Tuesday, July 28, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy

Industry leaders discuss policy potentials to secure Austin’s music scene

People active in the Austin music business gathered Thursday at a studio space on East Fifth Street to talk about issues inhibiting the growth and sustainability of the city’s music life – a talk organizers called “State of the Arts,” held at Studium, a co-disciplinary space. With two musicians, one show organizer and a City Hall lobbyist on the stage, discussion steered toward what policymakers can do to ensure the livelihood of music in Austin, a city facing an exponential rise in the cost of living.

Marcus Lawyer of Transmission Events said that every city has had, or is having, a conversation about how the cost of living morphs a local music scene. “This isn’t unique to Austin,” he said. “This happens in every thriving cultural city, and it’s a real estate thing more than just about anything else.”

Thursday’s talk came on the heels of recently announced changes to eminent music venues, particularly those located in the Red River Cultural District. Holy Mountain has said it will close its doors at the end of September, and a rock wall and alley at Cheer Up Charlies will undergo changes because of the construction of a new hotel. These announcements both followed the release in June of the Austin Music Census, which painted a dire picture of musician subsistence in Austin.

“One of the things we see people wrestling with is all the trade-offs that they have to make,” said Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People. “It’s one thing to find an apartment you want to live in – it’s another thing to calculate how many jobs you’re going to have to have to make the rent, or how many roommates you’re going to have to have for everybody to be able to have a nice quality of life after the rent is paid.”

Houlihan said that economic feasibility also plagues music venues, which she said are often offered leases with rent accelerators (meaning the rent rises by a small amount per month), or leases lasting no longer than three to five years. But there are certain policies that Houlihan said she will be looking for the city to implement or strengthen to better protect its musicians – all of which will be presented in the organization’s second white paper on July 29, at 3 p.m., at Holy Mountain.

“One of the things that we’re fighting against is the sound ordinance being made more strict,” Houlihan said. “We’re fighting for more even enforcement of the sound ordinance because there are some venues that get a little more attention from APD than others, and we’d like to have that smoothed out and made a little more fair.”

On July 17, city staff wrote a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members in response to a resolution passed in September 2014 asking for recommendations on how to ensure that Austin’s downtown entertainment district remains “safe and vibrant.”

According to the memo, city staff recommends changes to the city’s sound ordinance. One change would require bars and venues with regular amplified sound to obtain an entertainment license – currently, these businesses must have sound permits. If the recommendation were adopted, city staff would also be authorized to suspend this license if a business regularly violated city code or state law.

Despite the fact that many cities are coming to terms with how to enliven creativity amid soaring rent prices, Lawyer said, he stressed that Austin remains a unique situation.

“Here, we’re lucky that we do have a city that recognizes what we do as a commodity, import and export,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to just go bulldoze a venue. You can’t get away with it without a community pulling together and saying, ‘No, stop. Let’s talk about this.’”

Photo by Ken Lund made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Mayor Steve Adler: Mayor of the city of Austin, elected in November 2014

Music and Entertainment Division: A department of the city’s economic development division geared toward growing the music and entertainment industry.

Red River Cultural District: Established in 2013, the Red River Cultural District runs from Sixth Street to Tenth Street and is a cultural district with the Texas Commission for the Arts. Its creation was intended to help preserve the live music venues located within the district.

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