Playback: CodeNEXT and the Austin Music Scene

How might the update of Austin’s land development code affect the musical landscape?

A new land use code definition would differentiate between "live music venues" and "nightclubs." Clockwise from top left: ACL Live, San Jac Saloon, the Gatsby, and Side Bar. Which is which? (Photos by David Brendan Hall)

You can no longer ignore CodeNEXT. Trust me, I've tried. A constant barrage of news stories, yard signs, and informal public debate have ensured that even the most politically ignorant citizen now understands it's not a new flavor of Mountain Dew.

Following five years of lead-up, the rewrite of Austin's outdated land development code soon heads to City Council. To assess its potential impact on the local music scene, "Playback" downloaded the most recent draft – 1,566 pages. Given such biblical lengths, I searched for references to "music," studied those sections, and talked to parties involved.

Austin Music Is Defined

A "music venue" has never been expressly defined in Austin's land use code, instead getting lumped into "bar/nightclub" designations – much to the chagrin of music advocates.

"Clarifying that is important because we don't need to protect bars and nightclubs," says Rebecca Reynolds of Music Venue Alliance Austin (MVAA). "It's profitable to run a bar; it's not profitable to run a music venue. Both have the same revenue streams, but music venues give up a big chunk of that to pay for talent, lighting, sound, and booking, and they have a different cultural value."

CodeNEXT's third draft attempted to include live music clubs under "performance venue/theater." That category comes with a significant limitation: It excludes any business that derives over 50% of its gross revenue from alcohol. City of Austin Music & Entertainment Division Manager Erica Shamaly notes that would "disqualify any full-time live music venue."

As such, and in accordance with the Music Commission and the city's music office, the MVAA hashed out criteria to designate live music venues.

Most importantly, the business must pay performers. Then it must demonstrate music programming as a primary driver of its business by meeting five of these eight factors: "(1) defined performance and audience space, (2) mixing desk, PA system, and lighting rig, (3) back line, (4) at least two of: sound engineer, booker, promoter, stage manager, security personnel, (5) applies cover charge to some music performance through ticketing or front door entrance fee, (6) marketing of specific acts through gig listings in printed and/or electronic publications, (7) hours of operation coincide with performance times, (8) produces music performances at least five days a week."

Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson confirmed the parameters' adoption into the commission's CodeNEXT recommendations.

"We needed to create a distinction between music businesses and businesses that provide music as atmosphere," adds Reynolds, noting that Kingdom – an EDM club with a concert format – would qualify as a music venue, while Rio – a rooftop pool bar that also includes DJs – would not.

Having a clear definition for music venues in code has major implications in terms of preservation and incentives. For starters, it could help safeguard them from development. The MVAA is working to resurrect Agent of Change legislation that would require new developments to adapt to existing music venues and vice versa. It might help define which businesses can benefit from incentives including hotel tax money, the proposed mini-bond program to buy venue properties, and utility discounts.

Venue Towers

CodeNEXT calls for music venues to be considered one of the "community benefits" that a developer can incorporate into their building in order to exceed base allotments. That means a condo tower would be eligible for extra floors or units if it includes a live music club in its layout.

The code overhaul specifies such a venue must be given a 10-year lease and meet the city's soundproofing standards. Also, in a musician-friendly caveat, that venue can't charge artists an upfront fee to get booked.

"Density bonuses could incentivize developers to encase, rather than replace," says Reynolds. "We're not going to stop development anywhere, but we want to make it an economical quid pro quo for developers to want to keep them."

The concept spurs "Playback" to imagine existing venues plugging into new developments: The Hole in the Wall High Rise? Cedar Street Courtyard by Marriott? The Threadgill's Arms?

Music in More Places

Anderson, whose Planning Commission played an influential role in the land development code rewrite, says CodeNEXT will allow music venues to be permitted in "many more areas" than they already are.

"I'm personally very supportive of being creative with these corridors [defined by the Imagine Austin plan] and transit-oriented developments," he says, referring to potential mixed-use districts near transit stations. "They currently have too many restrictions artificially suppressing what the market's trying to produce. CodeNEXT would promote more art spaces and music venues in these areas."

Shamaly believes it will give people closer-to-home live music options. Asked if the historic grievances of neighborhood groups toward music venues could pose a hurdle for those clubs, she said: "Obviously we want to be sure we're expanding where these venues can go with total respect for the neighbors that are around them, but the Red River Cultural District's pilot program [a recent sound impact study] gave us a framework for dialogue between neighborhood groups and venues that will be beneficial going forward."

Shamaly declined to say whether she thinks CodeNEXT will help solve the affordability crisis that plagues Austin musicians, but she does think zoning that allows music venues in more areas will help artists earn more.

"I'd like for musicians to have opportunities to gig on a regular basis at innovative music venues throughout Austin and not oversaturate their audience," she says. "You run a real risk of overplaying here because of the density of certain areas, so if we can make an environment with new creative districts, musicians can hopefully make more money."

Half Notes

Ticketfly, utilized by ACL Live at the Moody Theater, 3ten ACL Live, Saxon Pub, Antone's, and Come & Take It Live, fell victim to a cyberattack last Thursday. Nonfinancial data relating to 26 million customers – including "Playback" – went live on a public server and interrupted online ticket sales.

"Bill Kirchen, come up here," beckoned Dave Alvin, promising "one of the world's greatest guitar players" for an encore by him and Jimmie Dale Gilmore during the pair's triumphant album release at Antone's last Saturday. To their surprise, the famed Tele trickster had just left. "This is a good plan, but not well executed," Gilmore joked before inviting up another local guitar phenom: "Carolyn Wonderland, where you at?" She had also left pre-encore. When the audience chanted for Guy Forsyth, Alvin was incredulous. "Is Guy actually here?" He was and joined in for the Blasters' "Marie Marie."

Gabriel Guardian, the Austin headbanger with savant-like skills to shred a guitar and keyboard simultaneously, spent last weekend entertaining stoners at High Times' Cannabis Cup in Santa Rosa, Calif. – just the second event in American history where consumption is legal. Guardian, who spent last year performing internationally in Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté's CandyWorld act, embarks on a national tour next with his extreme metal outfit Immortal Guardian.

Black Pumas now carry the "hottest band in Austin" distinction. After five months of performing live, the psychedelic soul outfit, led by vocalist Eric Burton and producer/guitarist Adrian Quesada, sold out this Friday's Antone's show so fast that another was added for tonight (Thursday). The burgeoning sextet is readying a debut LP and national festival dates.

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.

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CodeNEXT, Rebecca Reynolds, Music Venue Alliance Austin, MVAA, Erica Shamaly, TicketFly, Dave Alvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Immortal Guardian, Black Pumas

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