Quickly, Sternschein said, he realized more venues would have to be at the table to prevent a disaster for venues up and down Red River Street.
“We had to get together as a group, as a community, to figure out how to take care of everybody that we can,” Sternschein said.
On Friday, March 6, Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt issued disaster orders cancelling the internationally attended event due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
That announcement accelerated the process for Red River music venues to find a solution, according to Sternschein. Hours after the official announcement, a GoFundMe fundraising page was created to solicit individual donations that will help musical artists, staff and the venues themselves to minimize the damage done.
As of March 7, the GoFundMe page had raised $5,250 out of a $100,000 goal with dozens of businesses contributing in some way by providing space or funding. Sternschein said the $100,000 number was based on some rough math to provide $10,000 to ten venues—not enough to replace all the SXSW money, but enough to make a difference. He said last year, Empire Control Room & Garage made 20% of its annual income in the 10-day period of the festival.
“We would be in a rough place if we’re not able to pull off the events and have them be at least moderately attended. The idea is we want to stay alive and survive to provide the cultural benefits to our community,” Sternschein said.
The money will be administered by the Red River Merchants Association, a nonprofit organization that was created to bring together the venues on the street and advocate for their interests.
SXSW festival programming was attended by more than 230,000 people last year, according to SXSW’s 2019 annual report, and international visitors made up 26% of all attendees. Community Impact Newspaper covered the economic impact of the event in 2019 to music venues, hotels and bars in the area.
“The money you make at SXSW isn’t ‘Let’s all go to Cancun’ money. It’s ‘How are we going to pay rent in July?’ money,” Red River Merchants Association director Cody Cowan told Community Impact Newspaper in 2019.
The priority for funds raised through the GoFundMe will be paying the artists, allowing the musicians to keep the money they would have made by playing a SXSW gig and the venues to keep events on the schedule to make an income.
Sternschein said the Red River Cultural District has experience coming together to set up events like Free Week in January and Hot Summer Nights in July—free shows that bring attendees to the venues—that will help in quickly getting together events for March.
“What we need to be successful is the community to step up. We have a chance to prove to everybody South By isn’t about corporate sponsors or products. It’s about discovering new people, new ideas, and that stuff will happen regardless of who’s writing the checks,” he said.