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Emergency funding for musicians, creatives waiting on Council, staff action

Thursday, June 10, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City staffers expect to have initial guidelines next month for how to spend money in the city’s Live Music Fund, part of a series of spending programs to aid local creatives in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This week the Music Commission received an update from Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, deputy director of the Economic Development Department, about the variety of initiatives and timelines in play to use money from the American Rescue Plan, the Hotel Occupancy Tax and other funds up for consideration during City Council’s annual budget process. The ARP money is likely to be available first, with much of it expected to pay for the allocations Council approved last month to help musicians and creatives with emergencies related to the pandemic.

Item 60 directs the city manager to plan for up to $15 million spread over two years for grants to artists, creative groups and related nonprofits, with another $10 million over two years specifically set aside for music-related grants. The resolution also directs staffers to plan for how to cover the deficits in hotel tax funds that are expected to persist for several years, creating a drag on funding for arts and other tourism-related expenses.

Holt-Rabb said the guidelines will be informed in large part by past direction from the Music Commission, state laws covering the use of the hotel tax money, and well as a recent report from consultant MJR Partners that looks at how to best spend city dollars on cultural programs. That report was created with a specific emphasis on addressing historic inequities around race, gender and other underserved groups.

Holt-Rabb said the Live Music Fund, which will most likely be administered by a third-party entity, could start to be distributed by this fall and ARP money specifically designated for emergencies will have more latitude in how it can be spent. The Live Music Fund, however, will be more restricted because of the state laws tied to the hotel tax.

Chair Chaka Mahone said community members should keep in mind that the Live Music Fund’s purpose is to build long-lasting infrastructure to support the music economy and shouldn’t be seen as a short-term solution for cash-strapped musicians.

“We have to think long-term and short-term about the ARP funding being specifically for that (emergency) use, and the Live Music Fund being about looking towards the future,” he said. “I hear the argument that people need money now and I agree with that, but we should think in terms of innovation and the future as much as possible.”

Commissioner Graham Reynolds asked Holt-Rabb to consult with the city’s legal department about possible allowances to broaden the allowable use of hotel tax dollars, which by state law must be used to support the tourism industry.

“I’m just wondering if there is not a pretty clear legal argument that supporting musicians with emergency funding and helping with things like rent is a support for tourism, knowing that the brand for Austin tourism rests heavily on music,” he said.

At last month’s Council meeting, Council Member Alison Alter pushed to make the resolution on using ARP money for creatives as clear as possible to prevent delays and the prospect of staffers having to return multiple times with recommendations and requests.

“I want to make sure that we are providing as much clarity as possible for our staff so that we get solutions and get money out the door at the pace our creative sector deserves, because we’ve had a lot of fits and starts,” she said. “Last year Council members thought we were doing things quickly for the sector and for a variety of reasons that didn’t happen at the pace we’d laid out.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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