Commission Debates Guidelines for Opening the Live Music Fund to Venues

Stressing preference that aid goes primarily to musicians

The Tiarras at a DAWA unity concert in 2023 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Austin Music Commission picked up discussions on how to open the Live Music Fund to music venues at its February meeting Monday night. After commissioners voiced concerns with the Economic Development Department’s proposal, the group planned a working group to revise funding plans, potentially with a more musician-centric approach.

Music & Entertainment Division Manager Erica Shamaly revealed a handful of substantial suggested changes to the grant program – now renamed to the Austin Live Music Fund for marketing purposes – including significantly higher award amounts. In 2023, independent promoters and musicians received grants of either $5,000 or $10,000. This year, she suggested the awards increase to $15,000 or $30,000. Venues, should they officially be brought into the program, would receive even more: clubs with operating budgets below $100,000 would receive $30,000 grants, while those with budgets over $100,000 would receive $60,000.

Another tweak applies to application scoring. Last year, applicants were reviewed based on how their projects preserved cultural heritage, showcased innovation, and elevated the artistic community through collaboration – a set of core equity principles dubbed P.I.E. This year, while Shamaly stressed similar values, she said the program would specifically look for applicants with limited access to services like healthcare and loans, as well as those who impact the economy by hiring local musicians or businesses for creative production.

To help cement the change, applicants would not have to present a specific project they intend to use the funds for. “You can use the funds for any eligible expenses for the whole entire year, as long as you're promoting everything you do to potential visitors and to commission delegates and, of course, to local audiences,” Shamaly said.

Stressing her desire to be as clear as possible in defining grant eligibility, Shamaly provided a list of all the expenses independent musicians, promoters, and venues could finance with the Austin Live Music Fund. The list includes:

• Commercial rent for grant-funded activities
• Performance fees/guarantees for musicians, contractors, accounting, events, studios, videos, security, and stage crew
• Promotional tours outside of Austin
• Employee salaries
• Merchandise materials and fees
• General liability insurance
• Marketing, including advertising paid placements, design fees, project merchandise, and posters/banners/signage
• Specified miscellaneous project expenses
• Lodging and travel for artists and promoters
• Stage lighting rental
• Stage rental
• Stage sound rental
• Studio production and rental
• Project supplies
• Telephone and internet
• Video production and rental

Commissioners took concern with the length of the extended eligible expenses list. Commissioner Lauryn Gold questioned how she could trust music venues to pay musicians the fund-required standard rate of pay – $200 per hour per artist or $20 per hour per creative event worker – if they are allowed to put the funds toward their own operations.

“My sense, as we’ve been speaking with venues, is that they are excited to use the funds for artist guarantees,” Shamaly replied. She argued that with increased grants to musicians and promoters, as well as the addition of promotional tours outside Austin to the list of expenses, musicians would still receive adequate funding. She also said that venues should be allowed to use their awards for other operations.

“We’re of course open to suggestions of how you would like to see venues pay musicians, but we have to also balance that with the needs of all community members [and] how these funds can be really impactful, which is truly to lift us all up,” she said.

Commissioner Scott Strickland listed several personal concerns with the proposal. “This screws over musicians. Full stop,” he said, arguing that performing artists should receive a percentage of ticket sales on top of the standard wage outlined by the Austin Live Music Fund. Pointing to the higher award rates, Strickland said, “There’s gonna be too many musicians, there’s gonna be too many independent promoters, there’s gonna be too many smaller venues that are left out of the pot. Period.”

Echoing Gold, he wondered if live music venues would cite the outlined “miscellaneous project expenses” and simply pocket the money to avoid paying artists. And, he raised issues with the inclusion of nonprofit organizations as concert promoters – which Shamaly confirmed during the commission’s January meeting – arguing those groups have an advantage over independent musicians. “Someone that’s getting a $150,000 grant from H-E-B should not be applying for a Live Music Fund on the side of a musician,” Strickland said.

“If we do not invest in our local musicians, then our Austin music scene, as little as it is right now, dies… It’s gonna be Live Nation, it’s gonna be a bunch of people coming through on tour buses… and we are going to lose what’s left of our scene.”

Strickland motioned for a working group to revise plans for the 2024 Austin Live Music Fund. After the motion passed unanimously, commissioners planned to meet this month and present their ideas at the next meeting.

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