At their monthly meeting on November 7, the Austin Music Commission, a citizen-led group that advises City Council, passed a recommendation for the city to consider extending curfew times for outdoor music for venues in the Red River Cultural District. On Monday, representatives of the city’s music and economic development departments briefed four City Council members, Ellen Troxclair, Ora Houston, Greg Casar and Leslie Pool, on a proposed 12-month pilot program that would study the impact of a curfew extension on business and community stakeholders.
“I don’t know I’ve ever seen a proposal like this sound extension program that could have as much positive impact… in the creation of jobs, in bringing in more diverse talent and drawing more patrons to the Red River Cultural District, like I do with this program,” said Ryan Garrett, general manager of Stubb’s BBQ, who has worked in the district for 16 years. Garrett was one of three business owners and managers who signed up to speak at the meeting. No representatives from community groups or neighborhood associations were present.
Currently, outdoor music in the district, which also includes the popular venues, the Mohawk and Empire Garage, must end at 10:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 p.m. Thursday and midnight on Friday. The outdoor live music curfew is set at 2 a.m. nightly in the adjacent Sixth Street and Warehouse Districts downtown.
Steve Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room and Garage, said business owners on Red River, faced with the same challenges of rising rents and property taxes as other downtown clubs, struggle to understand the discrepancy. His club is located on the south side of Seventh Street near Interstate 35. While he must shut down live music early, the bars across the street, clubs like Barracuda and the White Swan, adhere to the 2 a.m. curfew of the Sixth Street district.
“There’s just kind of an arbitrary line that’s drawn in the middle of the street that has been kind of …handicapping us a little bit in terms of our ability to compete,” he said at the meeting.
Garrett said after “extensive dialogue” with local promotion house C3 Presents, the company that books live music at Stubb’s, he estimates the curfew extension could enable his club to book an additional 15 shows each year. Based on ticket prices that generally range from $28-$35, he said the club might earn an extra million dollars a year on door sales alone.
But the biggest financial impact for the venues would come in alcohol sales, which Mohawk manager Cody Cowan noted, “generally accelerate between 10 p.m and 2 a.m.” In addition to more hours for bar staff, keeping the clubs open later would also increase revenue for the local companies that handle sound and lighting on the stages.
While Council member Casar expressed concern that adding additional hours to the clubs’ outdoor stages could “cannibalize” the small after parties, usually headlined by Austin bands, that frequently accompany big touring shows, the club owners said a later curfew on the big stages would allow them to plug more locals into the bills.
“If you only have from say eight til midnight, that means you can only have three bands perform,” Sternschein said. “If you have an extra hour or two til 2 a.m., then you can put another opener in front of those bands and that’s a really big opportunity for those guys to get in front of a bigger audience.”
Details of the pilot program still need to be ironed out before the proposal likely goes to City Council for a vote in January. Alejandra Lopez from economic development and Don Pitts from the city’s music department, said they are looking at implementing staggered end times in the clubs over the 12-month period so they can gather data on how later curfews affect the district and the community as a whole. They plan to analyze any increases in noises complaints and whether the change would place a strain on police or emergency personal, factors that would inform a decision on whether to make any changes permanent.
Noise complaints around Red River have increased significantly over the last year, but none of the businesses involved in the push for an extended curfew have received citations for violating city noise ordinances. Complaints logged within a 1500 ft. radius of the district spiked from 43 in 2015 to 159 in 2016. Pitts attributed at least part of the increase to “new development” in the area. Two new hotels, the Hotel Indigo at and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Downtown and University opened near the Red River Cultural District this spring. Pitts’ office has been pushing for the city to implement an “agent of change” principal, which would place the burden of soundproofing on new businesses that choose to locate near a music venue and vice versa.
While the interests of downtown hotels and other area business owners were raised as a concern, council members present at the meeting seemed receptive to the proposal.
“I am really excited about it and I do think there’s a lot of potential,” Councilwoman Troxclair said near the end of the meeting. “We know that venue owners and musicians are struggling in Austin and we’ve talked a lot about what we can do to support the live music community. To me, on it’s face, this seems like one option that can really be beneficial to both of those groups without creating a new city program or costing a lot more taxpayer dollars.”