In Austin, most of the local music venues, bars and restaurants, which were crowded with fans and industry elites from around the world during the typically busy South by Southwest week, are comparatively empty in a deserted city. The colossal international festival, which was canceled last year due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, is practically happening this year.

The 2020 March celebration cancellation hit the Austin live music industry hard. „The one-word answer is devastating,” said Mikey Wheeler, general manager of the Red River venue and Mohawk bar. „People seriously underestimate the impact of this one event on our music industry in this city.” It’s one of the hottest live music venues during SXSW and beyond, and is home to artists like Gary Clark Jr., The Roots, Sleigh Bells, and many others. It has been temporarily closed for over a year.

The main source of income for live music venues is touring and concerts. Almost all of them have been canceled or postponed. „It would be very difficult to find a business model that could last a year with no sales,” says Wheeler. Without continued support from government loans and grants coupled with fundraisers, Mohawk would not currently exist.

An indoor concert in Mohawk

An indoor show at the Mohawk in prehistoric timesCody Cowan

Wheeler’s views are confirmed by Cody Cowan, CEO of the Red River Cultural District, an association and cultural division of downtown Austin. “Companies in the district and downtown generally get between 10 and 50 percent of their annual income from SXSW,” he says. These include venues like Mohawk, Cheer Up Charlies, Stubb’s, and Empire Control Room. Eliminating two physical SXSWs in a row, albeit for valid public health and safety reasons, is still of great concern to the Austin music industry that was built on the back of SXSW, he says.

In addition to live music, SXSW events mean additional sources of income for restaurants and bars, from rental fees to brand buyouts to food and beverage services. Last year, Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden bar and restaurant on Rainey Street returned most of the money to people who couldn’t commit to postponing their SXSW corporate events to future dates. „We really tried to do the right thing,” says owner Ben Siegel. The profit loss was approximately $ 300,000. For the events they could postpone, „it was less impactful” on business, he says. „It’s like a delayed loss of sales.”

In light of this week’s digital SXSW, Austin venues, restaurants, and bars are offering new types of programs to keep their employees busy while generating cash to keep their doors open.

The t-shirt by artist Lauren Dickens for SXSW

The t-shirt by artist Lauren Dickens for SXSWSXSW [Official]

The transition from in-person celebrations to SXSW’s digital format has undoubtedly resulted in a significant loss of profits for the Austin economy, especially small businesses. To provide further financial support to the Austin service industry, the festival has partnered with charitable foundations.

„We’re fortunate to know that our SXSW community is looking for ways to bring a little goodwill towards Austin,” Jann Baskett, the festival’s chief brand officer, told Eater. „We want to use our platform to raise awareness and resources for organizations that help creatives and hospitality workers.” These groups include the Red River Cultural District’s Services Industry Funding Program Tying the ATX together and Southern smoke, a Houston-based crisis relief organization focused on the food and beverage industry.

There are two items for sale in the SXSW online shop that will benefit Southern Smoke: a T-shirt on the theme of food designed by local artist Lauren Dickens and a little cookbook With recipes from local restaurants frequented by attendees such as Cisco, Veracruz All Natural and Wu Chow. A portion of the proceeds will go to the foundation’s Austin Restaurant Relief Fund.

Austin grill icon and Southern Smoke board member Aaron Franklin will be making short video appearances during the four day digital festival. He will talk about the current challenges in the restaurant community and point out ways you can help.

Another aspect of the purely online festival is the virtual reality world with replicas of Red River and Congress Avenue venues such as the Mohawk, Empire Control Room and Paramount Theater. The SXSW Online XR Contains portals leading to the venues that attendees can learn more about Tying the ATX together – a program launched last year in response to the termination of SXSW to help unemployed music service providers and hospitality workers. At the time, “probably 98 percent of the people I knew were out of work within a week,” Cowan says. Since its inception, the program has helped over 3,000 people in the greater Austin area and donated $ 225,000 of EBT gift cards. The non-profit organization is currently raising money for the fifth phase of the fund. „I hear from local people that times are harder now than they were a year ago or even last summer,” he says.

The virtual reality replica of the Red River venue Mohawk

Red River’s virtual reality replicas feature the Mohawk (photo by Blake valet) and Congress Avenue Theater Paramount (photo by Maud Clavier) for SXSW

The virtual reality replica of the Paramount Theater for SXSW

The virtual replica of the roof area of ​​the Congress Avenue Museum The Contemporary for SXSW

The virtual replicas of the roof area of ​​the Congress Avenue Museum, Contemporary and East Seventh Venue Empire Control Room for SXSW (photos by Blake valet)

The virtual reality replica of the Empire Control Room in East Seventh

A frequent SXSW participant is news channel CNN, which has had a strong presence on Rainey Street for the last five years during the festival, taking over bars like Bungalow and Parlor Room. Typically, the company works with local providers, explains Matt Dornic, director of strategic communications at CNN Worldwide. „So that we can support small businesses in Austin and give our guests a taste of Austin.” For 2020 the network – part of WarnerMedia – had planned a large program, but pulled out of the event 10 days before its planned event and before the official cancellation.

As this year’s SXSW is not taking place in person, CNN has created gift boxes with snacks and drinks for selected SXSW online participants. „The mood is so bad and people are trped in their homes,” says Dornic, „so it really went down well to give a foretaste of what SXSW was and what will be.”

Caroline Cook, Senior Marketing Manager at CNN, helped design the box for their digital events. She wanted to translate the mood of being on Rainey Street during SXSW with articles channeling that „fun, free-spirited experience.” For drinks, the package includes cocktail recipes from the Bungalow and Salon, Tito’s vodka and a surprise product from the Tex-Mex restaurant El Arroyo. The boxes contain local branded snacks such as salsas from Crenshaw’s, gluten-free chips from Siete Foods, and nuts from Austinuts.

To give back to the Austin service industry community, CNN is also making a donation to the Banding Together ATX Emergency Relief Program. „We want to touch the lives of those who look after us so well when we’re there for SXSW,” says Cook.

To make up for some of the lost sales, many bars and restaurants have made their business configurations more creative. „What can you do with your base model to make it more attractive or useful during this time?” Siegel is surprised. „What can we do outside of our normal model to generate additional income?”

With that in mind, in the fall of 2020, Banger’s launched a retail sausage line in partnership with Goldbelly, an e-commerce store that helps local businesses sell and deliver their wares across the country. The restaurant also caters to local businesses and has released event-oriented meal sets.

A food package from Banger's

A food package from Banger’sBanger’s / Facebook

This week, Banger’s is hosting a live music showcase as an ode to SXSW. Bang x Bang Bang 2021. The spacious outdoor area of ​​the Rainey-Bar allows social get-togethers, but in a safe, socially distant atmosphere. Hand sanitizer and Health checks are given on entry along with other virus-reducing measures to keep the bar a safe place and still provide „a fun and fleeting experience,” says Siegel.

Unlike Banger’s, Mohawk plans to remain closed to the public until another fun and safe event for music fans can take place. “We have always been committed to safety and we’ve had fun too,” says Wheeler. „We haven’t found a way to safely create an experience that we would be proud of.”

What is best for business is not necessarily best for the general welfare of the people who put the dollars into the various businesses. Will Austinites ever be able to rock safely again? Only time can tell.

Though SXSW looks different this year, Austin bars and music venues make the most of it while working safely and giving back. „I’m encouraged about the future,” Cowan says. “I think the way there will be longer and more difficult than many of us think,” but at some point there will be an end.

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