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Austin Music Census reveals fault lines in industry

Monday, June 1, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Austin Music Census is out, and it warns that Austin’s music industry is rapidly approaching a tipping point.

According to the census, Austin’s musicians and music industry professionals are finding it difficult to get by in a more expensive city. Further, working with the city to run a music venue can be an arduous and confusing process. Those (and other) pressures have created “fault lines” that the census report warns “may allow the erosion and disintegration of critical parts of the Austin music community” if left unchecked.

Austin-based Titan Music Group conducted the census, which was commissioned by the city. The census and report are available in their 233-page entirety here. On Monday afternoon, the group’s Nikki Rowling presented the census, along with some recommendations for the city, to a packed Music Commission audience.

For musicians, Rowling said that concerns about affordability were the most pressing. The census notes that the rising cost of living in Austin and the development of expensive condos and apartments in the central city are forcing out musicians and others in the industry.

“It really does appear that we are at a tipping point, particularly in terms of musicians. We have lost a number of them already,” said Rowling.

Compounding the problem, audiences are increasingly reluctant to pay cover charges to see local bands, while respondents to the survey indicated that live performances are one of the few ways musicians make money.

“This is not where it was 10 years ago,” said Rowling. “Lots of venues (said) either they are not charging cover at all anymore, or they are charging the same or less than they were 10 years ago.

“Events and festivals are definitely helping some things, but it is not making up for revenue loss across the board. And it is not making up for revenue loss for local musicians, either,” Rowling continued.

As one solution, the report suggests that the city establish dedicated affordable housing for musicians. According to the census, over 20 percent of working musicians in Austin live below the federal poverty line, and about half have incomes that qualify for federal housing assistance.

Currently, state law prohibits the city from creating dedicated affordable housing for artists, but the report notes that “there may be public-private partnership models worthy of exploration to circumvent these barriers.”

The census also addresses difficulties faced by venue owners and operators in dealing with what the report terms a “confusing and arcane” city permitting system and inconsistent enforcement.

“This is a huge problem,” said Rowling. “What is concerning about this is that this is not a handful of outlier venues that are squeaky wheels. This is more than half – a majority – that are saying this is a really big problem. They are saying it’s an extremely or moderately difficult problem.”

To test the difficulty of the permitting process, Titan consultants attempted to go through it themselves. They found that “to the extent that required permits could be identified,” the process appeared to “require contact with and approval from a minimum of seven different city departments.”

The census notes, “The inability to find all relevant information despite an exhaustive search confirms that there are some systemic problems with the permitting process.”

Venues also cited inconsistencies in enforcement as a top concern, with 62 percent of venue operators reporting trouble with sound ordinance enforcement.

As the report highlights, “This is a worrisome data point, because it does not indicate that a few ‘outside the margin’ operators don’t like the sound ordinance, but rather that nearly two-thirds of all venue respondents are experiencing trouble with inconsistencies in sound ordinance enforcement. It would appear that there are some systemic enforcement problems that are not yet solved.”

These two city-led problems represent a small fraction of the many faced by small venues in the city. The census stresses the importance of those venues, and the number of destabilizing factors they face in Austin’s current climate.

According to the census, “For a majority of small to medium-size music venues that focus on local music, a number of factors such as rising operating costs, zoning and development issues, decline of ‘cover’ revenue, and costly inefficiencies from unwieldy permitting processes are creating very thin and potentially fragile profit margins and overhead pressure.”

The recommendations in the census focus on policy considerations for the city.

The first recommendation is that Austin develop a long-term industry development strategy. Despite a constant refrain that Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World,” those in the music community see a disconnect between the city’s marketing and its city policies about music.

Specifically, the census recommends policy support of economic “clustering” for music industry professionals. The model, which has been applied to other industries in Austin, would function like the recently created downtown Innovation Zone or Austin Film Society studios, with an emphasis on music instead.

According to the census, high property values and rents have had a negative effect on Austin’s music scene, with venues being priced out of historic live music clusters. It suggests that “investing in the creation of economic clusters via policy support, land/building grants, financial investment or other means” could reverse (or at least relocate) that trend.

“What we have here is that music has been organic, almost entirely,” said Rowling. “What we are suggesting is a different approach that is intentional, that is thoughtful. If we don’t do this … likely, we’ll be left behind.”

Along those same lines, the report also supports the creation of formal entertainment districts, like the Red River Cultural District. Though the city does have entertainment districts that relax sound ordinances, it does nothing to preserve venues. Even the Red River Cultural District faces challenges. Two of its most popular venues – Holy Mountain and Red 7 – are currently facing closure due to market pressures.

ACL2009SBH” by SteveHopson at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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