pandemic change them?

It was the biggest plot twist of my life. We do yearly planning meetings in January to be like, “What do you want your year to look like?” I looked back at what I said in January [2020] and it was hilarious. I was planning to release my album and then go on a tour around the world. I’m from Nigeria so I planned on at least stopping in Nigeria for one show. And maybe a couple more countries in Africa, and then I wanted to do at least four pop-up shows in the U.S. It seemed very achievable, but yeah, after COVID-19 happened, definitely not.

What was your first thought when you realized that couldn’t happen?

It made me kind of rewind back to what I knew about business. It made me thankful for that because I had to pivot. Luckily, not all of my shows got canceled; some of them got integrated into a virtual experience. I was also thankful for my journalism background because I understand how to record. And I got some people to help me put it all together.

I also started doing consultations—instead of performing, I started teaching people how to make a living. “Let me teach you how to actually do that in practical steps,” I said, “so you won’t be homeless.” People were actually booking me for that. If I couldn’t do shows, I had to figure out something to do from my house.

How did you pull off virtual shows?

Everything depends on the budget, but for lower budget ones, I would just do them in my house. I’ve always been fascinated with lights and lighting, so I had this ring light that can change colors and it would be shining into the hallway. It looks like a stage that has flashing lights. And then the hallway has an L shape, so I was able to have a way of coming onto the stage. I also have a device called an iRig that allows the audio from your computer to be transmitted into either a phone or a camera. So it sounds like you’re in the studio with me singing the song, but on Zoom. People still got a visually aesthetically pleasing show, and it also sonically sounded really cool.

There’s no replacing the live experience. How did your fans respond to shows like that?

I think a lot of fans appreciated my willingness to still do it like that, like, “Oh wow, this is cool. It’s like seeing you do your thing and be in your element.” A lot of fans were still appreciative, and they still enjoyed it, which I was grateful for, but I’m definitely looking forward to whenever we can finally be in the same room again, because it is a different energy. We give energy to each other.

When will you feel comfortable getting back out there?

In 2022 I’d feel comfortable to do legitimate tour-type stuff, but I think I’d be OK with slowly integrating back into things this summer. Maybe doing a festival. I’d be more open to that because technically, when you’re on a stage, you’re not super close. We’re doing limited meet-and-greet interactions and that sucks, because I love people. I think just like starting off slow and then slowly easing back into the full experience.

What do you miss most about performing live?

Seeing how much music affects people and seeing how many people actually know your music—how far it reaches. The craziest thing was when I realized people actually knew the words. Like, y’all know the words and y’all are jumping and everything. I miss seeing how this thing that I wrote in my room can affect people’s lives.

How has the pandemic changed the way musicians operate?

It’s quality over quantity now—people want more substance. Luckily, I operated like that anyway, but it’s changed the way a lot of people work because there’s less smoke and mirrors with a streaming show.

Has the pandemic affected your writing style?

I’ve gotten back to my start. It’s giving me time to sit down and study my favorite artists. I guess I’m approaching music almost more analytically now. It’s kinda made me slow down with my writing.

 One great thing that’s actually come out of the pandemic is collaboration. Since people aren’t super busy touring, they will pick up the phone. Collaborations have been something beautiful because people have time to now and it’s like, “Yeah, let’s work together!”

How are you preparing for the next phase of your career, as we hopefully come out of this?

I definitely want to establish more of my rapper presence within my music. I would say in 2021 you’ll definitely see a mixtape coming from me that’s more explicitly upbeat rapping. It’s very, like, ratchet rap, but it’s also clean at the same time. I’m excited to put that out there and show people how that’s possible.


Co-owner, Cheer Up Charlies and Rio Rita

Maggie Lea owns Red River’s Cheer Up Charlies, an idiosyncratic LGBTQIA+ bar, live music venue, and dance club with a vegan-friendly food truck out front with her partner, Tamara Hoover. (Full disclosure: She booked one of my bands a few times at Cheer Up Charlies at its previous location on East Sixth Street.) Lea is a fixture in booking DIY events in Austin, as well as an ardent, enthusiastic music fan, spending many pre-pandemic nights catching bands and DJs around town. Since 2009, Cheer Ups, as it’s known to regulars, has been a quintessential neighborhood hangout and SXSW hotspot.

Do you remember where you were when it sunk in that the pandemic was going to close venues?

I had cancer last year. I was diagnosed in late summer of 2019. So, leading up to December 2019, when I guess the whole world found out about coronavirus and then into January, I had actually just come off of chemotherapy and finished my surgery. My parents are from Taiwan, and my mom called me and was like, “You need to be masking when you go to the radiation clinic.” And I was like, “Oh, that is so weird. No, I’m not going to wear a mask.” By February, our cancer clinic nurses were starting to offer masks and were asking me: “Are you sure you’re going to do South By?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” I heard that a lot of folks were very shocked. It seemed like it was a sudden moment for them. I had so many clues and hints leading up to it because I was so heavily entrenched in the world of cancer and cancer folks are some of the most vulnerable. I’ll just say that I wasn’t as surprised the day that it happened. Tamara and I had already anticipated that we might not have South By.

We just thought if they didn’t do South By, we would just go back to what we were good at, which is putting on our own shows, DIY. It’s been a really rude awakening, and we only closed when basically the city forced us to.

How did you help your staff during this time?

Tamara immediately, within the next week after the shutdown, applied a mass layoff for our staff so they were getting unemployment by the end of March. I was so proud of her. And she and I have been through so much financially together that we just were like, OK, let’s just move on this because it could get really ugly. My staff was so happy. And they had the stimulus, too. They were fine for a minute. It seems like a decade ago. We did a GoFundMe because not all of the staff qualified for unemployment. People really wanted to help. They were like, “What can we do?”

When our staff got some help Tamara and I were actually panicking because we have never not had South By. We usually rely on those couple of weeks to get us through. Honestly, the rest of the year we saved that money all the way through December. They hadn’t come out with a PPP loan. So, we were just panicking. We thought, OK, we’re helping our staff, and that’s amazing, but what if we don’t end up opening our doors again because we can’t pay our rent?

What’s your outlook on reopening?

I’m an optimist about this summer picking up. I have noticed the vaccine distribution is sort of wonky, but I do think once people get vaccinated, the fear of going out will subside.

How has the venue stayed afloat? Did you ever consider closing for good?

We received a lot of support from our community and we did end up receiving a couple of grants from the city late last year. Once, we were actually considering closing. It was around September that Tamara and I really hit a wall. We thought, we can’t keep paying rent like this and we’re running out of money and we’ve used all of our loans on rent—which I think is what everyone has been doing. They need to come out with ways to pay these landlords so that the businesses don’t have to spend all their loan money on rent—it restricts us from being able to spend on other things that help us actually work toward reopening. Honestly, keeping a building intact is so costly. We had a plumbing breakdown in the middle of the summer. And we’ve had three break-ins.

How is the staff handling this?

We’ve tried to navigate this with them in mind and with ourselves in mind. If I got to the point where I had to sell my car or get back on food stamps, which we’ve both done in our busy life together, I would be OK if I had to do that. We are trying to open really for the staff because the curbside [food, beverage, and merch sales] that we’re about to implement doesn’t really help the business. It’s very unnatural for us to have our doors shut for this long. Being open all around, it’s good energy and it’s good to get people back in there and it’s good to use the space and have the space be alive. We want to help our staff and we want them to come back to their work that they love.

I’m just hoping for summer to be better. Drinking never goes out of style, right? Anybody can hear music and find meaning. I just am not sure about the production of events. Maybe eventually, maybe next year, it’ll be kind of like the roaring twenties of the early part of the last century where people want to come back to the lightheartedness we’ve all been shut away from.

How have the city’s independent musicians fared in all of this?

I’m very worried about our local community. A lot of people I’ve talked to are just like, “I’m giving up music,” or, “I’m moving out of the city.” When I look down that road, I kind of don’t see us getting back to producing live shows for a minute. We might have to go with our dance club roots for a little bit. Honestly, from what I’ve heard, a lot of people just can’t wait to go back to a bar and dance with their friends. We may have to switch gears for a little bit, maybe just for one year, into being a bar, having a patio open, selling cocktails, and maybe having some DJs on weekends.

What’s your dream bill to book when you can have live music again?

I really just wish we could have some of our friends back, like Go Fever. Definitely TC Superstar. Ideally it would be five bands and then close out with a dance party and some of our DJ friends. I am really missing live shows. At first I was like, yay, it’s quiet and my ears aren’t blasted! Now I’d really like to go see a band at the Mohawk outside. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Photographs by Bill Sallans


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