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Initial music census findings show changing landscape for Austin creatives

Wednesday, October 5, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Early findings from a recent census of the Austin music community show some improvements in the state of local creatives, though there are still areas of concern for music stakeholders.

At Monday’s meeting of the Music Commission, a presentation from Sound Music Cities founder Don Pitts offered a glimpse of some noteworthy details from the full data set that is expected to be released in early November.

Among the findings from the two-month survey with 85 questions that drew more than 2,200 responses: Only 64 percent of respondents feel sure they will stay in Austin over next three years; only 35 percent of creatives are playing more than three shows per month currently; and 20 percent of venue operators and concert presenters rank property taxes as their biggest business challenge.

Pitts, who consults with cities across the country on music policy and sound issues, was heavily involved in the city’s 2015 music census that was conducted when he was the head of the Music and Entertainment Division. That study was the first comprehensive analysis of the economic and cultural challenges facing musicians as the city’s cost of living has increased.

The full findings of the new census will be presented in late October to community organizations that helped conduct it. A series of infographics are planned for public release in November to help spread the findings more easily via social media.

The commission passed two resolutions related to the census. One asked the city to present the full data gathered from the multiple choice questions via the city’s digital data portals. The other resolution asked staff to also present the thousands of text-based answers electronically to the public after Pitts and his team have scrubbed the responses to protect the anonymity of the respondents.

“I personally think this kind of access to this information will allow us, organizations and other entities to freely use it, and make use of the data to make decisions,” Commissioner Nagavalli Medicharla said.

Commissioner Oren Rosenthal expressed similar sentiments, saying the data and comments could serve as the basis for in-depth analysis and research by colleges and universities or other organizations interested in the state of the city’s creative class. Noting a data point that suggested just under 40 percent of respondents reported struggling to pay their rent or mortgage each month, Rosenthal asked Pitts to do a geographic analysis of respondents in the five-county area to see how many Austin musicians are having cost-of-living issues.

“I would encourage you to take a look at correlating the 38 percent who are struggling to pay their mortgage with those who have already left and those that are unsure they will stay in Austin for the next three years,” he said. “I’m surprised to see it so low and if we want to make a case that musicians need support in housing that low of a number would make it harder, so that’s why I want to dig more into it.”

The census was conducted free of charge by Sound Music Cities with help from local nonprofits and other organizations as well as music business students at Austin Community College.

Pitts and his colleagues are working to create a process that can deliver a worthwhile action plan to cities interested in music economies for less than $10,000 total.

“Our goal is to make this more affordable, so cities can measure these things. The worst things that we see in this work is cities will spend $50,000-$70,000 on a survey, get the results and a 150-page report and that’s it,” he said. “It’s more about having an action plan, and the last three or four years have taught us the world changes quickly for creatives. More frequent measurement every two or three years gives you the ability to focus on the data sets that you want.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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