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City taking steps toward $1,000 grants for musicians impacted by Covid-19

Thursday, May 7, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city is preparing to give grants of up to $1,000 to musicians who have lost income and are facing severe economic hardships due to the shutdown of music-related businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Music Commission staff, community members and commissioners discussed the best way to handle the application process and evaluate potential recipients of the recently created Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund. Council recently allocated $1.5 million to the fund and directed staff to deploy the money by this summer in an attempt to help lessen the impact on musicians who lost performance opportunities beginning with the cancellation of South by Southwest in March.

It is expected that the funds will be administered by a nonprofit, with Austin Community Foundation and the MusiCares charity that is part of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences the two most likely groups to be selected. A handful of local music-focused nonprofits will also be enlisted to help inform musicians about the application process, which commissioners said needs to address underserved and vulnerable populations first.

Commissioner Patrice Pike said factors such as loss of total employment, food insecurity and risk of eviction should be considered when selecting applicants, who will also be asked to prove they have been working musicians in recent years via album credits, proof of live performances and other forms of income. Pike also said the application process needs to remain open long enough to accommodate a large pool of applicants to prevent the funds from being disproportionately awarded to musicians who are well-connected and likely to have more experience with grant programs or complex financial matters.

The commissioners opted not to pass a resolution establishing guidelines or identifying a preferred nonprofit to administer the funds, in part because some said they need to research MusiCares’ track record on equity and other factors before voting in support.

Another concern was that the need to prove loss of income via canceled live performances and recording sessions could be difficult for some applicants.

“Some acts might have advertisements and whatnot they can use for verification. I’m wondering about the musicians who wouldn’t be able to do that and not every band will be able to call up the venue and get confirmation that they had something booked,” Commissioner Stuart Sullivan said. “It’s got to happen somehow and it’s probably not going to be very clean, so I’m a little confused about how that’s going to show in real life. It’s going to be difficult from applicant to applicant.”

Commissioner Oren Rosenthal said because of the severity of financial losses suffered by many musicians, the city should prioritize access to funds and an easy application process, instead of rigid income verification.

“We’ve got to weigh the risk of fraud against too much red tape which means the money doesn’t get given away at all,” he said. “And given how widespread this disaster is, I think amongst us we probably agree that the risk of fraud is a lot less than the risk of red tape.”

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