Believe it or not, there was a time not too long ago when Highland Mall was thriving. It had a bookstore, a viable food court, enough stores that you could buy whatever you needed in just the one trip—all that stuff.
Now, of course, the place is positively post-apocalyptic. Nothing left but a handful of small chains waiting to get out of their leases, before the whole property gets converted into an ACC campus. A lot of factors were at play there, but things really started to slide when the big stores—the anchors—moved out. First JC Penney’s took off, then Macy’s and, finally, Dillard’s. And now, yikes. It’s like Dawn of the Dead in there.
It’s hard not to have Highland Mall on the brain when the news broke yesterday that Emo’s Red River location had sold, and would be closing down after an extended going-away party in December. Emo’s, for many years, has served as a crucial anchor club for the most important block of music venues in Austin. Stubb’s is still there, but its main stage is dark more often than it’s active. The Mohawk is certainly an important and significant venue, but still—it’s got to be a scary time to be a club owner down on Red River.
Emo’s outside stage, which closed last weekend following an appearance from Death From Above 1979, had a capacity of 1,000—bigger by a good distance than Mohawk, Red 7, or any other club on the street—and the venue, as one of the very few full-time all-ages clubs in the neighborhood, has been responsible for more than just putting a thousand people on the nights of big shows down on Red River: it’s trained scores of incoming music fans in Austin to expect that, for a live show good time, that block was the place to be. They may not have been able to get into Elysium or Beerland when the all-ages show got out, but they’d be ready for it when they turned 21.
It’s not clear what’s going to happen with the Emo’s space. Both Frank Hendrix, who told the Chronicle that he sold it for a seven-figure sum, and David Morrison, the real estate broker with Austin Premium Property Management who represented the buyer, Sixth Red River LC, in the transaction, are restricted by confidentiality agreements. Morrison did tell the Statesman that the new owners are “very sensitive to the Austin music scene,” and acknowledged that “it’s been a cool place for a lot of people and a big part of the music scene.”
That’s a hell of an understatement, frankly. Emo’s has carried iconic status in indie rock circles around the country for a very long time. For touring acts, being able to say that you were playing that venue in Austin bestowed instant credibility on your efforts; for locals, it was a stage that struggling bands dreamed of reaching. Everybody knows the story of the now-legendary Johnny Cash SXSW showcase, but things like that, or the fact that it was the first-ever club Explosions In The Sky played, or that even massive sell-out tours like Donald Glover’s IAMDONALD earlier this year opted to jam-pack the venue and crest on the cool of completely selling out Emo’s—all of that built the venue’s mythology. For a time, Emo’s was Austin’s independent music scene.
Of course, people have been penning eulogies for the Austin music scene they’ve known and loved since the Vulcan Gas Company shut down. Always, the demise of one iconic venue leads to the rise of another; Vulcan Gas Company begets Armadillo World Headquarters, begets Liberty Lunch, begets Emo’s… Twenty years from now, someone may well lament the closure of the Mohawk in the same terms. But live music in Austin is always bigger than a single venue.
The question, though, is whether the same holds true for the block: Is Red River big enough to survive without Emo’s?
When Room 710 closed in 2009, owner Asher Garber blamed a number of factors: the smoking ban, property values and state taxes, the lack of parking, and what he described to the Chronicle’s Austin Powell as a “battle” between Transmission Entertainment and Emo’s for quality bookings. The new Emo’s East seems to be following a similar trajectory to that of Stubb’s, with the venue’s October calendar dark more nights than it’s booked—in some ways, then, one might be able to say that Transmission won the battle for dominance on Red River, with the Mohawk and Red 7, which the promoter also books, both featuring strong, packed upcoming schedules.
But there’s the battle with Emo’s (which Transmission’s Graham Williams denied existed, but which Hendrix acknowledged) and then there’s the war to keep original, live, independent music thriving downtown in the face of the other struggles that club owners face. It’s a fragile ecosystem, and without Emo’s—as a venue, as an icon and as a touchstone for younger fans—there to provide an anchor, the future has to look a little uncertain.
It’s far too early, of course, to expect to have any real answers to these questions. If Sixth Red River LC does turn the Emo’s property into another music venue, maybe that’ll be a thriving place, too. Hendrix also expressed interest to the Statesman in opening another club, also called Emo’s, downtown. But while it may be too early to predict answers, it sure seems like the time is definitely right to be asking the questions.