Austin’s music community is thriving, and not just because the iconic conference and festival SXSW sets up camp here for over a week each year.
The Texan city’s music scene is marketed as America’s live music capital, bringing in US$1.8 billion a year (2016, Austin Music People). It’s 2 million residents make it the 11th largest city in the US and one of the fastest-growing.
But while music tourism is booming due to events like SXSW and Austin City Limits, jobs brought in by the local music industry are actually declining.
What’s more, none of the live venues own their property (sans one popular venue, Stubbs), landlords charge venue operators twice as much for rent during SXSW forcing some out of the city entirely, and musician pay is stagnant; in fact, most musicians make less than US$18,000 a year.
So why are other cities looking to Austin to develop their own strategies? TIO sat in on the ‘Austin, Y’all! Sustaining a Thriving Music City’ panel at SXSW to find out.
Non-profits are sustaining the Austin music industry
There are over 10,000 music industry professionals in Austin and many of them work at the 142 music related non-profit organisations which support the community.
Lisa Hickey, co-founder rental furniture & decor company The Panacea Collection (formerly C3 Presents Director of Marketing) serves on the board of non-profit Austin Musicians, which helps artists find access to much-needed funds and health care.
“I’ve served on that board for almost 10 years and that’s a cause that I’m passionate about […] We also have the Austin Music Foundation which focuses on mentorship and education for musicians and music businesses,” she said. “(Economic development accelerator) ATX has just launched a music leadership program bringing together music leaders from the industry in Austin to learn more about what each other does. We’re excited about that program.”
Brendon Anthony, head of the Texas Music Office, said Austin’s number of music non-profits is unprecedented.
“Taken as a whole I think the non-profit environment here is unparalleled,” he said. “We’ve had a conversation with other cities when they come to us and say ‘we’re very excited about this music programme’. […] People have contributed to it. It takes real talent to help get it off the ground, private partnership and folks who understand all those systems that are in place, people who are serious about getting it off the ground.”
City systems keep the community heard
Brendon Anthony’s role is of course Texas-wide, and when asked how he gets other cities and the State government to look to Austin to invest, he noted the music community’s systems.
“Austin is experiencing a period of difficulty right now, and growth […] but where would this city be if we didn’t have systems in place that folks have worked so hard to build. Austin is blessed with a vibrant music scene yes, but there’s a safety net in place for those people here,” he said. “[Aside from the many non-profits], there are private citizens willing to engage on a very high level and there are city systems build to actually hear the needs of the community and translate those to city leadership.
“[…] If there is an outcry in the community, there is data that says the community needs help, but what’s great is the data, and there are people who can interpret it to leadership so that they can get on the ball,”Anthony added.
Cody Cowan is the owner of Austin venue The Mohawk; he also worked at famed spot Emo’s in late ‘90s when Austin was mostly dilapidated venues and had no music scene. Cowan said communicating data with policy makers and government is one major player that has helped the venue sector thrive in Austin.
“It wasn’t until we started bring math rather than emotion that into the conversation that people started to take us seriously,’ he said. “When you’re trying to convince people how cool it is, how vital it is, or the history of the city, of the people… if you bring your passion into it, it’s just going to fall on deaf ears.
“You really need to have a data-driven conversation […] Bring the business of rock ‘n’ roll to the table and leave rock ‘n’ roll for the artists.”
They utilise state resources
Lisa Hickey said that while there are tens of thousands of dollars waiting for the music industry in the form of government grants, State initiatives and start-up funding, data is needed to plead your case. And there’s a free solution for getting that data:
“You can go to a local university, maybe they have a department that does this sort of thing,” she said. “we did that in Chicago when we were trying to measure the economic impact of Lollapalooza. You can also got to the tourism bureaus or the Chamber.”
Brendon Anthony added: “We had St Edward’s (University) here in town commit a study of analysis on social media […] there are solutions out there, certainly.”
Start at the bottom before you enter the political sphere
Venue owner Cody Cowan said: “Finding folks on the city level or the state level who can also be advocates for you is vital. All of the gains that I’ve seen made in the past five years, including the adoption of the Red River Cultural District in 2013 […] would not have happened if I did not have friends at the State or friends in he Music Office or in economic development in the city who are willing to help me navigate the process of the chain of command.”
Invest in workforce development and support your workers
As bigger entities increasingly buy up the music industry, how does the workforce prepare for jobs to be taken and revenue to be funnelled into the big corporate machine?
Brendon Anthony of Texas Music Office said innovative programs and partnerships are key.
“If we’re not investing in (workforce development) we’re not investing in the future. We’ve got all these numbers from our economic impact study and if we want to see those continue to trend upwards, we’re going to have to keep training the workforce.”
Lisa Hickey added: “You don’t learn the music business through taking classes, you learn it through experience and it takes a certain type of personality […] We do have a lot of small music businesses in Austin, five people or less.
“There’s some conversation going on about an accelerator or even a VC fund that can help music businesses get started and get kicked off the ground. It’s another critical step for our music community.”