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Austin’s music industry talks future, fees

Monday, October 12, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

This summer’s release of the Austin Music Census, along with recent and potential music venue closures, paints a dire picture of Austin’s celebrated music scene and has prompted a dialogue about the future of local artists and venues. That conversation continued Tuesday during a panel discussion on Austin’s music industry featuring local leaders and stakeholders.

City Council Member Greg Casar, Austin Music People Executive Director Jennifer Houlihan, South by Southwest associate Brad Spies, musician and Urban Artist Alliance founder Terrany Johnson, or Tee-Double, and Transmission Events General Manager Bobby Garza took part in the discussion, which was moderated by Austin Monitor Publisher Michael Kanin.

In addition to tackling the increased pressure on music venues and artists, the discussion also covered city government’s role in supporting – or not supporting – the industry.

Houlihan pointed out that, according to a white paper her nonprofit released in July, the music industry in Austin generates more than $1.6 billion annually. “It is built on the backs of people working for tips and minimum wage,” she asserted. “There are things that can be done by Council; there are also things that can be done by industry and public-private partnerships.”

Casar spoke directly to the city’s impact on the industry. “I think that we need to improve the level of music advocacy within the city’s own processes and within our own system,” he said.

“I just found out, just in the last couple of days, that within the budget we raised the amount that it costs to get an outdoor music permit,” Casar continued. “I didn’t know that. I don’t know how many of my colleagues know that. I imagine the number is one, two or none.”

Stephanie Bergara, music program specialist with the city’s Music & Entertainment Division –  also known as the Music Office – told the Monitor on Thursday that it now costs more than $1,040 to obtain the necessary permits from her office to operate an outdoor music venue. The temporary sound permit and associated costs for a multiday event, she added, total $845.

Council adopted the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget on Sept. 10, and it went into effect on Oct. 1.

“There needs to be a certain level of leadership in the community, on the Council, that sort of directs our entire city system to think about music in the decisions that we make,” Casar said.

Houlihan said that the cost of the $560 outdoor music permit notification fee, which makes up nearly half the cost Bergara cited, has increased from between $100 and $150 merely two years ago. “Live Music Capital of the World, yeah, but where’s the money?” she asked, referring to a phrase the city has adopted to describe itself.

“The Music Office was not consulted early on, so the Music Office couldn’t sound the alarm,” Houlihan said. “Council members are new; they’re not necessarily going to be looking at things that are that granular. They’ve got bigger fish to fry. So somebody needs to be minding the store.”

Garza, whose company Transmission Events puts on the fast-growing Fun Fun Fun Fest every year, also commented on the permit cost issue. “I don’t think it’s malice, but I think it’s a collective not (having an eye) on the ball,” he said.

The Music & Entertainment Division, Garza said, needs to be expanded in order to be able to focus on such issues – it should be its own department rather than a division within the Economic Development Department.

“There are people who have their eye on the ball,” Garza later clarified, referring to Music & Entertainment Division staff. “It’s what their position is within the city infrastructure and whether they have the ability to actually make the changes that are necessary.”

In response to a question about the low response turnout from hip-hop and Tejano musicians in the Austin Music Census, Johnson cited a sense of skepticism among some and argued that the discussion about Austin’s music industry needs to be more nuanced and results-oriented.

“I think, as far as the hip-hop community, when it comes to things like community engagement, City Hall, surveys and things like that, the main thing that I hear is, ‘How is that going to help us? How are we going to be truly represented by taking a survey?’” Johnson said.

“We can talk all day and it sounds great – Live Music Capital of the World and that’s awesome – but, like (Houlihan) said, where’s the money, where’s the influx of that growth for all sides of the community?” Johnson concluded.

Spies, who served on the city’s Music Commission for five years, discussed the music industry’s growth-related challenges. “My thought is, if there’s a healthy venue ecosystem, then there’s places for musicians to perform, right? There’s places for musicians to work, there’s places to cut your teeth,” he said.

“My concern is that there doesn’t appear to be anyone at the stick,” Spies continued. “The private sector is trying to do what they can, nonprofits are trying to do what they can. And I just worry that a city that decided 25 years ago to call itself the Live Music Capital of the World, it’s like, you’re going to blink and they’re all going to be gone.”

There were also suggestions of what might be done to help tackle the myriad problems addressed in the wide-ranging discussion. Houlihan reiterated suggestions brought up in the Austin Music People white paper, such as creating a music enterprise zone to incentivize music-focused businesses, changing City Code regulations to make the ground floors of properties more attractive to creative industry, and working with private companies to help musicians find higher-paying day jobs to support their music careers.

Further investment in the city’s Music and Entertainment Division can also help, Houlihan argued. The budget for that office has reached $100,000 in the current budget, up from $38,000 two years ago. “The people who are working there are working their butts off, and the city is getting way more than their money’s worth,” she said.

The event was the most recent installment in the “Beers, Brains and Betterment” series presented by the Capital of Texas Media Foundation and the Austin Monitor.

Photo of the Sour Notes performing at the now-closed Holy Mountain by Bryan C. Parker (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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