Austin's Mayor Has a Plan To Bring Music Jobs Back To The 'Live Music Capital Of The World'

Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP
The crowd cheers for Schoolboy Q at the SPIN day party during the SXSW Music Festival Friday March 14, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

Just weeks before his town prepares to host tens of thousands of music, film and tech geeks during the nine-day South By Southwest Festival, Austin Mayor Steve Adler is making it clear the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world” is still open for business.

Following a study released last month that found that Austin’s music industry has lost more than 1,200 jobs over the past four years, Adler recently unveiled his bailout plan in the form of the “Austin Music & Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution” report.

“The mayor campaigned on this issue and you’d have to be an idiot not to know that live music and the arts are part of Austin’s soul,” Adler’s communications director, Jason Stanford, tells Billboard. “We have an affordability crisis, and that is hitting the local music industry very hard. We’re a boom town and we need to figure out how do we boom, and not blow up, the local music industry and arts sector?”

The goals of Adler’s ominous-sounding resolution are actually quite sunny: figure out a way to re-energize the local music economy, keep the city’s iconic venues open, provide job training for working musicians and stop the talent bleed of Austin musicians leaving town for greener pastures, or just giving up entirely on their dreams.

The Mayor’s 20-point Omnibus plan features a number of suggestions that have been floated in the past (such as adding a line on bar receipts to tip musicians), as well as newer ones, including building “hubs” where artists can work side-by-side, helping retain talent and spurring innovation in close quarters.

“This town thinks up new ways to do things,” says Stanford, who cited Austin-bred Whole Foods’ genre-busting reinvention of grocery stores as an example of the city’s weird-and-proud persona. “This kind of government-supported effort is how change happens sometimes and it’s what brought the high-tech industry to Austin in the first place.”

"We will not long be the live music capital of the world if we lose musicians -- if we lose music venues," Adler said in a speech from City Hall last Friday. His binding resolution comes at time when Stanford says that Austin is growing faster than any city its size in the country, by 13.2 percent between 2010-2014, with a population that just crossed two million in the five-county area.

Adler’s action comes on the heels of the damning jobs report commissioned by Austin Music People, a collective of local entrepreneurs, professional musicians and artists formed in 2010 over concerns that residential development in the city’s live music corridors was on a collision course with the lifeblood music industry.

The AMP study found that “year-round economic activity by local artists, venues and businesses” had slipped 15 percent over four years, from $856 million in 2010 to $726 million in 2014, the most recent year data was available.

And while the music economy’s total impact grew from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion during those four years, the group said that some of that expansion was due to the robust festival economy fed by the addition of a second weekend for hometown promoter C3 Presents’ Austin City Limits Festival and the 2013 opening of the 14,000-capacity Austin360 Amphitheater, the area’s largest outdoor venue.

The bad news from AMP followed the city-commissioned 233-page Austin Music Census released in June, which surveyed 4,000 of the city’s music professionals. That study found that almost 70 percent of musicians who participated reported income of less than $10,000 a year from music and that finding affordable housing in the city was fast becoming out of reach for the town’s vaunted creative class.

“When you look at the economic impact study, festivals are great and music tourism is doing fine,” says Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of AMP. “But musicians are the ones inspiring people to visit and the question is, ‘how much of the money left behind ends up with those artists?’ We’ve discovered it’s not that much.” Houlihan, who moved to the city a decade ago, says that, in some ways, Austin is a victim of its own success after years of being listed as one of the best places for the creative class to put down roots.

“All that talk attracted people to the city, but the housing and commercial space couldn’t keep up, so creatives are the first ones displaced when the dynamics of gentrification kicked in,” she says. “It pushes them further and further out from the city core and it’s not an unusual phenomenon, but in Austin we have such an affection and loyalty to our creative class and we want to protect them.”

If it works for the music industry, Adler thinks it could foster a critical mass that will not only save crucial music jobs, but also build an ecosystem of vertical industries that will help artists hold on to the creative jobs they love while teaching them other business skills that keep the lights on.

“If there was an affordable co-working space, you could have a licensing experts working next to a booker, a promoter and an album cover designer, which would be great for the industry here,” Houlihan says. “Folks have their heads down doing their work here, and they don’t necessarily realize the infinite number of partners they can work with."

Other proposals range from adding an “Agent of Change” policy to the city code that would shield existing venues from noise complaints from new developments to simplifying the city’s venue permit and licensing code so that there is one fee and one process.

The Mayor’s plan is now in the hands of City Manager Marc Ott, who is tasked with reviewing it and returning to the City Council Economic Opportunity Committee within 90 days with a plan to move forward with the suggestions.

“The City Manager’s office, which includes the Music Office, will take point on this and we will be engaged as a partner to help with outreach with our own town halls, focus groups and research,” Houlihan sys. Her organization will help reach out to the other 135 music-related non-profits in Austin and get them engaged in the conversation.

“How much of it do we think we can do? All of it,” says Stanford, who noted that a price tag isn’t available yet, but that efforts like changing zoning will cost nothing.

“If we decide that a local hole in the wall is a treasured part of the community we can put it in a land trust and have people operate it so it’s privately run but won’t get lost to gentrification,” he said. “This is something that goes to Austin’s soul.”