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Music census leaders try new approach with lessons from other cities

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s second attempt at using a music census to gather data about the state of local musicians and the creative economy is underway. The team conducting the census hopes to use lessons from the 2015 version, as well as results from studies in other cities, to make the data more useful to policymakers and stakeholder groups.

The data-rich end product of the last census process showed the dire economic realities facing local working musicians, nearly a third of whom earned less than $15,000 per year as the city’s cost of living climbed. That and other data were used as part of the reasoning behind the city’s 2016 creative ecosystem omnibus resolution that gathered 25 broad goals and many more subtasks for city staff to pursue, most of which stalled or remain incomplete six years later.

Those in charge of carrying out the 2022 census say the goal is to present findings to the community at large so that City Hall, as well as community groups and nonprofit organizations, can use the data to spark discussions and find objectives that can be addressed outside of government involvement.

Don Pitts, president of Sound Music Cities and the former head of Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division, said he hopes the data gathered from thousands of local musicians and music business professionals in the greater Austin area will spur progress on programming and initiatives taken on after the 2015 report by groups such as Austin Music Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

The census, which was originally scheduled to close Aug. 15, is likely to be extended into September to allow for more input.

Since moving into the private sector, Pitts and his colleagues have worked as music and sound policy consultants for cities such as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Sacramento, and have adjusted their approach to make the process and data gathered more effective.

“It provides a road map for music communities that are inherently siloed and fragmented,” he said, noting that the findings will be presented later this year through infographics and other “bite-sized” formats to allow for easier sharing among interested groups.

“The trend we’ve been seeing is cities like Sacramento want to use it for regulatory reform since they’re over-regulated and that’s keeping a lot of the music stuff from happening.”

Megan Van Voorhis is creative economy manager for Sacramento, which is currently undergoing its own music census. She said Sacramento is looking for more hard data on the local music economy and the realities faced by musicians, promoters and music businesses around issues such as temporary pop-up events and live music licensing.

“It was pretty clear we were lacking good information on the present state of the music community, because that infrastructure didn’t exist here,” she said. “One piece of my job is to look at the regulatory side, and when we were talking with the community here about how they were doing in the pandemic, people wanted to talk about the live music climate from a regulatory perspective.”

Van Voorhis hopes the census, which will begin next month, will help her and other city leaders determine if anecdotal complaints around concerns such as a lack of mid-sized music venues in Sacramento are part of a larger problem that needs policy attention to address zoning, noise or other regulatory problems.

In Huntsville, Alabama, a music audit completed in 2019 by the Sound Diplomacy consulting group is serving as the main playbook that’s helped the city attract a new $50 million amphitheater, and is being used to design policy related to the expansion of entertainment districts throughout the city.

Matt Mandrella, Huntsville’s music officer, said more policy moves spawned from the audit are expected next year, with political and economic leaders using the data to demonstrate the ability of live music and the creative sector to attract highly skilled workers. In fact, Mandrella said the goal is for the region known as Rocket City, where Boeing and other aerospace players dominate the local economy, to join Austin and Nashville as one of the nation’s premier music-friendly metros.

“Where the civic community really came on board was with the economic piece where the data comes through that shows how much music and entertainment can be an economic driver for the city, and also how it can be a quality-of-life initiative,” he said. “Not only does a dynamic live music environment make Huntsville a stronger city for musicians, but it’s also a strength for other industries since we’re a city with more Ph.D.s than any other place in the country.”

Photo by Ron Baker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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