“Tipping Point” Approaches For Austin’s Local Music Scene

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Last year Austin Music People sounded the alarm over the downward economic pressure felt by the local music industry and this year they’ve announced that it has led to a loss of 1,200 jobs over the last four years.

Austin is world renowned for its live music culture, but the moniker of “Live Music Capital of The World” is being threatened because, among other things: working musicians aren’t able to keep up with the increased cost of living, venues are being pinched by increasing property taxes, and a growing sense of entitlement by music patrons.

These were among the issues addressed at a public forum on the Music Census data at Capitol Factory where industry leaders from Austin Music People, Transmission Events (Fun Fun Fun Fest), and C3 Presents (ACL) spoke about the changing landscape and what it means for the future of local live music in Austin.

Bobby Garza, General Manager for Transmission Events (and musician), said that many folks have a misconception that putting on major events means major bucks for organizers, but that with mid and small size events it’s just not the case.

One recurring theme was that if Austinites wanted to keep our bragging rights that we would have to put our money where our mouth is. Venue owners and club promoters spoke out about the difficulty of implementing cover charges and finding consistent ways to pay bands. The survey found that people are less willing now, than any other time in the last decade, to pay a $5 – $10 cover charge. smh.

As someone who has been playing and attending shows for $5 cover charges for at least the past 15 years I find this highly frustrating. Liquor receipts are at an all time high so we know a lack of cash isn’t the problem.

Maybe technology has made us all a little spoiled, since we can get just about everything we want at a click of a button and many times for cheap if not for free. And just maybe technology can also help fill the gap for musicians. TipCow, for example,  is an app that allows you to directly find and tip bands that have set up their own profiles and could be away for fans to send some extra cash their way or potential fans to sample an artist before giving them financial support.

The Music Census data also shows that many working musicians are in fact working multiple jobs. It makes since, you can only play so many shows in a market within a month and once you split that with band mates any any band projects (managers, promo materials, recording, practice space, touring, etc.) it disappears quite quickly. You can bet the bartender slinging Lone Star tallboys during the week also plays in at least one band.  As someone who has booked and played many shows, I can confidently say the only musicians scraping out a living solely with their instruments are those touring workhorses and household names.

So at some level, saturation is a problem. You can’t throw a rock and not hit a musician, or a even a working musician playing on the sidewalk, in the restaurant at your lunch meeting or at City Hall during a regular council meeting.

With that said, there must be a way to preserve those spaces that provide a platform for our local industry to remain strong. The Live Music Cultural District is one idea, but the same state laws that prevent rent control for residents, prevents the city from keeping bars’ rent from soaring.

One a positive example is that the Plaza Saltillo developers agreed to keep the Historic Scoot Inn in place as it builds a dense transit-oriented mixed use development across several blocks in near East Austin. The fate of local music industry and how we deal with the affordability issue in the city at large are intricately connected.

Back in 2013,  Austin Music People backed a bill by then State Representative Mark Strama that would have lowered the liquor tax from 14% to 10% and allowed the savings to be used by venues to support their live music offerings. Not only did the bill not pass, the liquor tax now sits at 16%.

Locally, Mayor Steve Adler has promised to help the city maintain its musical reputation by focusing policy areas like housing, parking in entertainment districts, sound ordinances, and luring large music industry employers. The Mayor also mentioned strengthening the relationship with nonprofits like Austin Music Foundation that help musicians learn the ins and outs of the music business. The data made it clear that many local musicians lacked the business skills necessary to sustain a financially sound band. 

As usual, to solve an enormous problem like affordability in the nation’s fastest growing city, it will take much more than the city itself, we’ll need a partner in the state to allow cities the flexibility to use our creativity to address our impending identity crisis. And it wouldn’t hurt to donate that last beer to the band on stage.



About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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