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Hopes for music industry growth fuel first omnibus resolution

Monday, January 9, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

For all the focus Mayor Steve Adler and others in city government have put on the health of Austin’s music economy in recent years, it’s easy to lose sight of what it means to be a “working musician” in Austin in 2017. Napster and the go-go days of illegal downloading in the early 2000s zapped record sales and most chances of long-term album deals from major labels, and the city’s soaring cost of living means the days of paying rent with a couple of concert gigs a month are long gone.

So what does a working musician look like now? There are plenty of candidates who could be used as case studies, but a great one is longtime Austinite Adrian Quesada.

A multi-instrumentalist with a long resume of bands and projects, Quesada is probably best known as a founder of the Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma and a current member of the internationally famous tribute act Brown Sabbath. Touring and album sales make up part of his annual income, along with film and television composition work, publishing royalties, and engineering and production work with acts who book time at his Level One Sound studio in South Austin.

Quesada stresses that he’s not wealthy, but by stringing together a series of “hustles,” he and his wife, Celeste, who also works full time as a real estate agent and event producer, manage a creatively focused life with their two young daughters.

“I figured out that I had to diversify and expand, because doing just live gigs never added up to the life I wanted,” Quesada said two days before traveling to the West Coast for a tour with Brown Sabbath. “In Austin, I think we have to define what a working musician is while we look at how music is going to survive. I’ve never known any other way than to have three or four hustles going all the time, because by the time I came up, the days of record label advances were gone.”

The latest movement in Adler’s effort to bolster Austin’s music economy came just after Christmas, when he forwarded a draft resolution to City Council members with four initiatives – including $475,000 in expenditures – derived from the year of work and study that resulted in the Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus.

The resolution, which is expected to come before Council in February, calls for:

  • Implementation of a pilot program for an extended curfew on sound limits for the cluster of clubs in the Red River Cultural District
  • Spending $75,000 to create a revenue development program intended to improve the earning potential of Austin musicians
  • Providing $200,000 in “crisis” funding through low-interest loans to help preserve music venues and creative spaces facing code violations or other threats
  • Implementing a Nightlife Initiative – aided by $200,000 – through the city’s Music and Entertainment Division to streamline permitting and other bureaucratic issues for clubs and businesses that enhance economic activity related to music and the arts

Adler told the Austin Monitor that the omnibus enaction resolution will be the first significant move in an ongoing push to improve both the creative economy and the overall affordability of the city in coming years.

One significant component that will come later is the so-called “agent of change” principle that surrounds sound and livability conflicts that arise when residential or hotel developments spring up near incompatible uses. That issue is currently playing out in local courts, with the Westin Austin Downtown hotel filing a $1 million lawsuit against Sixth Street music venue the Nook Amphitheater over noise disturbances, even though the club opened in 2012, before the hotel’s construction.

Adler said a variety of efforts will be needed to keep the city’s music economy from eroding further. The extended curfews on Red River could add several thousand dollars a month to the bottom line of several outdoor venues there – a potential windfall for both the clubs and performing musicians – and he said a revamp of the Music and Entertainment Division to put its focus on industry development instead of sound and safety issues will hopefully get more money flowing.

The revenue enhancement component will be led by authors Jason Feehan and Randy Chertkow, whose book The Indie Band Survival Guide has been lauded by Billboard magazine. The pair have performed similar consulting work for Grammy/Recording Academy chapters across the country, but Austin would be their first attempt at a city-level improvement plan.

Adler said any attempt to build a larger music industry in Austin outside of what’s been built by companies such as C3 Presents and South by Southwest needs to come via differentiation from what’s offered in other music hubs. The most viable difference maker, he said, will likely come from the city’s thriving tech industry.

“We need to figure out what it is that is the unique music industry vertical that is Austin, because we are not L.A. or Nashville. But my gut tells me we’ve got something here that we can tap into,” Adler said, pointing to the growth in Austin’s virtual- and augmented-reality sector as a potential pool to partner with music interests. “I think it’s the intersection between live music and tech. You ask, ‘What is the unique thing we bring to provide a unique vertical?’ All industry experts say Austin is a unique place with a lot to offer.”

Those partnerships will have to develop through creatives from different sectors working together, which is something Adler hopes can happen through the city taking measures to add affordable housing stock in the coming years and support creative live/work clusters that are in the works in East Austin.

“It’ll be clear if we’re building more housing supply and we’re aiding in keeping housing costs affordable, and creating new verticals in the music industry,” he said. “People want to see the base work, to know base services are being provided in the music economy, and steps (are) being taken to preserve venues in the city.”

Also weighing in will be the city’s Music Commission, an advisory board with members appointed by Council members and Adler. That group’s top five priorities related to the omnibus are the agent of change principle, revenue development, developing a comprehensive entertainment license to reduce bureaucracy for venues, creation of a strategy for music industry development and enhancing efforts to promote music-related tourism.

Graham Reynolds, a commission member and working musician, said he’s hopeful that the February resolution will be the first steps city government takes toward creating a vision for the next decade-plus of Austin’s music economy.

“There needs to be a 10-to-20-year vision to make the music scene here sustainable unless we want to run the risk of becoming like Memphis and Detroit, where (music) activity ceased after being major centers of the industry and touring,” he said. “The iconic venues will be with us for a long time, but if the incubator clubs can’t survive, then that’s a problem. Lots of bands move to New York or L.A. because they want to be close to the infrastructure we don’t have. For the good of the whole ecosystem, we need to become more of an industry town.”

Article author Chad Swiatecki talks with our reporting partners at KUT in this interview, embedded below:

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Photo by kris krüg made available through a Creative Commons license

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