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When the music stops – Pitts speaks following resignation

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

The city will have to move forward with one of its most ambitious policy efforts ever for promoting local music without the executive who spent seven years working to shape that agenda.

Don Pitts, who served as director of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division since 2010, announced his resignation from the position on Tuesday. Pitts’ Feb. 14 letter to Alex Lopez, deputy director of the Economic Development Department, comes after he was put on paid administrative leave in mid-January for an undisclosed staff disciplinary matter.

A report from the Office of the City Auditor detailing the nature of the investigation is expected to be made public soon.

In his resignation letter, Pitts stated his private-sector background as an entertainment relations executive with Gibson Guitars likely made him an imperfect fit for the deliberate and slow movement of city bureaucracy. He also said that an emphasis on sound-complaint issues shortly after his office’s formation took time and resources away from his intended goal of growing the city’s music industry.

A realignment that began shortly after Mayor Steve Adler took office showed early promise, and the hiring of additional staff and more than a year of work that resulted in the Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus suggested Pitts and his staff were finally about to take on the economic and creative development work they’d intended to focus on in the first place.

Pitts told the Austin Monitor that he’ll return to the private sector soon and plans to stay heavily involved in his goal of adding economic diversity to an Austin music industry that has long been based almost entirely of live music spending.

“I’m an operational guy at heart, and I like to get my hands dirty. I don’t think I’m an admin guy,” he said. “Gibson was a manufacturer whose main clientele was the music industry. That meant things moved fast, and all communication and correspondence were done with the expectation of ‘Get this done fast.’ I took that mentality to my work at the city, and I think a tendency for immediate action and activity wasn’t a good fit.”

Pitts said his response to the auditor’s report will lay out his full side of the snafu that led to his disciplinary action. He confirmed a report that said the matter had to do with a 2014 incident involving a staff member.

“I didn’t follow city protocol, but I handled the situation,” he said. “I didn’t follow city protocol. I fixed what I thought was a mistake and a matter of insubordination, but I didn’t report it correctly.”

Pitts’ departure leaves the music office without a top executive with South by Southwest less than a month away and a host of policy measures related to the omnibus starting to take shape. Included in those is a pilot program for later weekend sound curfews for outdoor clubs on Red River Street, which was altered by City Council to shorten it to a six-month trial – half its originally intended length – and a cutoff of 1 a.m. instead of 1:30 a.m. as it was originally drafted.

The 2015 music industry census that Pitts spearheaded found the Austin music industry buckling under the growth pressure taking hold as the city continues to boom. Music is still a billion-dollar-plus industry, but the report found that the music economy had lost more than 1,200 jobs in the years just prior to the research and that many working Austin musicians make less than $15,000 per year.

City staff didn’t respond to the Monitor‘s inquiry into who will lead the music office in the short term or how Pitts’ replacement would be found, and Adler declined to comment on Pitts’ resignation.

Pitts said his successor will almost certainly need to be someone familiar with many people and subsets of the Austin music community and also aware of the changing music economy locally and across the globe.

“I always saw live music venues as different from other nightlife establishments and bars,” he said. “There’s a different business model, and I hope the next person sees that everything is not just a bar. Introducing musicians to new revenue streams is crucial, and music businesses getting resources to get their products and artists finding success beyond Austin is also important.

“The job takes someone with lots of patience,” he continued. “And an understanding of how the industry works and where it’s going is vital. It’s no secret the music industry is changing globally, and having an understanding of that and guessing where it’s going in the next two to three years will be important. Also, our city is changing, and the challenge with music community is (that) musicians, venues and music businesses have many subsectors and different needs.”

Pitts’ knowledge and easygoing nature made him a well-known and appreciated face at events and shows in the music community. Word of his administrative leave had sparked concern over the fate of long-brewing efforts to improve nightlife, help musicians realize more income from their art and help music venues around the city operate more harmoniously with their neighbors.

“It’s a tremendous loss for the city to lose someone with the vision, passion and relationships that Don had,” said Brad Spies, head of brand development for SXSW and longtime chair of the Austin Music Commission. “And it’s sad for the clubs and musicians he’s helped so much over the last seven years.”

Other supporters said Pitts’ frustration with the workings in City Hall point to a larger problem with how local government works with all small businesses, especially those focused in the creative sector.

“The timing for this could not be worse,” said Jennifer Houlihan, until recently the executive director of the local lobbying group Austin Music People. “If you look at the last seven years with Don and five years with AMP and the previous music commission, they were all saying the same thing, which is that the city’s regulatory environment, especially as it relates to music, is broken. We’ve got a broken system, and this is the latest casualty of a bureaucracy that is not helpful to Austin’s small businesses and is not focused on growing Austin’s creative sector.”

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