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Austin’s music preservation efforts draw praise. But is it enough?

Friday, March 16, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The attention placed on Austin’s music community in recent years by local leaders – most especially the affordability issues and stagnant income levels of working musicians – went under the magnifying glass Tuesday at South by Southwest. Attendees of the “Austin Y’all! Sustaining a Thriving Music City” panel got to hear about the steps elected officials, nonprofit organizations and the business community have taken to preserve the local scene, and also where those efforts are falling short.

Brendon Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, said the attention paid to Austin’s growing music crisis points to the importance local leaders place on the creative class. It’s a mindset Anthony said he’s trying to replicate in other communities throughout Texas.

“There’s an outcry here, and data that says the community needs help, and the great thing is, there’s the data and there are people in place to let city leadership know we’ve got to get on the ball,” he said. “Dallas doesn’t have that system. Houston doesn’t have that system. San Antonio doesn’t have that system.”

In recent years, Austin has published a music census that captured the dire condition of working musicians, and separate economic impact studies for events such as SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival provide data on how important music is to the area economy.

Lisa Hickey, a former executive with Austin-based concert promoter C3 Presents, said those numbers are essential to get the attention of elected officials and business leaders who can make policy happen.

“Until you can say, ‘Hey guys, we make $2 billion per year for our city and X amount in tax revenue … we’re important, so listen to what we have to say.’ … That was a big first step for Austin, to be able to put that on paper and say that’s why our industry is important,” she said.

Cody Cowan, general manager of the Mohawk nightclub, said initiatives like the pilot program that gave later noise curfews to clubs in the Red River Cultural District came about because owners and operators there started working together to address common concerns.

“We found the first step was reaching out to friends and neighbors that we have on Red River because we have a good group of people who have run venues for 10 years,” he said.

“We’re all in our bubbles working seven days a week and looking at the person next to us as competition, but we said let’s take care of business, get things done and come together as a collection of people who can give voice to music, and speak as advocates. Instead of being a topic of the conversation, let’s drive the conversation.”

With Austin as one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., Hickey said it’s important for local leaders in all areas to remember that culture and the arts are one of the strongest attractions for newcomer residents and businesses.

“That’s why a lot of people live here, and why companies moved here,” she said. “We have a great talent pool here. Smart, creative people moved to Austin because of live music and to be a part of the music industry.

“That’s recruiting lots of big headquarters to come to Austin, and they’re using that as a carrot to get them to build their headquarters here and build their businesses here. It’s who we are, the culture of our city is music, and if we don’t take care of and protect that, who are we?”

Anthony and other panelists repeatedly praised the work of nonprofits such as Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the Austin Music Foundation for addressing critical needs in the music community, and they said more needs to be done to treat local musicians as a valuable part of the workforce.

“You can go to a Texas university with a performance degree and leave vastly unprepared for a career in the music industry,” he said. “You may be a 1-in-10,000 sax player that no one can touch, but how many of those are going to get the opportunity to make a full-scale living out of that?

“You have to start thinking about preparing a workforce here a little bit more with classes in entrepreneurship or even trades in the music industry. If we’re not focusing on workforce development, then we’re not focusing on the future.”

Cowan said much more work will be needed on all fronts to preserve venues throughout Austin as property values and rents continue to rise. That pressure, he said, makes their business future uncertain.

“Even with the moves we’re making and the forethought we’re putting into this, the economic pressures are going to continue to be a challenge,” he said. “The landscape downtown along Red River is changing so drastically that the largest business alliances are like, ‘We’ll take meetings with y’all, but we don’t see you being there in the next five to 10 years.’”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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