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Musicians’ wage debate eyes benefits, cost of increased activism

Friday, February 23, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A new movement seeking to put more money in the pockets of Austin musicians is looking at the pros and cons of increasing political activism by artists – among other tactics – as a way to give them more influence and control over their careers.

Wednesday marked the first large event for Musicians’ Living Wage, a discussion and education effort that organizers don’t plan to turn into a nonprofit or advocacy organization, with nine musicians, industry professionals and advocates holding forth on a two-hour panel.

Topics in the sprawling discussion included why Austin audiences are reluctant to pay higher door covers, how musicians can make money through other means besides live performance, and why it has been historically difficult to get musicians involved in civic debate on issues that impact them.

“If we all showed up at City Council we’d get some (stuff) done. … 30 people at City Council looks really big, but it’s hard to get (musicians) to accept ‘Oh this is something that might work, and I want to be a part of that,’” said Nakia Reynoso, a local musician and former member of the Austin Music Commission.

Wednesday’s event came during something of a pause in civic action on the local music economy, with Mayor Steve Adler’s “downtown puzzle” and its partial focus on creative communities having been put on pause for a University of Texas study, and music stakeholders waiting for the results of a slate of programs intended as a follow-up to the Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus. Adler and other members of City Council have expressed a willingness to work for the betterment of the local music community, especially after the city’s 2015 music census found an alarming percentage of local musicians earn less than $10,000 per year from their art.

Debbie Stanley, a co-founder of Musicians’ Living Wage, said an organized political advocacy movement might eventually arise from the effort, but the group’s focus right now is finding the themes and topics that are the most pressing for the music community.

“To start with, musicians should be advocates for themselves, and we’re not to a point right now where we’d have a position statement of what we most need if we went as a group to ask (City Council) for something,” she said. “We don’t see any demons or anyone to blame for being wholly responsible for what musicians are going through, but we do feel the option is there that if there’s something to ask the city to do we’ll have a pathway because the mayor has been demonstrably positive about keeping musicians in Austin.”

Talk at Wednesday’s event occasionally turned to a research project commissioned by the city’s former Music and Entertainment Division Manager Don Pitts, who asked longtime Austin music business professional Peter Schwarz to study the local music economy and suggest possible public/private remedies to get more money flowing to musicians. That study was completed and delivered to the Economic Development Department after Pitts resigned from his job, and city administrators have shown no interest in releasing it or using it in crafting city policy around music.

Schwarz, who was a member of the panel Wednesday, said that because Austin’s music economy is made up largely of solo entrepreneurs or businesses with less than five employees, it is difficult to prescribe far-reaching solutions from the governmental side of things. But that “atomization” makes it so that government-led efforts become the only reliable method to gather any sort of a consensus on an issue, with the end result making it hard for private companies to stay involved and act nimbly.

“Music in Austin has more issues debated in the public space than any other industry because historically we haven’t been able to package our issues up together and work on them through any other means,” Schwarz said.

“No one wants a third party to be the one making decisions on what’s best for the other parties, but because public processes have to be so inclusive it creates kind of a terrible model for private industry. For private capital to get involved in an issue where a city council or other entity has significant involvement, that’s a disincentive for investment.”

Photo by Nikki Kilgore made available through a Creative Commons license.

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