Experience the C.H.A.R.M.?

Marketing the "live music capital of the world"

On the city's letterhead and bumper stickers, Austin is the "Live Music Capital of the World." But what if we were merely charming instead? When word leaked out this past March that city planners were considering changing Austin's official slogan to "Experience the C.H.A.R.M. [Culture, Heritage, Arts, Recreation, and Music] of Austin," local clubowners, musicians, and industry leaders sat up and took notice. After all, city-sponsored propaganda has been boasting the city's thriving music scene since 1991, and even though Austin's official slogan has long been the butt of jokes within the local music community ("Live Music Capital? They won't even let musicians load-in on Sixth Street."), why change it now? Getting paid lip service is better
than not getting paid at all.

As it wound up, the potential slogan switch was only a rumor -- traceable back to the Austin Convention & Visitor's Bureau (ACVB) and their adoption of the C.H.A.R.M. tag for their own operations. Ultimately, the city's slogan supersedes ACVB's, but in the face of losing its title, Austin has apparently begun a dialogue about what it truly means to be living and working in the "Live Music Capital of the World." While the slogan debate itself may be over, the discussion of how to market Austin has apparently only just begun.

Ironically, to hear what the city's "Music Liaison" Bob Meyer has to say about marketing the musical lifestyle in Austin, a trip to Richmond, Virginia might be in order. It seems that Meyer has become somewhat of a commodity on the national music lecture circuit -- advising other city governments on how best to market their music scene -- prompting his role as a featured speaker at the "Route 1" music conference in Richmond last April.

"I told them Austin's a pretty unique environment, but that we've tried to create an embrace between the local music industry, city government, and the business community," says Meyer, who actually works within the ACVB. "The theme of my speech was a united front and that everybody's piece of the pie is going to get bigger if the whole pie is bigger."

Playing the Market While few would argue with the gist of Meyer's Richmond speech, some local music industry leaders began whispering questions about what Meyer could possibly teach other cities when Austin itself seems to lack a solidified marketing campaign of its own. Was Meyer's speech a sign that Austin has a marketing plan outside of Titty Bingo's city-wide bumper sticker campaign? Actually, insiders say it's not that Austin music isn't marketed, rather it's the city's scattershot approach to PR which lacks a unified feel and therefore the all-around "embrace" that Meyer talks about.

Perhaps not coincidentally, then, ACVB and Meyer's office made their own first steps at creating a cohesive music marketing plan for Austin last March as well. At that time, ACVB Executive Director Karen Jordan invited a handful of local music industry leaders to help craft the "first ACVB and City of Austin Music Liaison Office Marketing Plan." In her cover letter, Jordan asked participants to consider a plan that markets Austin music to "conventions and tourists to promote economic development of the music-associated businesses in and to Austin." Additionally, Jordan told the participants that the ACVB wanted to market "Austin as a music industry `Mecca'; a viable home-base for artists and industry alike."

The results, by all accounts, was a freestyle discussion of existing and future strategies. Among the suggestions were plans for improved literature/brochure advertising, more "theme" events, and a marketing survey of Austinites who don't go out. And although the full unedited comments have already been redistributed to the participants of the meeting as a nine-page document, Meyer and Jordan say a streamlined, formal version will be unveiled in October as part of ACVB's general marketing plan.

Yet even with the city's first marketing plan nearing the table -- and the potential end to Austin's semi-successful "Build it and they will come" policy -- Meyer and his critics already agree that putting the plan into action could wind up a slow process tangled with heated debate. Still, both sides agree that any unified plan should be better than the city's "Chocolate Disc" blunder of 1992, when the ACVB proposed spending more money on promotional, edible CDs than what it would have cost to produce real CDs that featured Austin talent.

But how exactly does one sell a scene? According to Dr. Philip Zerrillo, a marketing professor at the University of Texas, the principals must first agree on what's being sold. "Most of marketing's early work, strategies, and literature focus on marketing products -- like a can of soda," says Zerrillo. "But as we move into marketing something less tangible -- services -- we're dealing more with marketplace perceptions and tastes that are much more latent and much harder to change. So it's very important for something like a music community to talk about how they want to portray themselves, what they want to stress, and what part of an overall market they're trying to attract."

Whereas reaching a consensus from Austin's multitude of club owners and musicians about how and what facets of the local scene should be spotlighted in a marketing campaign is about as easy as nailing the Republican Party down on a unified platform, the city at least has an infrastructure to deal with the issue.

At the local level, Music Liaison Meyer has been mandated by the city and the ACVB to "enhance, assist, and promote the music industry in Austin," while also serving as staff support for the eight-member, business-oriented Austin Music Commission, which reports its findings on the local scene to the City Council. Meanwhile, at the state level, Texas Music Office (TMO) Director Casey Monahan is in charge of promoting the development of the state's music industry via an information and resource campaign/database out of the governor's office. Unlike Meyer, however, Monahan is forbidden by law to initiate contact with state legislators, and is also less interested in tourism affairs because the state already maintains the Department of Tourism for in-state tourism and the Department of Commerce for national tourism campaigns.

For the present, then, any marketing of Austin music will likely fall into Meyer's hands -- an idea that has many of the same folks that are critical of the city's seemingly non-existent marketing plan wondering what exactly it is Meyer already does.

The City Beat

"My job is not purely marketing," says Meyer of his Austin Music Liaison title. "Aside from the staffing and operation of the Music Commission, I see it as both an ombudsman role for the local community's dealings with city government, and as a job that monitors the overall health of the music industry -- which in turn impacts its marketability."

Both Meyer and Jordan, who oversees Meyer's efforts at the ACVB, are quick to say that the major obstacle thus far in widening Meyer's music marketing efforts has been the lack of funds put aside for his division. "When you get right down to it, Bob's got about $5,000 a year to work with," says Jordan, "which means you can't go anywhere and can't do much in the way of publications or brochures."

One way of adding to Meyer's coffers may be the ACVB's privatization, which the City Council recently approved, making Meyer the only ACVB employee still on the city's payroll. According to Jordan, privatization not only increases ACVB's ability to raise money and attract larger corporate sponsors, it also frees up Meyer to dip into those new funds for what she calls "music-oriented promotion." And although both Meyer and the ACVB strongly contend that the Music Liaison job itself isn't in question for now, critics of privitization fear it eventually would be because Meyer, will, in effect, have no one at the city and state level to answer to, and by extension no one to back him and his causes.

Nevertheless, Meyer says he's hoping to ride out his department's own internal privatization debate by focusing on the promotion of his office's big two causes: the Music Industry Loan Guarantee Program and the Instrument Loan Program. The former program, detailed in these pages last year ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," Vol XIV, No. 20), helps music-related businesses in Austin with low-interest loans, while the latter provides local school children with musical instruments. According to Meyer, both programs already help Austin market its music scene.

The Instrument Loan Program for example, through the use of television and radio ads that feature Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson and Jimmie Vaughan, promotes the local scene by making people think about music. "Our promotion of events hopefully winds up impacting on different levels," says Meyer. "For instance, with June Is Jazz month we use our funds for brochures and advertising, supporting the Clarksville [Jazz Festival] by buying space in their program, and then in turn using these materials to attract visitors either to the promotion itself while they're in town or to drum up business at the hotels. And because June is a shitty time of the year for Austin hotels, it's also been calculated to impact at that level as well."

Meyer says he's also working on a video presentation the city can use at trade shows to promote Austin music, as well as the publication of several new brochures. "We're almost ready to publish the `101 Musical Things To Do In Austin' brochures," says Jordan. "Not only will it be helpful for encouraging the visitor to check out the Austin clubs, but it should also help break down the perception that Sixth Street is just a place for college kids to drink. So we'll be pushing Austin on the fact that you don't have to be under 25 to enjoy Sixth Street while attracting new visiting clientele as well."

As its moniker suggests, the ACVB is concerned first and foremost with convention and tourist clientele. In 1994, when Jordan came on as the bureau director, she hired KGSR deejay Kevin Connor as the bureau's Austin Music Entertainment Specialist, a job that was intended to complement Meyer's work and one geared mostly towards enticing tourists and conventioneers into the clubs once in Austin.

"When Karen got here, she had the insight to be amazed at the city's slogan and their failure to truly capitalize on it," says Connor, who turned the job over to local music industry veteran Kristen Nagel when he left for a radio gig in California. Although Nagel wound up leaving the job shortly thereafter, the now-defunct position pushed the marketing envelope back to Meyer and left a legacy that the Music Liaison says he now spends a day a week fulfilling with a hotel fax campaign listing shows in local clubs that hotel concierges feel comfortable recommending to their guests.

"It's free for the hotels and costs the office itself nothing, so it's a win-win," says Meyer, who claims the older demographic base at the hotels prohibits him from recommending anything more adventurous than, say, Kris McKay at the Hole in the Wall. "We get to put the focus on the clubs, and have the hotels and meeting planners get great feedback from their guests in the process."

Additionally, the ACVB hopes that Austin's marketing campaign will eventually leave the city on the backs of those it's trying to promote -- literally, via a T-shirt campaign for touring musicians. This idea appears in the aforementioned unedited meeting notes of the ACVB's summit with local music industry players, and suggests touring musicians wear "Live Music Capital Of The World" T-shirts while on the road.

"Whether we're talking about recordings or touring, the greatest economic impact on our scene can come from exporting the product," says Meyer, who previously reported to the Economic Development division of the Planning & Development. "When artists make money on the road, that's money that is made somewhere else and spent here in Austin."

But what about when that money is made here and spent here ? Or Meyer's theory that a thriving local scene is the key to marketing Austin's live music? "Long ago it came to our attention that we could market things better on Sixth Street if our musicians weren't being dragged off in handcuffs," says Meyer. "I've been a musician for 40 years, so I know the most important thing we can do is put money in the pockets of musicians. When a musician is afforded the opportunity to make money, everybody makes money because they're at the bottom of the food chain; they're the one paying the sales tax, putting money back into the scene, and creating something tourists want to come and participate in."

Although Meyer and the Music Commission routinely meet with and lobby local police and planning decision-makers, Meyer is also aware that the general perception of local clubowners and musicians is that he has little or no effect on the day-to-day life of the musician. "There's still a lot of people who don't think they're being adequately served, but often these are regulatory problems, not policy problems," says Meyer, who vows the load-out policies and weekend barricading of Sixth Street are the next local issues he'll be concentrating on.

Furthermore, Meyer insists that the proof his efforts can work lies in the newly relaxed relationship between fire officials and clubowners -- factions that in the past were at constant odds over club capacities, but now seem to be collaborating to improve space configurations and thereby legally increase occupancy.

"These kinds of things are about making the political structure aware of how it all works within the music industry so they can be in tune with it," says Meyer. "And so as much as we complain about politicians, or me being part of the machinery, in seven years, the city has become pretty receptive and pretty responsible to the needs of the music community. Oftentimes, the best idea for me is to sit back quietly and educate and listen to both sides -- the music industry and the government."

More involved in local music industry politics is the Music Commission, which oddly seats no musicians, but has been generally credited with being more active in its local scene involvement since National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) local chapter president Carlyne Majer took over the chairperson position last year from embattled promoter French Smith. "It takes a cohesive local industry to attract the attention and respect of council and city officials and they do take the commission seriously," says commission member David Brichler of Lone Wolf Management. "The answers to the problems musicians face may not be answered immediately, but the forum and the ability to be heard certainly exists within the liaison office and the commission."

Meyer himself admits it's hard to gauge the success of his office or the commission, but that looking at local music industry business itself may be the only reliable indicator. "There's action in the clubs, bands working, and entire scenes like the retro-jazz thing surfacing and drawing new people to the clubs," says Meyer. "Then you've got the list of people touring and the growth in the retail businesses like record stores and equipment shops. How much can you attribute that to city interaction? I'm not sure, but we obviously hope our activities enhance it. Either way, we get 12-15 calls a day here from people out of town asking about Austin music and luckily, there's plenty to tell them and recommend."

The State of Affairs

There's a good chance many of Meyer's calls come forwarded by Casey Monahan, Director of the Texas Music Office (TMO) and compiler of a database of over 5,000 music-related businesses in Texas. Opened in 1990, Monahan's office began with a state legislative mandate that he "inform members of the industry and the public about the resources available in the state for music production."

"It works two ways," says Monahan, who represents music interests in all of Texas, but is based in Austin. "I'm here to assist Texas business in finding markets in-state and out-of-state for their product -- or music -- and to assist non-Texas businesses in finding products and services within Texas. But I've taken the widest possible interpretation of what the legislature meant by `music production' in their mandate, because if you assist an indie record store, musician, or equipment dealer, eventually, through their needs, you've assisted everybody else in the business."

The indisputable center of Monahan's campaign is the Texas Music Industry Directory -- often dubbed "The White Pages" of Texas music -- which compiles everything having to do with Texas music, from music programs at local schools and karaoke rentals to local studios, labels, and musicians. "What the book does is put a face on the industry every year, making everybody available to each other because they deal in the same product," says Monahan. "Like it or not, Antone's Records and Muzak are in the same business and employ, cater to, and serve people in the music industry."

Although the book also features a definitive calendar of annual Texas music events, Monahan's office is more interested in creating business opportunities than stimulating tourism. Taken as a whole, however, the Texas Music Industry Directory, along with Monahan's day-to-day activities -- guiding fans, journalists, and professionals to sections of the directory that will help them find the Texas business that best meets their needs -- is pure marketing. TMO spreads the word about Texas music via telephone, modem, mail, fax, and photocopy at a cost far below the advertising components of similar campaigns.

"Because no other government entity anywhere is trying to do what we're doing with music," explains Monahan, "I spend a good deal of time researching the marketing efforts of professional trade associations and the directories they publish. The trick was determining what was needed and what services people expected from their industry, which made looking at the National Association of Music Teachers book as important as ASCAP's."

Along with collecting information on young artists and new businesses, the TMO also concentrates on an active file of over 450 international contacts that have expressed interest in Texas music -- many of whom Monahan has met personally in France at the MIDEM convention and exposition.

"My biggest days of the year are at MIDEM," says Monahan. "MIDEM is the world's largest music industry convention and therefore the premiere marketing event of the year for Texas music. In 1986, Texas attendees banded together to form a presence and inform the other attendees about Texas labels, publishers, producers, musicians, and attorneys, with a stand on the trade show floor. It's [the TMO's] job to reserve the space and administer the stand fairly between the companies that help pay for it. But it's also become the best way for Texans to beef up their Rolodexes, and we provide marketing info in advance to our foreign contacts about the companies attending -- whether they're booth registrants or not."

Unfortunately, the MIDEM booth may be a prime example of marketing's expenses outweighing what the city or state is willing to offer. In a best-case scenario, say some insiders, Monahan wouldn't have to sell booth space and any Texas music industry representative willing to fly to France and register could use the Texas booth as their homebase for promotion, marketing, and meetings.

"I'd like to see the MIDEM booth become more available to the smaller labels or independent businessman," says former SXSW Director Louis Meyers, who cites the efforts of Texas delegates manning a New Music Seminar trade show booth in the mid-Eighties with creating the promotional push behind SXSW's launch.

"Casey has to sell off these spaces to out-of-state labels like Pravda and HighTone because the booth's considered too expensive for the state to pay for and the slots Casey's offering are too expensive for the average Texas business. And yet, for what could be the single best promotional effort by the state to market Austin, there's never been an effort to raise the money here to buy the booth and open it up to a better cross-section of the state's businesses."

Testing the Market Place

What can be learned from Texas' early marketing efforts? Bernard Cyruss of the Louisiana Music Commission -- perhaps the only real equivalent to Monahan and Meyer's offices in another state -- says the efficiency debate over how Texas' booth at MIDEM is used and what Meyer is doing to settle police/clubowner friction are tools he can use in his own state's marketing strategies.

"We've found marketing to be an uphill battle, especially because the tendency is to under-fund local efforts and concentrate on tourism instead," says Cyruss, who is also a working Louisiana musician. "If you put `tourism' in the plan they cut the check. But if you don't nourish the local industry there is no tourism. What we've got to constantly stress as a commission is that it's more than the guy with the fiddle they flash on in a Louisiana TV campaign; it's also the guy making the fiddle, running the sound, and selling the product."

But while Meyer and the Music Commission are perhaps more artist-oriented than the city's own tourism campaigns, some local clubowners and musicians say they fear the trickle-down effects of tourism-based marketing may never reach all the way down to the musicians if clubowners frustrated with city policies and dwindling crowds take their business out of the city altogether. In fact, Backyard and Austin Music Hall owner Tim O'Connor told a June gathering of the city's Street Closure Task Force that one of the reasons he opted to open the Backyard in Bee Caves rather than Austin was to avoid the city's music-related red tape.

"The powers that be in Austin say one thing nationally with their marketing campaigns and do things different locally," says O'Connor, who wound up placing the Austin Music Hall in its namesake town and reports no recurring, major city roadblocks. "And with decibel debates, Auditorium Shores' sound problems, and street closure issues, it's become increasingly difficult for commercial promoters to feel comfortable working within the city limits. If promoters feel Sixth Street or Auditorium Shores isn't viable anymore, they might just take their business somewhere more hospitable 30 miles to the south."

Meyer contends that through his contacts with the police and planning departments and the Music Commission's recommendations to the city council, fewer clubs or promoters should be considering leaving town. Yet even with the Backyard in Bee Caves, a well-marketed Austin music scene can still profit from businesses outside the city limits. "We've still got people staying in the hotels, eating in town, and walking down to Sixth Street afterwards," says Meyer.

Which brings up another question: What's being done to market Austin music to the people that actually live on Austin's outskirts or just out of town but rarely travel in for live entertainment?

"One of the goals of ACVB has got to be to bring the people outside of [Highway] 183 in town more often," says Kevin Connor. "It's the same 5,000 people in the clubs every couple of nights. And as for tourism, without turning into Branson, Missouri [whose city slogan also boasts "The Live Music Capital of the World"], everybody could make a better living if the music industry better understood the tourism industry. The question is how to let people in town for a convention know that for a $3 cab ride they can see 81/2 Souvenirs or Toni Price at the Continental's happy hour. This way, the tourist buys the product and eventually tells their friends they'd come away having a generally great time."

But even with happy tourists, and the Music Commission's plans to get to the tourists earlier by providing actual live music and events calendars at the new airport, there's a faction of local industry leaders that says too much of the City's marketing efforts are lost in a gray area between selling Austin in general for tourism purposes and selling the live music scene specifically.

Gordon Caldwell of the Tennessee Film, Music, and Entertainment Commission says that his group has finally found that the only real way to market his state's interests are to consciously combine and complement both campaigns. "I thinks Austin's probably dealing with the same gray area we are" says Caldwell. "While it's easy to get your plan lost when the elements come together so naturally, it's also easy to make a wider impact. Beale Street is not only a tourist attraction, it's also home to blues clubs, blues labels, and blues artists like B.B. King, who's a regular performer, studio customer, and venue owner.

"When German TV comes and we give them B.B. King, not only do we thrive locally from the attention, but we've passed work onto the local film community who supports the shoot. By watching our local strengths, building them up, and marketing them outwards, the gray area begins to work for everybody."

ACVB insiders say just how a new marketing plan will ultimately handle this gray area is still a gray area itself, given the bureau's own ongoing privatization debate and Meyer's current funding problems. And although there's been no guarantee that any of the findings from a series of invitation-only marketing meetings currently underway will see the light of day in the new plan, UT's marketing expert Zerrillo says that because Meyer, Monahan, and the Music Commission are already established, Austin's live music scene may have already cleared one of marketing's biggest hurdles: legitimization.

"Not only do you have to be creative and better understand your market to sell a scene," says Zerrillo, "but you often need the legitimization that a relationship with the city planners can offer. This way, tourists have a place to go for information, those offices are in place for facilitating the resulting business, and the reputations of those offices can carry the weight necessary to be taken more seriously than a call from "XYZ Company" about spending money on Austin music."

In fact, Meyer's pitch to Richmond may have already sold Austin based on the legitimization factor alone. "His speech truly galvanized our scene," says Richmond Studio owner Terry Straud, who will visit Austin later this year with a group of Richmond music industry leaders on a marketing fact-finding mission. "His speech really got our attention and has convinced many of us to pool our resources and really try to market our scene and talent."

And what did Meyer tell them that's perhaps indicative of how Austin's own first full-fledged marketing campaign may shape up? "I told them that if the local community understands the importance of music's economic impact and that dollars and creativity go hand in hand, a marketing program with reasonable and specific goals can work for a city and its scene. It's simply putting your best foot forward. That's what salesmanship is all about." n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Andy Langer
Margaret Moser Tribute: Chris Layton
Chris Layton
Antone’s, 1979: Hurricane Margaret blows in

June 30, 2017

Margaret Moser Tribute: Jimmie Vaughan
Jimmie Vaughan
“Everything back then felt like us versus them – and she was one of us”

June 30, 2017

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle