A Giant Dog plays outside at Mohawk, back in 2022 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Outdoors at Mohawk, hardcore kids mosh on the ground floor while elder emos look on from the multilayered top deck. A UT-launched indie band plays on the smaller indoor stage, and a couple of sly students use their tickets to the local show to sneak over to the other. Next door, Cheer Up Charlies hosts Challengers raves, Cowboy Carter listening parties, and Dolly Parton drag shows. A few blocks down, DJs and psych rockers congregate at 13th Floor, goths skulk around Elysium, and rock & roll oldheads sip cheap beer at Valhalla. Some 2,200 tickets signal a sold-out show at Stubb’s just steps away from Chess Club, which caps at 100.

It’s easy to forget how rare this is. To have musicians playing original tunes – not just corny classic rock cover songs – seven nights a week. To have a dozen clubs dedicated to music, not just drinking, in one walkable epicenter.

This is the case every evening in Austin, Texas, but especially during Hot Summer Nights, the Red River Cultural District’s annual high-temp music festival. Dropping cover charges to organize free shows only, the 2017-launched event, returning July 18-20, drives thousands of Austinites Downtown on the hunt for homegrown live music – and gives musicians and venue workers a job when most folks retreat into their A/C-blasting, utility bill-skyrocketing homes.

“I think it’s a hub that a lot of us take for granted, especially being so immersed in what happens in Austin. We kind of forget how privileged we are to have so many spaces,” says Dallas transplant Jamie Weed, whose band Proun plays the festival July 19. “Even though they’re always at risk of closing and always having to deal with whatever bullshit.”

The bullshit’s been building for a while. Austin codified its most dense music venue arena as the Red River Cultural District in 2013, when it became clear that gentrification and population growth were threatening the city’s status as “Live Music Capital of the World.” Since then, the district has expanded its physical boundaries – it now encompasses the stretch between Fourth and 15th Streets to the north and south and I-35 to Trinity Street from the east and west – and its recognition, having received state cultural district certification by the Texas Commission on the Arts in 2020.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Red River has secured city-funded safety advancements, like improvements to fencing, sidewalks, and lighting, and aesthetic enhancements, including the creation of street banners, murals, and an official RRCD neon sign. When the pandemic hit, the organization co-authored policy recommendations like the Austin Creative Worker Relief Fund, Austin Musician Disaster Relief Fund, and the Austin Creative Space Disaster Relief Fund, which provided millions in financial aid to the shut-down entertainment industry.

Now, key players in Austin’s music scene are ringing the alarm again. For the last six months, the Red River Cultural District has urged the local government to provide the organization with an immediate aid package, citing rising costs across the industry as a threat to the creative community. Efforts culminated in the May Ordinance No. 20240530-169, which created a Red River Cultural District Special Revenue Fund.

Yet with those funds not available until the new fiscal year starts in October, RRCD interim Executive Director Nicole Klepadlo says, “We’re not ready to celebrate yet.”

RRCD’s Nicole Klepadlo (Photo by Jay Ybarra (@photo.jay))

The Rallying Cry

Calls for city assistance started in January, when Klepadlo spoke in front of the Music Commission. At the time, the Red River Cultural District had just wrapped Free Week – essentially the original wintertime version of Hot Summer Nights, started in the Aughts by longtime booker Graham Williams but now overseen by the nonprofit. Despite the festival’s success, Klepadlo said the RRCD was denied the Elevate Grant, a $15,000 to $80,000 award for artists and arts organizations. After pumping money into the city’s economy, she wondered, couldn’t Red River receive some money back?

The Music Commission voted at that Jan. 8 meeting to recommend action to City Council, but the district went public two weeks later. Appealing to the community to call their representatives in favor of an immediate budget amendment, the organization wrote online, “Red River, it’s time to rally!”

Council responded in February, directing the city manager to investigate sources for funding for Red River and to report back with his findings by May 2. When that deadline passed with no update, another bright but blunt graphic asked on Instagram, “What happened? Where is our funding?”

“I did not think we were going to have to work this hard,” an exasperated Klepadlo recalls of the back-and-forth. “We’ve always viewed the city of Austin as a supporter, a lover, of Red River and the cultural district and the things that we do.” She repeatedly references the “equitable funding” allocated to other cultural districts, like the African American Cultural Heritage District and the Mexican American Heritage Corridor, as reasons she expected aid to Red River to be a “no-brainer.” (The city’s 2023-2024 budget set aside $400,000 for joint improvements to those areas.)

“I did not think our very small nonprofit was going to have to allocate this level of resource, and this level of voice, to, what feels like, convince the city of Austin that our cultural district is worth investment,” Klepadlo says.

“I think the city loves to prioritize gentrification and quick money over funding and sustaining vital parts of its apparent cultural identity, that they also capitalize very heavily off of,” Weed says of the “shameful” situation. “We need to fund arts districts; we need to fund venues; we need to make sure people have a consistent place where art can be created. Especially since a lot of the branding of our city is centered around that.”

Proun’s Jamie Weed at Cheer Up Charlies (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Council Member Zo Qadri, who represents Downtown as part of District 9 and sponsored Ordinance No. 20240530-169, concedes of recent developments, “I understand any frustration that might come when people might feel like there’s a lack of communication.

“I think it’s important when we, as the city, set a deadline, for us to meet the deadline,” he continues. “That we continue to have those conversations. That if we’re going to hit a deadline, and you have an update, great. And if you don’t, explain why you don’t, and make sure that people don’t think that there’s balls being dropped or things are being delayed. Lay out the process or lay out a revised timeline.

“You’re doing a disservice if you’re making people feel really nervous when they’re counting on things to be done and they’re not hearing back at a given deadline.”

The Red River Cultural District Special Revenue Fund allocates $150,000 from street meter revenue within parking benefit districts and parking and transportation management districts, similar to a revenue fund created for the Rainey Street Historic District in 2019.

Explaining his support for the ordinance, Qadri says, “Austin claims to be the ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ It claims to be this hub for creatives. But I think often we fail at that and we let a lot of people down. I think it’s important for us as a city to not live just by a motto or statement, but actually do right by folks who live in Austin (and) work in Austin, who want to come to Austin and make a career.”

The $150,000 cap for the special revenue fund aligns with the Thrive Grant, which pulls money from the city’s hotel occupancy tax (HOT) to award $85,000 to $150,000 per year, in two-year contracts, to local arts nonprofit organizations. That may be a higher number than what Red River was denied through Elevate, but it isn’t immediate aid.

“We don’t have the check in our hand, and we don’t know how the funding can be spent, or what the parameters are on that funding,” Klepadlo says. “We are certainly hoping for the best. But we are preparing for the worst.”

Growing From a Crater

What exactly does Red River need such urgent funding for? James Moody, who opened Mohawk in 2006, rattles off a few examples. “It’s property values, it’s liability insurance, it’s permitting fees, administrative burden,” he says. Add those onto the damage of the pandemic – which also inspired the owner to increase staff wages – and you’ve got a lethal combination.

“Our business is growing, but it’s growing from a total crater,” Moody says, referencing the entertainment industry’s months-long 2020 shutdown. “We are actively recovering, while also being nowhere near where we need to be.” Three years after venues began reopening post-COVID, the owner still names 2018 or 2019 as Mohawk’s most lucrative year.

Mohawk founder James Moody (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Moody also outlines a slew of additional responsibilities that come with running a live music venue as opposed to a plain old bar. “The system is set up to encourage you to open a Nickel City, not to open a Continental Club,” he says. “One of them has to buy a soundboard and speakers, and has to have security, and has to advertise shows, and has to be on social media, and has to do all these things. Has to have stage managers, green rooms. It’s basically an incentive to open a bar, but not to open a live music venue.”

And that’s just the individual venues. Red River Cultural District is overseen by the Red River Merchants’ Association, a coalition of more than 40 small businesses – including clubs, hotels, and restaurants – that works to preserve the area as a whole.

“We provide policy advocacy; we provide communication advocacy in terms of parking challenges and development challenges,” Klepadlo explains. “We’re at the front lines of those conversations related to Downtown development, which is all super important to be informing the venues.”

The interim executive director says additional funding would aid in these operational expenses, but she also stresses her desire to conduct an economic impact analysis. That way, the RRCD would have hard data asserting live music’s contribution to Austin’s economy – and then would hopefully not have to fight so hard for assistance in the future.

“The more data that we have paints a true story of the tremendous impact that our district is providing to the city as a whole,” Klepadlo says. “I’m talking jobs and mixed-beverage sales and sales tax. How our district, also being a tourism destination, is also supporting the hospitality industry and the hotel occupancy tax. There are so many impacts that our district provides to this community. We would love to have a snapshot of that to share, and also use for the future, for potentially applying for other, different types of grants that are out there.”

Moody doesn’t see city assistance as a handout, but rather well-earned recognition for what Red River contributes to Austin. He would rather see the cultural district become a regular part of the city’s budget than receive emergency one-time funding. “That has been the path for the past 20 years,” he says of the latter approach, describing a “crisis-oriented, very reactive” relationship between Austin’s government and entertainment sector.

“But if you want to have a proactive, healthy economy,” Moody continues, “the argument was always, ‘Look how many jobs we produce.’ The tourism dollars are undeniable in terms of hotel stays and people that go and eat at restaurants when they come to see live music. It’s all obvious. But we’re always carved out and set aside.”

Steve Pike played in Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes and Exhalants before fronting current project Porcelain, and worked at Beerland before running audio/production at Mohawk, Hole in the Wall, and Hotel Vegas. Sharing a similar perspective, he says, “I do think with Austin claiming the title of ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ that the city should give venues yearly grants to help preserve the cultural aspects that put Austin on the map.”

Pike then turns his attention away from Red River and toward Hole in the Wall, the UT-area bar that recently reached its semicentennial, despite years of potential closures and one yearlong shuttering, thanks to a 2023 check from the Iconic Venue Fund. “We shouldn’t wait until a venue has reached 50 years of existence before they receive financial assistance,” he declares.

Positive Progress

There have been some breakthroughs. After a contentious years-long development period, the Austin Live Music Fund launched last year, issuing $3.5 million in grants to independent musicians and concert promoters. This year, the Music Commission and Economic Development Department restructured the program, increasing grant amounts from $5,000 and $10,000 to $15,000 and $30,000 – and opening up the program to live music venues with awards of $30,000 or $60,000.

Moody confirms his venue sought help from the spruced-up initiative. “If you could watch the speed at which venues apply for these things, you would laugh,” he says. “They’re applying that day, the day the news comes out.

“So it should tell you a lot about almost everybody in the business,” he continues. “Not everyone, but almost everybody in the business is working because they love it, not working because they’re making money. If it was for economic benefit, all these people would quit.”

“I think it’s amazing, what they’re doing,” says rapper Cha’keeta B, who received money from the Austin Live Music Fund last year to host her annual Kinky Curly Coily Festival. Thanks to the grant, the celebration of natural hair, featuring Black musicians and business owners, returned for its fifth year this June.

Bastrop-born rapper-producer Deezie Brown applied for the fund this year and was surprised at how easy the process was. “Usually, I’m just the type of guy that’s like, ‘Eh, I know I’m not gonna get that,’” he says. “So I just don’t do it, which is very stubborn.”

Brown admits he was intimidated by the application process, “but I think once I sat down and gave it a shot and gave it some actual time instead of just trying to do it on my phone, through a DM or something like that, it worked out a lot better for me,” he says. The program asked for basic information, like how many shows an artist performs in a year, which he realized he had handy.

“I would encourage other artists to jump out there and give it a shot, because it was super, super easy when I did it,” he says.

A Collective Sacrifice

Austin’s music scene has done plenty to help itself. As Moody explains, Free Week and Hot Summer Nights originated as strategies to keep venues open in between the busy spring and fall touring seasons.

“The summer and the winter are when you have no activity,” he says. “No activity is bad for everyone. It’s bad for venues; it’s bad for bands; it’s bad for staff. But if you have no market, you have to create one, right? So what if everybody sacrificed a little bit in order to produce events and entertainment and ways to gather?”

Moody continues, “It’s really a collective sacrifice to keep things going for everyone. I think it’s a great community gesture, frankly, because everyone gives up a little bit to conduct these events. And they work. They do a pretty solid job of running dollars through the market and basically giving staff shifts when they normally wouldn’t have them.”

Although the shows are free, the Red River Cultural District utilizes sponsorships and partnerships to ensure every artist and venue worker who participates in Free Week and Hot Summer Nights gets paid for their work. In January, Klepadlo says low funding forced the organization to pare down the winter festival from three nights to two “to keep the integrity of the pay for the musicians.”

“We’re never going to expect a musician to play for free, and we’re never going to expect somebody to pay for a dollar amount that we don’t believe is there,” she says.

She confirms a better budget for the July run. In addition to sponsors like the Downtown Austin Alliance, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Resound Presents, The Austin Chronicle, and KUTX 98.9, she highlights a $45,000 grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts as a “huge” help and an example of statewide funding she hopes the district can secure more of in the future.

Hot Summer Nights crams more than 125 local artists into 14 venues – Cheer Up Charlies, Chess Club, the Creek and the Cave, Elysium, Empire Control Room and Garage, Flamingo Cantina, Liberty Lunch, Mohawk, Stubb’s, Swan Dive, the 13th Floor, Valhalla, Vaquero Taquero, and Waterloo Park – in three days.

The venues on Red River tend to prioritize rock programming, but this year’s Hot Summer Nights lineup proves surprisingly diverse. On the heavy side, Porcelain plays on the Mohawk outdoor stage July 20 alongside Beyond State Power and Tied Up; Proun plays July 19 at Cheer Ups with Turtle Pond, bs, J’cuuzi, and P1nkstar; and UT booker Cristina Mauri, aka @Moonbby, launches Big Southern Screamo Fest at Empire Control Room and Garage the same day; that show includes ATX act Votive, plus other bands from across the state.

Cha’keeta B, who notes local difficulty in getting booked as an MC without a live band, hits the Creek and the Cave stage July 20 thanks to Jamal McKinney, whose iLL Manner Shows has brought elevated hip-hop shows to Antone’s Nightclub in recent years. KUTX’s Summer Jam, hosted at the Stubb’s indoor stage July 19 by DJs Confucius and Fresh, goes in a similar direction with sets by Street Peach, J. Mill, Norman Ba$e, MsGold, and KUTX’s Miles Bloxson as her DJ alter ego Miles to Mogul – as does The Austin Chronicle’s pop-up at Empire July 18, which boasts Moody Bank$, Daniel Fears, David Shabani, and DJ Kay Cali.

Deezie Brown at the Creek and the Cave (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Deezie Brown – who joins Cha’keeta on the Creek and the Cave bill – names Mohawk as his favorite Red River venue. He recalls moving to still-segregated Austin from Bastrop in 2005 and only playing on the Eastside, attempting to get gigs at other venues and never hearing back. Yet looking back on early performances at Mohawk (whose motto is, famously, “All Are Welcome”) alongside his cousin Kydd Jones, he recalls, “That was the first time I really felt like it was actually going to work. Where people were in the crowd. It was very exciting.”

Klepadlo teases new Hot Summer Nights additions that expand beyond live music, including “some fitness and nature-inspired programming” at first-time participant Waterloo Park, late-night karaoke, and more family-friendly events. On July 19, the nonprofit partners with women-and-queer-centered organization Future Front for a night market, which the festival first hosted in 2017. From 7 to 11pm at “Liberty Lunch” (aka the Stubb’s backyard), DJs Mira Mira and Beaujolais will perform alongside vintage vendors selling old Red River concert posters, among other things. A community vinyl swap rounds out the event.

Bring Balance to the Force

Klepadlo stresses that the Red River Cultural District won’t go away, but says its musical exports could dwindle without financial aid.

“The amount of issues facing Red River, from Downtown development to the I-35 potential cap and stitch … safety, future plans for the Convention Center, future plans with Project Connect, UT expansion, Medical District campus expansion,” she lists. “We are at the front lines of all of these conversations. Lack of equitable funding to our cultural district will compromise our ability to have representation in all of these spaces. We really want to be seen as a partner that evolves with the change of Downtown, and not as somebody that is fighting our way at the table.

“Regardless, if we don’t get this city funding, this organization formed out of a call to action, and our call to action isn’t over. The organization and its membership … is not going anywhere. We will just have to look at the priorities. The compromise that comes with that is there may be (fewer) things we can do as an organization, which could have a trickle-down effect on our big key festivals.”

Though Moody likens determined Red River employees to cockroaches – “They all wear black, they fight through the cold, they fight through the heat, and they somehow make it” – he agrees that the next generation of creatives is going to need an incentive to participate in an increasingly tough business.

“Most live music venue owners, when they get out of the business to retire, they don’t even go back in the bar business,” he says. “Or if they do, it’s always a dive bar. It’s never more live music. If you watch (venue owners) in meetings or summits or conventions, rarely do you get them encouraging the next wave to get in the business. They almost always say don’t do it.

“So as tech comes into Austin,” he continues, “and more money comes into Austin and real estate grows, that, to me, is the fundamental justification to say, ‘Okay, maybe there are some policies we can put in place to just bring balance to the Force, and a little fairness back to where we are incentivizing the next wave of young people and entrepreneurs.’ To say, ‘Getting in the live music business is exciting.’”

A version of this article appeared in print on July 12, 2024 with the headline: Red River Rally