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Whither music festivals? The forecast for Austin may change in 2018


A look back at 2017’s big music news reveals something about the future, too.

The fest economy is changing, and at least one new policy might boost some clubs’ bottom lines.

The Austin music community is still feeling the loss of several beloved and influential members.

A lot happened in Austin music last year, from festival ups and downs to changes in the nightclub landscape to civic concerns about affordability to the passing of beloved community members. Here’s our look back at 2017, with an eye toward some new developments on the horizon in 2018.

Austin’s festival scene in flux (again)

A few years back, it seemed Austin could have been renamed the Live Music Festival Capital of the World. The two marquee events — South by Southwest in the spring, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival in the fall — bookended a yearlong calendar filled with mini-fests celebrating every kind of music, from alt-Latino to crusty punk. We were the festiest city that ever fested.

These days, not so much. 2017 was a rocky year for several of Austin’s smaller fests.

In April, Levitation, the event formerly known as Austin Psych Fest, took a year off following a devastating weather-related cancellation a year earlier. The roots-oriented Old Settler’s Music Festival endured a tumultuous offseason that included a move to a new site for 2018 and a court battle with former OSMF principals who attempted to start a new fest in the previous Driftwood location.

The biggest shock to the Austin festival scene came in October, when Sound on Sound Festival canceled its second year at Sherwood Forest Faire after an investor pulled out. Festival programmer Graham Williams of Margin Walker Presents managed to rebook the majority of artists on the SOS bill into club shows, but he said the medieval-themed genre fest that rose from the ashes of Fun Fun Fun Fest is unlikely to return.

READ MORE: More details on SOS Fest’s end

SOS Fest’s plight reflects a tough new reality for independent promoters with dreams of staging a festival.

“Back in the day, festivals were different,” Williams said. “Bands got paid, production got paid, everyone got paid that weekend, when the bar sales were in, when the sponsors had handed off the check, when all the ticket money came in to the bank account.” In 2017, with the high-profile collapses of events such as Fyre Festival in the Caribbean and Pemberton in Seattle making national news, everyone from lighting companies to artist management demanded 50 percent up front.

“We’re kind of one of many smaller events that are independent that don’t have a massive company behind them who can put a couple million dollars into an operational account,” Williams said.

Levitation will return to Austin in 2018, but instead of building a dedicated site for the fest, the four-day event will be centered in clubs in the walkable Red River cultural district. The fest has a solid lineup and a variety of ticketing options. If successful, it might provide a new festival model uniquely suited to Austin.

Old Settler’s, meanwhile, got a court injunction against the Driftwood Music Festival, which had planned to set up shop at the former Salt Lick Pavilion site on the same weekend in April 2018. The new OSMF site near Lockhart, still a work in progress, is set to host acts including Calexico, a Grateful Dead tribute with the Travelin’ McCourys, and the trio I’m With Her featuring Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan.

There were a few bright spots in Austin’s smaller fest market in 2017. Perhaps to the chagrin of host site Carson Creek Ranch’s rural neighbors, Euphoria Fest, the EDM and dance music spring fling, experienced growth for the second straight year. The single-day traveling rap and EDM happening Jmblya moved to Circuit of the Americas and more than doubled attendance with a sellout crowd of 25,000.

Austin’s big-dog fests, SXSW and the ACL Fest, had smooth runs in 2017, but both took place in the shadows of larger world events. To protest a Muslim travel ban issued by President Trump, SXSW programmed a special “Contra-banned” showcase featuring musicians from the countries impacted by the ban. Controversy erupted when a musician heading to the festival called out SXSW organizers for language in their performance contract that could be interpreted as a deportation threat leveled against international artists who play non-sanctioned showcases. SXSW organizers agreed to strike the language going forward, but as a series of international artists heading to the fest shared stories about detention and deportation at airport immigration, the issue remained front-of-mind throughout the event.

Five days before weekend one of ACL Fest was set to open, a shooter fired more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition into the grounds of a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more. ACL Fest organizers tightened security and offered refunds to anyone who felt uncomfortable attending in the wake of the Vegas massacre. Several artists acknowledged the tragedy, calling for love and unity during their sets, but there was no sense of anxiety on the ground during the event.

In May, a deadly shooting at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, drove home the idea that in the modern era, large concert venues might be viewed as soft targets for terrorists. There were no major incidents at Austin clubs, but our largest venues took steps to tighten security, with both the Austin360 Amphitheater and the Erwin Center restricting bag sizes and expanding metal detector searches.

Openings, closings and changes

The biggest shakeups in Austin’s club scene came from ATX Brands. The company best known for its “breastaurant” chain Bikinis exited the live music business in Austin. In August, the company sold the historic Scoot Inn to local promotion powerhouse C3 Presents. In November, company reps announced plans to sell once-vibrant Sixth Street club the Parish on the online auction site eBay. The auction included the club’s internal assets and the Parish brand, but not the building itself — the new owner will have to negotiate a new lease with the landlord.

On Dec. 11, the auction closed with a winning bid of $376,445. On Thursday, Stephen Sternschein of Heard Presents, which operates nearby venue Empire Control Room & Garage, confirmed his company was taking over the venue in partnership with Simple Tone Ventures.

After two years of planning, Mosaic Sound Collective opened in a former convalescent home in far East Austin. Site directors Dan Redman and Curse Mackey aim to build the property into a music industry “hive,” a creative campus that includes affordable classroom and rehearsal space, recording studios and, eventually, a cafe, a screen printing shop and a vinyl press. In the fall, City Council approved the zoning adjustments required for some of Mosaic’s more ambitious goals.

READ MORE: Mosaic music hub starting to take shape in East Austin

“Our zoning approval was a huge hurdle, and now we’re getting all of our licensing and permitting finalized. We’ve started hosting educational classes and plan to roll out event programming within the next 45 days,” Redman said.

Austin lost two big hip-hop weekly events in 2017. In August, campus-area dive Nasty’s shut down, ending a 21-year run for DJ Mel’s Monday night hip-hop party. A month later, Leah Manners and Adam Protextor, hosts of the Austin Mic Exchange, decided to end their weekly hip-hop open mic after five years.

Elsewhere, minor changes and reshuffling took place. Grizzly Hall, which opened as a mostly metal club on East Riverside in 2016, came under new guidance via Come and Take It Productions, which renamed the venue Come and Take It Live. Storied Red River Street dive Beerland announced in December that 2018 would find the club’s ownership transferring from founders Randall and Donya Stockton to local events curator Austin Jukebox, a team of five music enthusiasts who’ve worked with Beerland often.

January 2018 finds South Lamar institution the Saxon Pub shuttered for three weeks for some remodeling, but the club isn’t going anywhere, as a tentative relocation plan was shelved after real estate mogul Gary Keller bought the building in late 2016 so that owner Joe Ables could stay put. Meanwhile, far South Congress (just north of Ben White) gets a new player in 2018 with the opening of Cosmic Coffee, run by former Momo’s owner Paul Oveisi. Live music won’t be featured when it launches this month, but Oveisi said this week that there are plans to “probably roll it out in the spring.”

Meanwhile, at City Hall …

As it has been for the last several years, the biggest issue facing musicians and venues in Austin was affordability. On that front, meaningful progress was scarce.

The biggest city policy win for Austin music was a pilot program that extends hours for venues in the Red River cultural district beyond the current cutoff times of 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. Club owners argued that the early cutoffs deprived them of prime drinking-hours earning opportunities afforded to clubs in the adjacent Sixth Street and warehouse districts, where the outdoor live music curfew is 2 a.m. nightly.

The pilot program was approved for a six-month period that began in May, and in October, with the support of city officials and neighborhood associations, it was extended for an additional six months.

“The pilot program has been a great benefit to Empire and all the clubs on Red River,” Stephen Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room and Garage, said in December. “It has enabled us to book more shows, add more local bands to our bills and pay those musicians and our staff more money.”

The city also is exploring ways to expand the scope of a program designed to offer low-interest loans to venues to invest in sound mitigation technologies to cover other capital improvements that could increase a venue’s earning potential.

The biggest failure for the city was a bungled attempt to implement an agent-of-change policy that died before it made it to City Council. Agent of change is the idea that an existing business should be protected from pressures against their operations from newer actors who move in nearby. In other words, the burden of soundproofing falls to owners of the condos or hotel built next to a live music venue, if the live music venue was there first.

The city had been exploring an agent-of-change policy for nearly two years, but the practical need came into focus at the end of 2016 when the Westin Hotel on Fifth Street filed a $1 million suit against Sixth Street club the Nook for playing loud music. The Nook had been operating for three years before the Westin opened.

When the city unveiled a policy proposal that largely exempted hotels from the agent-of-change doctrine, the music industry backlash was fast and furious and the proposal was tabled.

The lawsuit between the Nook and the Westin was settled when the hotel agreed to invest in a soundproofing system for the club.

READ MORE: How Westin Hotel and Nook reached a deal on sound levels

The city of Austin Music and Entertainment Division went through a big transition after department manager Don Pitts resigned while on administrative leave for failing to report a 2014 bogus invoice submitted by an employee in February. Erica Shamaly, former marketing director for ACL Live, took over the position in July.

Under Shamaly, the office is implementing a Busking Pilot Program that will pay street musicians to play in the Seaholm District’s Green Water development. The program, funded by a one-time infusion of $150,000 from site developer Trammel Crow, isn’t the change to city policy many musicians hoped for, but it will put money in the pockets of street musicians while simultaneously engaging Austin’s business community. The program is scheduled to begin during SXSW 2018.

In memoriam

The deaths from cancer of three longtime fixtures in Austin music loomed large for much of the year: singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave (61), bassist/producer George Reiff (56) and influential journalist Margaret Moser (63).

Reiff’s illness had been announced in 2016, sparking more than $100,000 in crowdfunding donations to help cover extensive treatments at M.D. Anderson in Houston. LaFave kept his condition under wraps until April, after which plans were announced for a major tribute concert at the Paramount on May 18 that concluded with an emotional appearance from LaFave himself. He died three days later, on the same night that Reiff passed.

Moser, the longtime Austin Chronicle writer and Austin Music Awards founder who’d moved to San Antonio a few years ago, made a last visit to Austin in July for a Robert Johnson exhibit at Antone’s that she curated. Her final months included visits with many of the Austin musicians she’d championed over the decades.

During the holiday season, all three received heartfelt tributes, underscoring how their absence had been on the community’s minds all year. A memorial for Moser at Antone’s on Dec. 10 drew dozens of performers and hundreds of friends and fans, as did a similar tribute to Reiff at Emo’s on Dec. 17. And many of the musicians who’d played LaFave’s Paramount show in May reconvened for a special salute to him at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar on Dec. 18.

Several other Austin musicians also left us this year. Evan Johns (60, March 11) was a firebrand guitarist who starred with the LeRoi Brothers and his own H-Bombs and was part of the Grammy-nominated 1985 Big Guitars From Texas album. Barry “Frosty” Smith (71, April 12) played drums on records for dozens of Austin artists and was a key member of the 1990s rock band Soul Hat. Spencer Starnes (64, June 29) was a renowned jazz bassist and former member of Asleep at the Wheel who’d engineered many recordings at his studio in Spicewood. Anthony Ortiz (24, July 31), a rising-star accordionist who’d worked with Mariachi Corbetas and country-rock band Crooks, died of cancer. And cancer also took guitarist Joe Eddy Hines (63, Aug. 30), who played for years with Alejandro Escovedo and Buick MacKane, among other local bands.

Other deaths involved key contributors to the music community. Jamon Jaleki Horne (44, March 23) died of cancer after leaving an indelible mark on Austin’s house music scene as a producer and a DJ (under the name J.A.M.O.N.). And Bill Collings (68, July 14) was a world-famous luthier whose Collings Guitars company, launched in 1979, made instruments for major stars including Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.

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