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Independent Music Venues in Houston Are Fighting To Stay Alive

Houston's music venues and venues around the country are facing challenges they've never faced before.
Houston's music venues and venues around the country are facing challenges they've never faced before.
Photo By Shannon O'Hara

There is no industry that has been safe from the economic wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects, long or short term, cannot be denied but one area that will most likely suffer for a long time is the music industry.

Music venues, large and small, were some of the first places to close down and will most likely be the last to open back up. Though Governor Abbott announced as part of Phase II of the reopening that bars would be permitted to open at 25 percent capacity, the exact rules around hosting live music are not very clear.

Throughout the United States, small venues are trying to navigate without much guidance from their local or national governments.  One organization that was born from this need for leadership was the National Independent Venue Association which began just over a month ago when independent venues from all over the Unites States decided to get together and take action.

NIVA has been spreading the word and asking others to join them in their efforts to reach out to Congress.  Their goal is to secure funding for these venues, which often were not given Small Business Association PPP loans, and to adapt the financial assistance provided to meet the unique needs of independent music venues, their staff and their artists.

It has to be challenging to try to organize fiercely independent people like venue owners, but NIVA has quickly spread their message and according to their website, they currently have more than 1,600 members.  Some of Houston’s own venues have added their names to the list and music fans can also join the fight by filling out the online form which sends a pre-written letter to their representatives.

Through NIVA’s efforts, music venues have already seen the support of U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX 25th Congressional District) who addressed the House on May 14 requesting additional support for small venues.  “We as independent music venues are the backbone of Houston,” says Ashly Montgomery, marketing director at Warehouse Live. “We need verbiage, we need clarity," she adds.

“They’re really focused on making sure that the live music venues are considered in the conversation,” says Mike Mauer marketing director at White Oak Music Hall. “We really want to make sure that venues are protected and are in the conversations.”

The overlooked truth is that artists don’t get to Toyota Center without playing smaller venues first. It would be devastating if Houston lost any of its independent music venues.

Though not commonly known outside the city, Houston is in fact a music town with a rich musical history. It was Houston’s famous, or infamous, Peacock Records that released Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” a song which helped shape rock and roll.

Galveston’s Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe was the home away from home for songwriting god, Townes Van Zandt. Joel Mora, owner of the Old Quarter sees the risk he faces during this time. Mora purchased the historic venue from previous owner Rex “Wrecks” Bell after frequenting the legendary venue.

“That was the point of me taking this place over, to keep it.” Mora says owning the venue is a “dream come true” and his main goal was to preserve it. “That’s why I took it over so hopefully, this doesn't destroy that.”

During this time, Houston’s small venues have been getting creative with ways to protect their employees, raise funds and stay connected to the community. WOMH has hosted two blood drives, given away masks, created a locals-only playlist on Spotify and started a GoFundMe effort going directly to their employees. Those who donate are eligible for perks including a lifetime of tickets to shows at WOMH.

Warehouse Live has also launched their own GoFundMe challenge directly benefiting their staff and providing humorous relief for patrons who donate.  If Warehouse meets their goals, staff members will participate in over the top stunts to thank donors. 

Venues which serve food such as Mucky Duck and Rudyard's have been able to stay busy serving meals, though both venues decided on different approaches. Mucky Duck is offering curbside delivery and live streaming concerts while Rudyard's has allowed diners to eat inside at the capacity allowed by the state, as long as they follow the safety guidelines.

Both of these venues have also been serving the Houston community by participating in Feed the Front lines where patrons can donate meals directly to front line workers, benefiting the venue as well as the people who are working so hard to keep others safe.

Montrose gem Rudyard's had just finished remodeling their upstairs concert area before they were forced to shut down, but they are finding ways to stay creative using YouTube to continue with their long running open mike comedy show and Grown Up Story-time.

Most venues have merchandise available online, including gift cards, and revenue generated from a simple T-shirt sale could help keep the lights on or pay a staff member. “I would suggest for anyone wanting to support their favorite venues to call or send social media messages to the venue and find out what they are doing, if anything, to help pay their bills,” says Gore from White Swan.

“Whether it's selling beer to go or selling plates of food on certain days, any venue will be more than happy to answer those questions during this time. Bartenders and other venue staff are out of work and sending $20 to their PayPal/Venmo could really make a giant difference in their day, I promise you,” he adds.

“It's a time where everybody needs help, one way or another and we're not even talking just Houston or the United States,” says Continental Club’s Pete Gordon. Continental sadly lost friend and frequent performer Steve Reno to the virus just last month.

Moving forward, it is unclear what guidelines venues will be expected to operate under and what attending a live music event will look like. Some venues have directly reached out to patrons formally and informally to measure their levels of comfort.

With the guidelines announced on May 18, bars need to provide socially distancing and fixed tables as well as discourage activities such as dancing which would break social distancing rules.  Some venues are looking toward the guidelines set out by the Event Safety Association earlier this month. 

Montgomery, who sent out a detailed survey to the Warehouse Live’s mailing list, admits she got some interesting feedback about what people would need to feel safe at a show. “We need to have a game plan because I’d rather us be over prepared, than under prepared,” she says.

Venues are exploring options for contactless ways that concert goers can get and pay for their drinks, a strategy which the state highly encourages. Drink sales make up the majority of revue generated by these venues.

Most venues are also looking at ways to set up hand sanitizing stations and barriers or markers to enforce and encourage social distancing. The State of Texas recommends assigning the duty of enforcing rules to a staff member but it’s easy to see how this could quickly get out of hand.

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“Whenever I'm allowed to open, I’m going to do it the way I feel is best for our regular fans and customers and put on the music we always have in the best way we can,” says Gordon. “Having no real answers from the top down, makes it nearly impossible now.”

“We have three conditions to re-open,” explains Mauer. “First one being that the government says it's okay to do so. The second, we are obviously a music venue so artists have to feel safe to perform and then the third one is that we really need to feel comfortable that we can provide a safe experience for guests, staff, performers and everyone that comes through our doors.”

There is a valid fear among venue owners that reopening too soon may lead to a second wave, forcing everyone to close their doors all over again or even worse, possibly be the site for contamination of others.

Lelia Rodgers, the owner of Rudyard's for the past 27 years says, “Everybody is willing to make the pivot towards what needs to be done, but there's a little bit of time that's required for everybody to get in step and it takes time, focus and energy. To have to close that down and reopen moving forward, I worry about that. If it has to happen, it has to happen. I'm all for being safe. I would love to see more guidance from above.”

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