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What is a live music venue? City Council looks to make it official

Thursday, July 28, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Nearly 32 years after declaring itself the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin is finally getting around to defining what, exactly, a live music venue is.

A resolution on the agenda for today’s City Council meeting seeks to amend city code and a portion of the Land Development Code to include the specific parameters separating a live music venue – where music is a substantial portion of the business’ programming and revenue – from a bar, cocktail lounge or nightclub, which are already clearly defined in city code.

The amendment has been a goal of live music stakeholders for at least five years and was one of many issues included in debate over the CodeNEXT reform that was abandoned in 2018.

Adding the guidelines to city code would allow the city to specify music venues as a desired use or possible community benefit similar to affordable housing, with incentives possible for developers who incorporate those uses into new projects throughout the city. Those incentives are seen as one of the best possible tactics to prevent music venues from being displaced as property values and redevelopment pressures increase in response to the ongoing influx of new residents and business in the area.

The resolution outlines criteria that could be in place for a business to be defined as a music venue: charging a fee or admission price for spectators, with a defined payment structure for performers; having a defined performance and audience space; having permanent equipment for music performance including a sound board, audio system and stage lighting; designated hours of operation that coincide with performance times; live music programmed at least five nights a week; meeting the descriptions for outdoor amplified sound performance as defined in portions of city code related to noise and amplified sound regulations, while maintaining a valid outdoor music venue permit.

During the CodeNEXT discussions, live music advocates created seven criteria for a live music venue, some of which differ from the language in the resolution. Those are: The business must have backline equipment; must employ at least two staff members dedicated to duties such as sound engineering, booking, promoting, stage management and security; and must market its music programming through print or digital publications.

City staff will also be directed to research possible regulatory incentives for new and existing music venues. Those could include fee waivers, modified parking requirements, expanded facilitation of affordable commercial space restrictive covenants in new construction, and prioritizing music venues or creative spaces as a community benefit for density bonuses or other overlays.

The city manager is directed to bring an ordinance forward for Council consideration even if the incentives are still in development.

Mayor Steve Adler said music advocates have long seen the need to make it more attractive to open music venues, while also attempting to separate those businesses from bars and nightclubs that can draw opposition from neighborhood and community groups during the planning process.

“The city wants to preserve and protect and make sure we still have those places in our city as the Live Music Capital of the World, and that is getting harder and harder to do,” he said. “There are suggestions on how we might incentivize those uses the same way we incentivize affordable housing and other things that are desired in the city.”

The resolution comes as the city has given early approval to raise building heights on a portion of the Sixth Street entertainment district, with developer Stream Realty Partners frequently saying music venues are expected to occupy some of the 30-plus spaces the company has acquired in recent years.

Council Member Ann Kitchen asked to amend the resolution to include definitions for creative spaces such as theaters, galleries and studios, but Adler said that language will take time to be developed. The two agreed to revisit the issue with a separate but similar resolution in the future.

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