It’s a Saturday below Second Street, just around the corner from the Convention Center and about a block north of the Four Seasons Hotel. In the stage area at Skinny’s Ballroom, which is draped in red on all its walls and festooned with chandeliers, a charcoal artist scratches furiously into a sketch pad while a jazz duo closes out the wee hours of the evening.
Owner Brad Marcum and I stand near the back of the bar, commiserating gently over the venue's upcoming final show. It’s close to 2 a.m. His wife Maggie, who co-owns the venue, is not around. Besides the artist, the band and the staff, we are the only ones here.
“It’s been interesting,” Marcum says. “We’ve learned a lot and had a lot of fun. It just got hard to keep up.”
Last February, Marcum left his job as a statistical software programmer to open Skinny’s, where the mission was to put on vibrant, earnest and creative music in a space that would make it sound like it should. In that regard, Marcum told me, it’s been beyond successful.
“It’s really exceeded expectations artistically,” he said. “Lots of people are playing music just for money, or just for the spotlight. I tend to not like that sort of stuff.”
Running a venue gave Marcum the chance to experiment with a musician-centric approach to the venue model: Extra attention was paid to suiting the sounds of the instruments to the room, and engineer Dwayne Barnes was constantly on hand to bring years of audio experience to the mixing table; sets were recorded and available to bands for free.
Perhaps the location — across the street from two high-rise towers under construction in a tourist-heavy part of town) caused the slow pace of business at the venue, and perhaps other factors were involved. The entertainment industry makes it hard to be sure. The fact remains that a great deal can be gained from taking a chance on something that you think matters.
“We got a lot of positive feedback,” Marcum says. “We made connections with a lot of great people and a lot of interesting, creative performers. We’re going to keep doing this, one way or another.”
One option is a production company, using Austin’s existing entertainment infrastructure to keep the music mission alive. Alternatively, tricky as it may be, the Marcums are considering a foray into cooperative ownership.
“We’ve been looking into starting a co-op venue, but there are risks involved with that,” Marcum says. “Maggie and I are owners at Black Star, and I remember what a long and complicated process it was for them to get up and running. We’re still feeling things out, for now.”
Whatever rises from the ashes of Skinny’s, our city stands to be better for it. In a place like Austin, where live music is commoditized and sold as a pull factor for tourists and conventioneers, it’s good to know that at least there’s someone out there committed to the existence of the sort of local scene that put us on the map in the first place.
Come out for a last listen to the best underground sound in town this weekend, July 27-28, at 115 San Jacinto Blvd.