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Amid criticism, Music Commission looks to revise eligibility for $1.5M grant program

Thursday, June 4, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of the Music Commission will begin pushing for the city to relax the application process for those applying for a $1.5 million grant program created to assist musicians facing hardships due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday the commission heard complaints about the eligibility requirements for the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, which was created last month as a way to give $1,000 grants to local musicians who have lost income due to the closure of the city’s music venues since mid-March.

Among the criticisms are that the program, which was rolled out last week, requires applicants to submit bank statements showing the amount of savings they have available. Another criticism is the decision to make anyone who has recently received aid from the MusicCares nonprofit ineligible for city assistance.

The aid program is part of a $2.5 million package intended to help local creatives in the wake of the pandemic, with venues and creative spaces eligible for a separate $1 million program. City Council is also considering including $5 million for local artists as part of the spending of federal Covid-19 relief, though that pool of money could be reduced or opened up to all workers.

Nakia Reynoso, one of the founders of the Austin Texas Musicians advocacy group, said the grant program may wind up excluding the people who need it the most.

“The overwhelming response is that, in an attempt to be ultra-inclusive, many musicians are actually being excluded,” he said after describing the assortment of complaints his group has heard since last week.

“Many times people who are in a very vulnerable space, when they see these types of hoops they have to jump through in order to qualify, not only do they not bother to apply but they also feel defeated and aren’t going to take the time to do the work to send somebody some kind of feedback on it because they feel left out and marginalized in the process.”

Reynoso said he wants to know which city staff members were involved in designing the requirements, whether anyone from the Music Commission was involved in their creation or had an early review, and why there wasn’t a community feedback process to determine the best way to deploy the money.

Commission Chair Rick Carney told the Austin Monitor he will meet with city staff today to discuss whether the requirements can be amended before the application period closes. During the meeting he said the Music Commission was not involved in drawing up the requirements.

At several points on Wednesday, discussion involved the possibility of pushing Council to approve a second round of funding to provide more aid and target more segments of the local music economy.

“Staff has worked very hard to be able to get this money out there quickly, and because of that the process went very fast,” Carney said. “We know right off the bat that a million-and-a-half dollars is not enough money to address the needs of Austin musicians alone, and that if we open it up to other music professionals that fewer musicians would receive aid. I realize the process is not perfect, but I do think there was good work done in putting this together and the question I would have is whether it is too late to amend any of these requirements.”

Commissioner Graham Reynolds said the changes to the requirements could help to create a better process for the next funding package, which will be among the agenda items for the next Music Commission meeting.

“I’ve never seen a city thing come around so quickly. The important question is not who authored them, and we know why it was done quickly. The question is, can we make it easier, not just for the next round but for this round,” he said. “I don’t know any reason why we couldn’t, and there’s not any law that these are written into since they were created by staff, and I would specifically get rid of the MusicCares eligibility requirement … and then just simplify it in any way possible.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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