SXSWhen?: Austin venue owner James Moody on why re-opening and surviving are two different questions

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Recovery is still “a very daunting idea and question,” says James Moody, owner of the Austin venue the Mohawk. The space is normally a major hub for SXSW. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been one year since concert venues and music festivals have indefinitely closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the music and culture sector, the cancellation of Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March would be a harbinger of the crisis to come. The event marks the start of the all-important spring-summer festival and touring season, as its music portion showcases rising young talents. With the decline of physical album sales, the festival doubles as the economic backbone for artists and behind-the-scenes workers, from managers to caterers to venue owners, who make it all run. 

SXSW’s music festival returns March 16-20 as a virtual international event. Though it signals a proverbial light at the end of a tunnel, its digital comeback also illuminates the long and uncertain road to recovery as venues await reopening and the industry reemerges into an increasingly digital landscape. 

Each day this week, KCRW will be spotlighting different artists playing SXSW 2021 alongside other workers in the live music world. They all reflect on the past year and share their predictions for the future. 

For James Moody, owner of beloved Austin venue the Mohawk, March once meant one of the busiest, and most lucrative, times of year, with thousands of people from around the world descending upon the 900 person-capacity venue for SXSW’s five-day music bacchanal. 

Located at the heart of Austin’s Red River Cultural District, the Mohawk has hosted acts ranging from Iggy Pop to Wu Tang Clan to Austin compatriots Spoon, while doubling as an incubator for rising local talent like St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. 

Moody was on site last year when Austin became ground zero for the pandemic in the music industry. One year later, the Mohawk’s doors remain closed, though the venue makes a virtual return as a digital partner hosting SXSW showcases this week.   

With Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently giving the go-ahead to reopen, venue owners like Moody are beginning to mull what that means means amidst a music industry still staggering to its feet, and a local arts and culture sector economically decimated by the pandemic. 

We spoke to Moody about the pandemic’s impact on Austin’s rich music scene, what recovery looks like, and what the role of events like SXSW and other music festivals mean for their future. 

KCRW: Texas was recently given the green light to re-open, but the music industry of course hasn’t. How are things going for you and the venue? 

James Moody: “We're in an interesting spot. You can tell pretty quickly that everyone's excited to reopen, but no one's quite ready, nor should they be. We went ahead and released a pledge that us and a number of our brother and sister venues decided to do, which was called Safe In Sound. It's a program pledging a series of things that you're going to do to make your venue safe before you open. That includes testing everyone who works there every day, cleaning the venue profusely in between shifts, and in between moments. Or, if you are already open, that you adopt these values and principles so people can start to feel safe and earn trust. 

We announced that the day after the governor announced his deal, so at least there's a system in place, not only for one venue, but for this ecosystem of venues. So that'll happen when we open, but for now, we're waiting like everyone else until it feels better. And that has a lot to do with vaccines and the overall case count.”

Is there any sense of when that actually might be?

“For us, it feels like summer. That wouldn't be a grand opening sort of thing, because even if you open yourself up, it has to be in a modest way and build up over time. Athe case count continues to drop and consumer confidence goes up, we start to learn more about other venues and restaurants and see how they're doing. And then based off of all of that, we start to introduce really low capacity shows and see how they feel. And then we sort of reserve the right to either close again or adjust our capacities over time.”

For small- to mid-sized venues like the Mohawk, what does recovery mean or look like?

“That's a really good question. A lot of people are making the error of saying that a venue opening means that they've made it. The weird thing about our business is that any venue that decides to open is still on a very long road to figuring out if they're going to actually survive. 

Most venues need to be operating at least 60 to 70 percent of their previous capacity to get anywhere near breaking even. But we'll all be opening at like 20, 30 percent capacity, so there'll be many months where people will be operating at a loss, but happy to be open because you get to re-engage with your customer and rebuild trust. 

And it’s not just about customers. You also have to have bands that are comfortable and willing to tour. It’s supply and demand, on that front. And then you also have to have specialized staff ready to go, too. This is truly an ecosystem where you have to coordinate multiple groups to be able to do it right and regularly for the business to actually be back on its feet. I don't imagine that would be until the end of the year.

Ultimately, we can only do half of the handshake. Our customers and our bands also have to be practicing good behaviors and principles. It's important that this is a music community issue, of people that love live music enough to take care of their side of the fence so we can all meet together.” 

The Save Our Stages Act, which provides economic relief for smaller independent venues, was just signed into law, which has come from a major advocacy effort on behalf of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and the live music world. But is that enough for you and your peers?

“Well, we're not used to getting anything, ever. So we're just still in shock that there's been something promised. Granted, no one has seen any of it yet. I think it’s supposed to come in the fall. It could be adequate to fill in the blanks of some of the losses, but inadequate for the part I was talking about, which is the rebuilding period. 

And so I think it's beholden upon venues to also rebuild their business model in the same way, so they can be better prepared. We still don't know exactly what amount of relief we would qualify for, so there's also a strong possibility that we budget for one number, and we get awarded another one, based off of criteria or red tape. So it's still a very daunting idea and question.

The loss of SXSW as a live event has been economically devastating for Austin. Several venues have already closed permanently. What will the music venue scene look like there when it does come back, versus a year ago?

“Reading the field, I’d say 70 percent look like they're going to try to make it. But making it to opening and actually surviving are two different questions. We might have some people that open and run it for six months in this world, and realize it just wasn't enough. I think most people are giving themselves the chance to access that relief money in the fall to see if it actually helps, and if it's the right amount at the right time.”

The pandemic has done a lot to reveal who and what is most vulnerable in the live space, what can survive and what people think is worth surviving. Will events like SXSW, when they do come back in person, continue to mean the same thing for the industry and for fans?

“The vulnerability point is a very good one. You can point a lot to government resources and support in a moment that wasn't anyone's fault. But there are also just some weaknesses that have been revealed in every individual venue’s personal business model. So there's some personal accountability to, ‘Hey, what about this list of things that we should have done five years ago that we talked about, and we never did? That made us more vulnerable, right?’ 

So, yes, I think SXSW will always be relevant for as long as they're here. But if you're that dependent on that one event in your model, you’re probably not doing it right. And now there’s bad weather, and so many other things that can go wrong. 

I think one thing that will happen, hopefully, is venues will strive to reorganize their model to be more independent of whatever happens in March, good or bad. And then whatever happens in March is more of a bonus or a dessert.

We were always organized around having a big March. And then that lets you make it through the dog days of summer, and then you kick back in the fall schedule and you survive the year. I think just survival is a terrible goal for these businesses.”

Read more:

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SXSWhen?: No Age’s Randy Randall reflects on a year without shows and live music’s uncertain future