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Thursday, July 14, 2016 by Cate Malek

Music Commission recommends new policies to rescue Austin’s music industry

Austin’s music industry is hoping for a new era of cooperation with city government, and the Music and Creative Ecosystem Recommendations are meant to kick-start these long-awaited changes.

At a special meeting of the city’s Music Commission on July 12, a packed room of music industry professionals and city officials came together for their last discussion of a set of new city policies meant to rescue Austin’s flailing music industry. Last March, City Council passed the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, which put the music industry at the top of its agenda.

Council gave its staff 90 days to come up with a set of policies to address problems, such as a lack of affordable housing for artists and the closure of popular music venues, that have been pushing musicians out of Austin. After months of discussion, the commission put its stamp of approval on the staff’s newly released plan, voting unanimously to recommend that Council adopt the policies.

“We’re aware that what we’re doing tonight as a Music Commission could be transformative, or leave many in the music community untouched,” said Chair Gavin Garcia. “The mayor and (City Council) are aware of the challenges we face, and that urgency is warranted.”

The discussion of the omnibus resolution drew a crowd of more than 50 musicians, club owners and others involved in the music industry, as well as Council members Ora Houston and Greg Casar, who interrupted their July vacation to attend the meeting.

The set of policies that participants found most promising are known as “Agent of Change.” These policies have been previously adopted in other music cities such as San Francisco and are meant to protect the culture of different neighborhoods around Austin.

Agent of Change policies require that new developments coming into a certain area adapt to the businesses that have already been established there. So, for example, if a hotel moves into an area that has traditionally been home to music venues, then the hotel owners would be required to fit into the area and couldn’t file noise complaints or other violations that might force the music venues to shut down.

“This costs (the city) nothing,” said Cody Cowan, the general manager of the Mohawk. He pointed out that the Mohawk and other clubs in the Red River Cultural District in downtown Austin have taken it upon themselves to do something similar in their area and have been successful.

Other policies that received strong support were streamlining licensing processes for music-related businesses and helping with professional development and marketing for musicians.

But although most of the participants had high hopes for the new recommendations, there were still areas where they said the city needs to do more work. One lingering question about the new policies is how the city plans to enforce them. Participants said that enforcement had been a problem in cities like San Francisco that have tried to adopt similar policies.

Another heated discussion was over how to encourage diversity in Austin’s music scene. Garcia said that many minority groups are largely invisible to Austin’s music industry leaders and that this needs to change if the music industry is to survive.

“I understand the anger and frustration and distrust minorities have toward the Austin music establishment,” Garcia said. “We’re dealing with a crisis, but we’re also facing a huge opportunity for transformation.”

A final question was how the city plans to provide affordable housing for artists, which participants said is the No. 1 complaint of musicians living in Austin. City staff didn’t significantly address affordable housing in these recommendations because it plans to roll housing for artists into its larger plan for affordable housing.

Overall, the representatives of the music industry who were present at the meeting were supportive of the city’s new recommendations. They talked about a new era of cooperation between city government and the music industry.

“Fifteen years ago, venues weren’t interested in playing ball with the city or compliance at all,” Cowan said. “In fact, it was the Wild West in Austin. There was really very little enforcement. It’s taken a lot for us to grow up and come to the table and do all the right things.“

The Music Commission also expressed a strong desire to move forward and start solving some of the problems that have plagued Austin’s music industry for years. Garcia said he hoped the new policies would help make Austin a model community for its support of music and the arts.

“It’s an extraordinary sociological experiment to get involved in this at all,” he said. “No one’s done it before in Austin music history.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32218460

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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.

Austin Music Commission: The Austin Music Commission guides city practices on music development issues, including the SxSW music festival.

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