March without SXSW: It’s weird

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It’s the calendar pings that keep getting me. Each time another one pops up, reminding me of some supposedly imminent event, it’s like a little pinprick. Now. At first, they felt like stabbing knives.

I’m in Austin, Texas, in the middle of March. This is the 25th year I’ve been in Austin, Texas, in the middle of March, and the 17th year I’ve been here because I’m a resident. But it’s the first time in all of those years that I have nothing special to do in the middle of March —nothing going on during the stretch that’s typically the biggest, busiest and most exciting time of my year. And the city’s.

I’d started placing South By Southwest event reminders on my calendar in early February, as soon as the annual flood of email notices began. By early March, before I’d even combed actual SXSW lists, I’d already scheduled several film premieres, artist showcases and can’t-miss annual fêtes like BMI’s Howdy Texas gathering and Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson’s Birthday Bash, both of which have come to serve as unofficial kickoffs for the conference and festival’s music segment. Last year, they merged into one big fundraising shindig for two essential Austin entities, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which provides affordable health care for area musicians, and SIMS, which provides addiction recovery and mental health services for music-community professionals, including people like me, who work behind the scenes but still serve important roles in Austin’s musical ecosystem. 

After March 6’s SXSW cancellation, the community immediately rallied, trying to find places for traveling artists to perform and encouraging everyone to attend myriad events still slated. GoFundMe accounts were started to raise dollars for musicians and service-industry workers, and benefits were planned. The 38th annual Austin Music Awards, which, until a few years ago, served as the music conference and festival kickoff, took place on March 11 at ACL Live, a venue that holds 2,750 — 250 over the city and Travis County’s then-mandated 2,500 max.

Though attendance was clearly below capacity, the turnout was good, and the gathering felt like a defiant middle finger to whatever evil could stop SXSW.

“They said cancellation. We say celebration,” declared SXSW cofounder Louis Black from the stage. That night became about much more than awards; it stood as confirmation of this music community’s tenacity in the face of a shocking, previously unfathomable blow — one that had, just days before, caused about a third of SXSW’s approximately 175 employees to lose their jobs, and countless others to start feeling the income-robbing ripple effects.

We remained upbeat, even though we avoided shaking hands. A few brave hugs were exchanged; I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret those moments of affection. (One staffer wore a nametag-like sticker reading, “I’m a hugger.” “So am I,” I thought wistfully.) The bar area at the backstage afterparty was so tightly packed, however, it seemed as if almost no one was worried about some little ol’ germ. Texans consider themselves especially tough, and the younger-skewing winners and friends who chose to hang out belong to a demographic still being told, at that point, that they were less vulnerable. Others maintained skepticism about the threat level. (Inexplicably, some still do.)

Though we didn’t know it yet, those awards also served as the last time even that many members of Austin’s music community would be able to gather for the foreseeable future.

The dominoes started to fall soon after. Luck Reunion, the much-anticipated mid-SXSW “anti-festival” held at Willie Nelson’s Spicewood ranch since 2012, pulled its plug, along with myriad festivals around the country. The city and Travis County declared a new maximum gathering limit of 250. Social media bubbled with listings of events still planned, but as nervous performers, venue owners and fans started to assess the gravity of this rapidly evolving danger, more cancellations followed. Then came school shutdowns, and a mandate for 10-person gatherings. And the pleas to stay the hell away from each other —for now, and who knows how long.

As COVID-19 fear continued to mount, I pondered whether to attend a gathering of five people at a friend’s home — well-sanitized, she assured me. I consulted an expert: an actual CDC epidemiologist I know. She said if I didn’t feel sick or have underlying health conditions that might weaken my immunity or capacity to fight off infections, I should go and enjoy myself — carefully. (She even suggested washing my hands after petting the two large resident dogs, whom I adore and who love the attention.) I went. That was Tuesday. It was the last time I’ve had real human interaction. In the middle of March. Talk about keeping Austin weird. (That phrase became outdated so many ages ago — except that now, everything’s weird. I just heard a radio ad announcing upcoming shows at a local venue. Most advertising now seems horribly misplaced; it’s sad.)

But thanks to Luck Productions cofounders Ellee Fletcher Durniak (Willie’s niece) and Matt Bizer, I shared a new experience Thursday night that still provided a sense of community: a virtual festival labeled “Luck Presents: ‘Til Further Notice.” As a parade of artists — Nikki Lane, David Ramirez, Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey, Shovels & Rope, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, with their daughter Lulu and neighbor Woody Harrelson, and Willie with sons Micah and Lukas, plus several others — streamed across  my laptop screen, performing from their farflung homes and even, for Tami Neilson, a record store in New Zealand (with Ray Benson emceeing from Arlyn Studios in Austin), I was thoroughly charmed and entertained. Communicating in real time with other viewers on social media reminded me of doing live Grammy Awards commentary for a still-missed web consortium of public radio stations. That was big fun, and so was this. Plus, I didn’t have to cut out early and drive 45 minutes back to Austin to hit other SXSW events. Even better, they raised over $190,000 for the players, HAAM, SIMS and Farm Aid, the charity Nelson cofounded with Young and John Mellencamp in 1985, two years before the first SXSW.

So many artists and support organizations turned to virtual performances this week, not only to generate whatever income they can during a time when the entire touring industry — most artists’ main revenue source — lies collapsed in a heap, but to keep occupied and maintain a sense of connection to their fans. I could feel that connection Thursday night — and even though the artists clearly missed hearing actual applause — it seemed they could, too.

It’s doubtful playing online will replace enough lost income to sustain them, however, which means they’ll have to turn to the charities raising funds to help, including the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation. Unfortunately, no one knows how long they’ll need help, and not all of those charities cover nonperforming support players — the sound engineers, lighting technicians, stage crews, venue owners, booking agents, managers, publicists and even freelance music journalists — who do precarious financial dances during normal times. We feel guilty we can’t support our friends, and worry right along with them that we soon won’t be able to support ourselves.

But still, we cheer on those who continue to perform, however they manage to do it. Some are posting songs, videos or prerecorded performances via apps, websites or social media. Some are jumping online to play just for the heck of it — because that’s what they know and love. They’re hoping somebody’s listening, just like they hope somebody shows up when they step inside any venue. And if that somebody feels generous, even better.

I don’t want this to be our new normal, and I don’t think it will be. Another music-biz friend pointed out that when the rebound comes, it’ll be huge, because everyone will be so starved for live music and social situations. But for a while, at least, this will have to do. And so I suggest this: ‘Til further notice, tune in when you can — even if it’s just for some background sound while you work or do whatever. Think of virtual performances like Spotify plays; in the strange calculus of social-media and app algorithms, hits boost prominence, which could mean more eyes and ears for an artist — which really could impact their income. If you can donate or buy merch or music, great. But even if you can’t, let them know you’re watching and listening. We don’t have to exist in a total vacuum. We can’t. We need each other. Like we never have before.

Even if they can’t hear us clapping. 

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