Mark and Rachel Austin

Image: Pooneh Ghana

 All across Houston and the rest of the world, concert halls and venues are deadly silent. Cities where live music was a nightly libation for the soul are terribly quiet. Tip jars are empty. Even record stores are closed, with many only doing curbside pickup or old-fashioned mail orders. 

Two music-loving Houstonians took a look around this scene and decided to start the Houston Music Foundation in the hopes of lifting up those musicians who find themselves suddenly gig-less. The brainchild of Houston power couple Mark and Rachel Austin, the 501(c)3 nonprofit Houston Music Foundation aims to keep area musicians afloat as COVID-19 precautions have taken away their livelihoods. And the need is great—the relief fund saw more than 250 applications for monetary relief in the first few hours after it officially launched on Tuesday. 

A longtime Texas music industry figure, Mark Austin has managed numerous bands, including local staples Tontons and The Suffers, and booked artists at venues across the state as the senior talent buyer for Kessler Presents and the owner of artist management and promotions brand, The Convoy Group. Rachel Austin, meanwhile, runs Hometown Social, a digital advertising and public relations agency. Every one of her clients has suffered a significant hit due to the global pandemic, be it a business downturn or a canceled event. 

When you are trapped at home and you can’t physically be there for someone, you have to get creative, Mark Austin says. “The music industry is very close. We’re family, and we want to do what family does—take care of each other.”

Seeing some of their best friends struggle during the global pandemic kicked him into high gear. From their couch in Cypress, the couple began putting together the charity, reaching out to benefactors and developing an application process for musicians in need.  Teaming up with nonprofit Artists for Artists, which provides emergency recovery grants and free medical programming to Houston artists, they were able to get this ambitious project off the ground. 

Houston Music Foundation’s newly-launched website has a portal to apply for a one-time grant of $500 and another portal to donate funds to the foundation’s coffers. Eligible applicants must be working musicians who can provide proof that they live within Harris County, are over the age of 18, and have suffered economic fallout due to COVID-19.

Even as they struggle to put food on the table and pay rent, many Houston musicians, including Lonesome Haunts member Bart Maloney, have taken to live-streaming services to keep up their chops and performing mini-concerts with major emotion for fans also stuck at home. “I am thankful that I can do something like that because I know that plenty of people don’t have any way to make extra money right now,” says the lead singer of the Houston-based alt-Americana outfit, who has also seen his second stream of revenue cut off since the barbershop he also works out of, Big Kat’s Barbershop, is currently closed due to health concerns. “I was blown away by how well people reacted to it and how much they gave to my virtual tip jar.” 

In addition to tipping during virtual concerts, one of the best ways to support your local artists right now is to buy their merchandise, which “gives artists an immediate cash infusion,” Mark Austin says. “We are encouraging everyone to dig in and find a way to help.” 

The response to Tuesday’s launch of Houston Music Foundation proves that the need for financial relief is there, he adds. It’s just a matter of connecting the dots. The eventual goal is for the nonprofit to be there to support musicians in the event of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flooding, both of which have sidelined the Houston music scene in the past. For now, addressing COVID-19-based needs is the main priority. 

“It’s more evident than ever that our community needs this program,” he says. “Right now, our sole focus is getting as many donations into the hands of musicians as quickly as possible.” 

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