Tuesday, March 19, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

After music think tank, Austin eyeing new music census, programming

A group of leaders from prominent music cities across North America spent two days in Austin last week brainstorming the issues that have become a regular part of the economic dialogue in Austin: affordability, compatibility and sustainability.

The Sound Music Cities Think Tank – an event off the beaten path of official South by Southwest programming that was organized by the consulting firm headed by former Austin music office head Don Pitts – welcomed leaders from Seattle; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Toronto and cities throughout Texas to discuss the challenges major cities face as they grow and become more expensive for creative communities. That dynamic is currently playing out in Austin with the city’s 2015 music census finding a large number of local musicians living under the poverty line and earning less than $15,000 per year.

David Colligan, manager of global business expansion for Austin’s Economic Development Department, said it’s likely time for the city to conduct another census-like study to get a more current picture of the needs of musicians, music venues and other music-related businesses.

That data, he said, would give city staff what it needs to craft more precise economic development programs in coming years, possibly through expanded use of Hotel Occupancy Tax dollars.

“The music division has more programming to bring forward,” Colligan told the Austin Monitor on Monday. “Within this industry sector it’s incredibly fast-paced, and oftentimes the services and support from government aren’t that fast even though we try to move with the speed of business. I’d like to see a stronger connection with the community to try to work on the scope of programming that they’d like to have available over a long-term period of time, so we can show the success of those programs.”

Among the programs that stood out during the two days of discussion were those offered by San Francisco and Washington that provide some economic incentives for music venues that meet a baseline level of employment or economic activity for musicians.

One developing issue for the Austin music economy is possible action by the state Legislature in coming months that could expand allowable uses of hotel tax revenue. Colligan suggested designating some music venues or creative spaces as legacy businesses to provide support and tourism promotion as a possible initiative.

A breakout session on the role of music offices around the country – which tend to be nestled inside of economic development departments – and recent community feedback from the ongoing “agent of change” sound compatibility effort has spurred thinking about how to separate the Austin music office’s dual roles of sound enforcement and industry growth.

“The community feels it’s a little odd to have the music division in the Economic Development Department and focused on permitting and sound ordinances and the ongoing enforcement of the sound ordinance, while also trying to focus on industry development and helping those businesses to generate revenue and be successful in Austin,” he said. “Those two areas clash at times and those distinctions need to be cleaner, so we’ll be looking at that as we look at the results from our consultant for the music venue compatibility exercise soon.”

Like others present, Colligan said there was much to be gained from having professionals with similar goals and challenges in the same room to talk about what’s working and not working in their respective communities.

For Maryann Lombardi, chief creative economy officer for the District of Columbia’s office of cable TV, film, music and entertainment, gathering best practices from around the country gives other cities the opportunity to avoid the trial-and-error approach to economic development for an issue that is still marginal in the minds of some political leaders.

“Governments can be agile and there are moments and places where they can be responsive,” she said. “Any city that wants to recruit and retain businesses in a tech economy needs to care about what’s happening in their culture. It’s all about creating an environment and a place where people want to live, raise families and build businesses, and to do that you need a vibrant community that’s a place that feels like stuff is happening. Most cities get that, but whether they want to invest in it is up to them.”

Photo by Yannik Rohrer [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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