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Live music in Fort Worth isn’t dying, venue owners say

Patrons pack the Twilite Lounge in Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood on Dec. 5, 2023, its final night in business. The bar announced its closure on Instagram four days earlier.
Marcheta Fornoff
Fort Worth Report
Patrons pack the Twilite Lounge in Fort Worth’s Near Southside neighborhood on Dec. 5, 2023, its final night in business. The bar announced its closure on Instagram four days earlier.

Cars parked bumper to bumper lined Lipscomb Street and Daggett Avenue, but the standing-room-only crowd inside the Twilite Lounge was too little too late.

The star on the venue’s neon sign had lit up an otherwise dark intersection of the Near Southside neighborhood since 2017, but on Dec. 5 the lounge turned off its lights and shut its doors for good.

The bar and live entertainment venue was just one of a handful of similar businesses to call it quits in the final weeks of 2023. Downtown Cowtown at the Isis and Lola’s posted similarly somber goodbyes on social media, joining MASS, which closed the year before.

Meanwhile other small locally owned venues pleaded for support and shared their struggles to hang on.

Tyler Stevens, owner of the Cicada, sent a plea to patrons on her Facebook page, asking them to help her keep the venue open.
Tyler Stevens, owner of the Cicada, sent a plea to patrons on her Facebook page, asking them to help her keep the venue open.

Live music venues operate on thin margins, but the economic outlook isn’t all gloomy.

Owners of other local venues such as the Scat Jazz Lounge, Tannahill’s and Billy Bob’s Texas cited reasons to be hopeful.

Navigating a tough gig

Brendon Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, said three closures announced within one week is likely a coincidence rather than an omen for venues in Fort Worth. The Texas Music Office has an annual Texas Music Incubator Rebate Program, which sets aside $20 million to assist live venues across the state.

Venues are vulnerable to shifting economic conditions such as higher taxes, insurance rates or increasing food, beverage and labor costs. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,62% of venue owners in Austin said their business could survive only four months or even less if forced to shutter.

Running a venue is a give and take, Anthony said — toeing a razor-thin wire of profit during good times and struggling to hold on when weathering the bad.

“That can be exhausting for those people who operate those venues,” he said. “They sometimes decide that they’re just not going to do it anymore. And who can blame them if they decide that they want to move on and do something else?”

Tom Martens, director of the Fort Worth Music Office and associate vice president of creative and branding at the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Fort Worth, was alarmed by the three closures, he said. He is planning a music town hall with the Texas Music Office, Fort Worth’s economic development office and Mayor Mattie Parker to identify challenges and solutions for music venue owners sometime in February. Part of the conversation will be how the venue business model can change. More restaurants and hotels are hosting live music in Fort Worth, he said. Visit Fort Worth also will release a music economy study during its annual meeting Feb. 15.“There is a desire, and there’s a need for music,” Martens said. “We’re just trying to … work with these venues to figure out how that model can change.”

Challenges of running a local venue

The average lifespan of a venue is 20 years, said Stan Renard, associate dean, arts management and entrepreneurship coordinator, and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s a difficult business to run,” Renard said. “You deal with rowdy people, you have to have bartenders, the musicians are not always reliable. It’s a combination of all sorts of problems.”

Stadiums and small venues are essentially operating in two completely different worlds, he said. Independent venues tend to rely on alcohol sales to make money, while ticket sales go toward paying the performing artists.

In order for most venues to stay in business, they need to sell booze.

Declining sales and high food costs forced Jimmy Morton, the former owner and operator of the Twilite Lounge, to make the difficult decision to close the venue. The business relied on a mix of happy hour and live music patrons. He previously told the Report that he noticed businesses using crowdfunding to stay open, but said that option would not have been sustainable in the long run.

“Bills only tend to increase,” Morton told the Report. “Cost of goods and everything like that is higher than usual. The budget plan we made a while back, it’s just not working anymore.”

More recently, Morton told the Report he is considering opening a new business, but declined to share further details.

The Scat Jazz Lounge

Running a music venue is challenging, but there are some local spaces that are thriving, and the Scat Jazz Lounge in downtown Fort Worth is one of them.

Now in its 17th year, the club had to rethink its business model when the pandemic hit, but the changes they made have been good for the business, co-owner Cary Ray said.

Social distancing forced them to pivot strategies. Rather than continue down the path as a lounge where people could come and go and stand or sit in front of the stage, the venue reduced its capacity, nixed the standing area in front of the stage and required people to reserve their seats in advance.

The space is now a hub for jazz lovers and people looking for a place to celebrate a special occasion.

“I think it is kind of risky, but if you stick with it, we kind of found our niche,” he said. “People know what to expect when they come … and we’re very consistent about it. We don’t deviate.”

Instead of relying on alcohol sales, the venue now makes more on tickets. The higher ticket prices help make up for the smaller capacity and also allow the club to pay its staff and talent more. Two shows a night allow a full turnover of the crowd, which also helps support their bottom line.

But, Ray knows that his situation is not one size fits all.

Billy Bob’s Texas

While the pandemic was devastating in many ways, it also gave Billy Bob’s Texas the opportunity to hit the reset button.

“We were confident that live music would come back, and we were able to use that time efficiently. We did a major bathroom renovation that took months — something we wouldn’t have been able to do while we were open,” Marty Travis, the venue’s general manager, said.

Treating the city’s code compliance department, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the health department and police department as partners was key to helping the business successfully reopen in phases, slowly adding back more capacity as allowed.

Throughout this process, they realized that, although the capacity set by the fire department is 6,000, the business’s sweet spot is closer to 4,500.

As an independent venue, Billy Bob’s was able to make adjustments based on its own needs, while venues run by national companies were not able to reopen in the same timeframe as they navigated COVID rules across several different states.

This created an opening for the venue to bring in artists like Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock who would normally play at bigger venues. The shine effect from those artists has made the venue more enticing to others in the industry.

Of course, the period was still difficult. Billy Bob’s used the government’s Paycheck Protection Program loan as a way to continue to pay its employees for as long as possible, but when that money ran out, the company had to lay off employees.

Staffing was eventually cut from around 270 to 10, with those who remained taking steep pay cuts. The venue even took a hit on the food they had in-house but couldn’t sell, giving it away to employees rather than letting it spoil.

Seeing people struggle financially, get sick and pass away was also a challenge.

“In one weekend I went from seeing everyone to not knowing when or if I’d ever see some of them again,” Travis said. “We’re like family.”


Chef and entrepreneur Tim Love saw a hole in Fort Worth’s music scene and aimed to fill it with his full-service restaurant, bar and music venue in the Stockyards’ Mule Alley.

Tannahill’s Tavern & Music Hall has a capacity of about 1,000. The room size allows him to bring in artists who might not have other options in the city, like Teddy Swims who played at the venue in October.

“Teddy wouldn’t have a place to play here. He’s too small for Dickies. He’s not going to play Billy Bob’s. That’s not their genre,” Love explained. “And then you have a great club like Tulips, but it’s too small for him.”

Love said that sales data indicates that roughly 90% of his clientele comes from Fort Worth or cities to its west. He uses this information as a way to explain to artists’ representatives that their artist can play a show in Dallas and Fort Worth and sell out at both.

Though he’s been successful at bringing in talent and creating the Fort Worth Music Festival, there are still some growing pains as the city’s music scene shifts.

“All the hotels in the Stockyards are sold out for the festival, which is cool,” he said. “But we kind of get hog-tied until we get some more hotels built.”

Renard, at the University of Oklahoma, said venues clustered together can help boost business for one another.

“They tend to be more resilient because they form a mini-like chamber of commerce and so they’re able to … fight back any issues that might come along,” he said.

Walking the tightrope

Brooks Kendall, president of Afallon Productions and entertainment manager at The Post at River East, sees the closures in Fort Worth at the end of last year as not unusual.

“These are businesses that come and go a lot anyways,” he said. “It just, I think, came across to people who are invested in the local scene as particularly alarming that three (closed) in one week.”

Brooks knows the trials and tribulations that come with the music business. Both his grandfather and father worked as booking agents. He is thinking about changing his business by tinkering with ticket prices to get them as low as possible, while making sure artists get paid what they need. He’s also exploring sponsorship to subsidize expenses.

But like most veterans of the industry know, making adjustments will be like walking on a tightrope.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at and follow on X, formerly known as Twitter,@sbodine120

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policyhere.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.