The Houston Music Foundation officially launched last Tuesday. That’s the day a very good idea, devised by Mark and Rachel Austin, a married couple with deep roots in Houston’s music and public relations scenes, sprang into action. Within days, the upstart crisis relief fund for Houston music industry professionals had fielded 600 applications for emergency aid. COVID-19’s adverse impact on Houston music has meant the new nonprofit has had to work fast. In its lone week of existence, it’s already garnered $30,000 in donations and has delivered $17,500 in emergency aid so far, in the form of 35 one-time, $500 grants.
Mark Austin, a well-known area talent buyer and one of Houston’s most recognizable music figures, said a Houston music crisis relief fund is long overdue. The last catastrophe to interrupt local music business to some extent was Hurricane Harvey. Ripples from that event, combined with the current pandemic, set the Austins’ plans in motion.
“It’s a community that just gets immediately overlooked,” he said. “Businesses shut down and immediately the first thing that’s cut is music. You and I know this community, we both know these people, and we both know that they live check to check, gig to gig. That’s the way they’re set up to exist. This time around we just couldn’t sit here and let nothing happen. We weren’t even sure if we were gonna have a ton of success to be honest, but we knew that we couldn’t sit here and do nothing.”
Partnering with the existing 501(c)3 nonprofit Artists for Artists, the foundation is fervently working to empty its donations coffers while also working on ways to generate new funds for more grants. This week, Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys relaunched its “Hot Wang” sandwich, a collaboration with Houston rapper Bun B, which had sales success during last year’s chicken sandwich wars. Antone’s and Bun B are donating half its new sales proceeds to Houston Music Foundation.
Rachel Austin owns and operates the digital advertising and public relations firm Hometown Social. She said the grant applications, which are reviewed by a seven-member committee, revealed some telling information about Houston’s music business.
“When we started Houston Music Foundation we thought that we were going to get a certain demographic of subscribers and applicants. We were thinking it was going to be for the gigging community, and what we found out is we’ve had applicants from the symphony, opera, teachers from all of the Houston area’s independent school districts, music teachers who have lost all of their income from their private lessons. The music community in Houston is a lot more vast than what you might think.”
Tianna Hall is a full-time musician and bandleader. For 16 years now, she’s made her living doing gigs night after night. She’s among the first wave of Houston Music Foundation grant recipients.
“During Harvey, I was able to get a little bit of assistance through the Grammys, through the MusiCares foundation, but it’s just a tiny fraction of assistance with rent. Thankfully, that was only a very short amount of time that we were off, so I was able to recover pretty quickly,” Hall recalled. “But with this, of course, we’re in a much different situation and it’s so widespread that any sort of assistance from these organizations is very spread worldwide. They’re struggling to be able to help many of us.”
Alicia Gianni echoed those thoughts. Gianni moved to Houston in 2006 to sing in the Houston Grand Opera as part of its Young Artists program. She sings opera, jazz, does private parties, teaches voice for HGO and West University Methodist School of Fine Arts and has her own private studios. Even an artist and music instructor with all those irons in the fire is feeling the pinch during this downtime.
“I actually had been applying to anything and everything I could once basically everything shut down here,” Gianni said. “I saw an opportunity to apply for something that was local and I totally trust Mark. I’ve known him for a long time and he also helped me during Harvey. He was kind of coordinating musicians getting grants from MusiCares.”
Both Hall and Gianni said the application process was streamlined and they heard back promptly. Mark Austin said someone questioned how much help relief folks might get from a single $500 grant. Hall said, in her case, it’s provided quite a bit of relief.
“I look at it like, okay, $500. That’s four gigs I would have worked this week,” said Hall, who is also the single mother of two special needs children. “I don’t see it as, ‘Oh well, that’s not going to put a dent in any of my expenses.’ They’re paying for my electric bill, my car note and my insurance for the month. That’s amazing. That’s one less stress off of my plate that I don’t have to worry about.”
“To me, that will be going towards my next month’s rent, to just make sure I can provide shelter to myself and my child,” said Gianni, who is the single mother of a 20 month-old. “It’s just a little bit of stress taken off of my shoulders and I think what Mark and Rachel are doing is very innovative and also very necessary, I don’t feel like there are any other people in Houston doing that for musicians.”
While the grants may be helping, Houston’s creatives are, as always, helping themselves. Hall is releasing a new live album on April 18, available at her dotcom and on iTunes, and has launched Quarantinigrams, a custom singing telegram service to “spread joy instead of the virus.” Gianni has focused on online vocal instruction and said she’s teaching students “ages 14 to 74,” sometimes in the comfort of her PJs. She said she’s been able to reach new students outside of the Houston area, a silver lining of sorts to her upturned livelihood.
The Austins too are looking for positive outcomes to these distressing times. They’ve counted on lots of help to get where they are with this new endeavor and aren’t too proud to ask for more to grow the nonprofit.
“We’re having to stop and reassess now that the need is much greater than we anticipated. We’ll try to figure out how to spread it out a little bit better but still make an impact, but obviously right now the main goal is fundraising. We know we have more applicants and more need than we have money,” Mark Austin said and noted Saint Arnold Brewing Company as an early partner and that the foundation has been in contact with the Texas Music Office on potentially attaching its resources to the initiative.
“Unless we get some angel donor that steps in and just drops a ton of money on us, this is gonna be a grind. And, we’re gonna grind it out, working with our community partners who, in some form or fashion, have booked or supported local music, like the Saint Arnolds of the world who are always trying to focus on local music for their events, folks like that that we have relationships with. We’re designing small efforts to look at how do we get enough money to fund four more musicians? Five more?” he added.
“Once we’re past this, we plan to take a deep breath when it’s done, plan for the next 12 months and start trying to put something in place to become a resource to local musicians,” he continued. “We don’t necessarily have the complete road map for that yet, but we know this is missing.”
“As soon as we finish distributing these funds and getting musicians cared for during COVID, our next step is to apply for our own 501(c)3,” Rachel Austin said. “Right now, we’re under Artists for Artists, which has been a beautiful partner for us and they’ve been so responsive and caring, working at 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday, making sure these people’s grants are getting funded. They’ve been amazing. But eventually, we’d like to do more.”
“If somebody has any insight or direction or a new angle to take for fundraisers, tell them to call me,” she continued. “I’m available. This is so important to me and this is so important to Mark and we’re making it a priority right now.”
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It’s important, she said, because “Music and the arts are what’s helping us get through this. Music helps us all feel connected when we’re totally disconnected.”
Gianni agreed. She said she and her fellow artists are making the best of this predicament and deserve support.
“I am an artist, that’s my calling, and I am not gonna feel sorry about that, but we should have backup, too, we should have protection, too, we should have support. What is everyone doing right now at home? They’re watching Netflix, they’re listening to music. Everyone who is in the arts is basically providing entertainment for everyone who is bored at home,” Gianni said.
“We’re not trying to make this sound like COVID has only affected musicians but it’s clear that there are no relief efforts in place for this community,” Mark Austin said. “We’re just trying to fill that void right now. And we’re hoping that the success of this and statistics that come from our assessments and the applications we receive will help show how big of a community we have in Houston and why we need to have more resources in place for it.”