Thursday, January 9, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Music working group seeks cooperation, transparency between artists and venues

Advocates for local musicians are hoping some of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax funds for commercial music will be used to formalize relationships between venues and artists and lead to an agreement on a living wage for performers.

Monday’s meeting of the Music Commission included discussion on minimum payment standards among musicians and members of a working group tasked with deciding how to use the $3.5 million in hotel tax revenue, with a decision expected in late spring that will be forwarded to City Council.

The group was formed late last year and will hold its first bimonthly meeting on Feb. 3.

Among the ideas offered was creating a registry of the city’s working musicians – or possibly using the membership roll of a group such as the Austin Texas Musicians advocacy group – and using hotel tax funds to underwrite the payments made to local musicians playing venues that qualify.

The funds for commercial music came available this fall when Council voted to expand the way hotel tax money for cultural arts can be used, specifically allowing for-profit businesses like music venues and working musicians to be eligible to receive money that previously had been offered only to nonprofit groups.

Musician and working group member Robert Kelley said the main purpose of the funds should be to put more money into the pockets of performers who have seen their compensation remain essentially flat for decades.

“I’ve seen the salaries for musicians go down like crazy,” he said. “I’m fortunate that I do work a lot but I’m making the same money I was making back in the 80s right now. That is totally uncool. Somehow with this money I hope we can make sure the money trickles down to the musicians and not the venues … those cats are already making decent money.”

Rebecca Reynolds, head of the Austin chapter of the Music Venue Alliance and another working group member, said she wants MVA’s definition of a live music venue to shape the standards for what businesses qualify for the hotel tax funds, which state law requires to be used to support tourism. She said the current process could also be used to widen the use of contracts between venues and musicians to increase transparency on how much musicians are paid.

“I hear a lot of concern as to whether venues are going to benefit as opposed to musicians. I hope this money will help us get out of that either/or frame of mind,” she said.

“It’s really important for people to understand that venues are not sitting on a stack of cash and refusing to pay musicians out of choice. If there are any doing that then those particular business managers need to be told on and run out of business. In general that’s just not the case.”

Commissioners listened as half a dozen local musicians shared their experience of their bands being paid $100 total or less for shows recently, with those amounts not including money for transit, parking and other costs.

Commissioner Patrice Pike said the working group will need to work with city staff to navigate state laws over how the hotel tax money can be used, with the first year of funding likely to inform how the growing pool of money is used in subsequent years.

“One of the things about Austin is we’re a very innovative city with things like (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians) and SIMS (Foundation) and we’re known to be an innovative thought leader in the commercial music industry in our country,” she said. “Right now we’re being called to utilize this opportunity with the HOT tax to be innovative.”

The city is currently collecting feedback on priorities for using the hotel tax money. Erica Shamaly, director of the Music and Entertainment Division, said the survey will be used to identify issues that can be addressed with hotel tax funds while needs that fall outside of those parameters will be set aside so other more flexible funding sources can be identified.

“To Patrice’s point of, can the funds be used in that way, that’s irrelevant at this point because we’ll find other funds to help those other things,” she said. “We need to know what all the issues are and then we’ll start bucketing out (what fits and what doesn’t) and then figure out we have to find other resources to help with these particular needs. This puts a highlight on all the other issues.”

Photo by Michael Barera [CC BY-SA-4.0].

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