Musicians on How Best to Employ City Funds Earmarked for the Local Scene
$3 million in HOT funds are coming. Now what?
Audrey Campbell(Pleasure Venom)
After a lot of thought and consulting with musicians and people in the business, $3 million should go directly to musicians who play, tour, release music, pay for studio time and rehearsal spaces, fund and produce their own music videos, etc. Not a trickle-down through venues or whatever the bigwigs may be thinking. Like a monthly stipend.
I had a great conversation with [Barracuda and Hotel Vegas co-owner] Brian Tweedy last year, and he broke down Free Week – why it exists and about paying musicians. He said he very much wished he could pay musicians more. That conversation meant a lot to me. He revealed how hard it is being a venue owner in Austin with the way things are changing and growing. Venue owners rely on bar sales and door fees to pay musicians. Should that burden be on them when they're providing such an invaluable service?
I work in this band twice a week doing four- to six-hour rehearsals to play as killer and tight of a set as I can. I pay for studio time, direct our videos, and Thomas, our drummer, edits them. Sometimes we'll be up 'til 4am and still have to go to our full-time jobs. Really, we have two full-time jobs each.
I'll be honest: Last year, I almost broke, like, three times. It's fucking hard.
We opened for Garbage on their tour. It's ambitious shit following an established band like that. They had hotel rooms and a bus. We squeezed into motels and crashed with fans or promoters. We did a UK tour after that and had to play almost every town leading up to it to be able to afford it. Same story: crashing on couches of new UK buds, staying in hostels, renting and driving our own van. Our manager, Lars, emailed hundreds of venues in towns we'd never been to or had barely heard of to land shows and get us out there. Plane tickets, sorting out immigration, taxes on our merch going through customs – it adds up: blood, sweat, and more sweat.
And let's not even get into the mental toll of assholes on the internet who don't know jack shit about tour sacrifices. Yeah, I almost broke because it shouldn't be this hard. I wanted to quit my band that I fucking love. Yes, Jake, it can feel like a "nonprofit," but then you get onstage and are reminded why you do it all.
That money should go directly to any person that can prove they're a professional musician or professional, maybe in the way that HAAM does. Black Fret is a great Austin organization that's already given over $1 million to local artists since its inception four years ago. We could create incentives and funding for more organizations like that. Countries like Australia and Norway pay musicians and artists with public funds. They recognize how much music enriches their culture!
I don't know if $3 million is enough to make sure all the musicians in Austin can eat, but it's better than nothing. And what we do locally in a city that is seen as fresh and progressive can act as a model for other places across the country. I've been forced to throw the money we make into a band fund for videos, studio time, etc. We rarely see the money we make at shows. A good chunk of my last lineup, myself included, are service industry. We miss money shifts from work to play shows. It starts to make you feel crazy for even trying to go for it, and a lot of people seem to have this notion that musicians are layabouts who'd rather play a guitar than the stock market, which is a horrible misconception.
My answer is simple: Pay us. Directly. No trickle-down, no bureaucratic nonsense.
Corey Baum(Croy & the Boys)
My initial thoughts are that the challenges facing the Austin music community as a whole aren't necessarily related to money as much as they're related to infrastructure, so I'm not optimistic this cash can do much to help.
A lack of music industry presence – major and bigger independent labels, publishing and licensing people, management and booking agencies, etc. – and honestly, a lack of any dedicated local press are bigger stumbling blocks to artists advancing their careers. The Chronicle and Statesman do a great job, but each only have a few pages a week to cover a gigantic, (hopefully) ever-evolving scene. I think a dedicated music publication could do wonders for giving lots of local players some badly needed press and help lift people out of obscurity.
Maybe this new money could be used to help start an Austin music magazine? I don't know.
The other giant issue the Austin music community faces is the same issue that all working and poor people are facing in Austin, that of affordability. The acute effect of this is that Austin musicians are spending more time working day jobs and less time working on music, and have less leftover cash to take on the financial risks of touring and making albums. The longer term effect is that Austin is attracting less new musicians while it loses the ones who were already here, resulting in a smaller and more stagnated pool of talent.
Again, I'm not sure how this fund can address those things. The idea of building artist slums is insulting.
The bottom line to me is that the city can't have it both ways. It can't become an expensive, "booming" tech city and also preserve its character as a sleepy musicians' haven. It's clearly made its decision on which way it's going to go, so this new fund feels performative and not much more to me.
I have no idea how many musicians there are in Austin – 5,000? That's probably a low estimate. I think the only useful, ethical, and sensical use of this new windfall is to come up with some simple criteria, similar to HAAM. Let's not be too precious about it. Give every single musician who lives in this town a stipend. If we get down to it, all these tech companies should pay annually into that fund as well. We are the reason all of these people are here now. We should be rewarded for it.
Jane Claire Hervey(singer, founding director BossBabes ATX)
If I were to suddenly wield great political power and become the sole decision-maker in the use and allocation of the new $3 million Live Music Fund, I would live out all of my wildest feminist musician fantasies. I would utilize the funds for four purposes:
• 40% of the funds would go toward researching and adequately discovering the needs of Austin's diverse and expansive live music community. That's where we need to start and spend our resources if this fund is going to renew and become a foundational aspect of Austin's live music scene in years to come. This would include extensive qualitative and quantitative research about Austin's commercial, nonprofit, and independent music scenes, plus an audit of our existing ecosystem as well as projections about the barriers and infrastructural problems we may face in years to come.
Let's think long-game and get smart.
• 25% of the funds would go toward educating and training live music venue owners, staff, and participants on ways to prevent sexual assault and harassment within their shows, while developing leadership within their staff that prioritizes live music attendees' experiences and engagement, as well as production and management skills. If our production communities had access to more resources and education, we would avoid fracturing music communities over harm and bad practice, and simultaneously create a scene that holds more expertise and creates more opportunity for the city.
• 20% of the funds would incentivize established commercial bookers to book gender-diverse and racially diverse local acts. Bookers who demonstrate a priority for booking and promoting local talent from underrepresented communities would receive an annual supplement earmarked for emerging artists. Artists supported by this fund through these booking agencies would receive a minimum performance honorarium of $500, and bookers could apply for up to $100,000 per year for local talent funding. This would inject capital into different artist communities while supporting live music bookers and companies that bring in international and national talent to share their resources in a local context.
• 15% of the funds would go toward making our current live music venues and spaces more accessible to those with hearing impairments and different bodily abilities. This would include installing ramps on preexisting stages across all venues in Austin, as well as providing venues with live music ASL interpreter budgets. These types of improvements would make our spaces more accessible to larger, more commercial tour stops and experiences from other cities, too.
Jonathan Horstmann(ex-Blxpltn, Urban Heat Island Effect, V3CO)
The city has no lack of talented acts but certainly lacks the music business infrastructure to enable musicians to make a decent living here. The tech boom and the subsequent rising cost of living underscore the problem.
1) We need to keep venues open. If a venue hosts local shows on more than half their nights, they should be able to get a portion of their rent subsidized if they're at risk of closing. This emergency fund would need to be applied for rather than something that would figure into regular operating costs. I'd also like to see incentives to tack on local openers for all touring acts as a citywide policy. Of course touring support would play, but give my homies 20 minutes in front of a built-in crowd who are already into their genre!
2) The music industry exists elsewhere, so let's incentivize the industry to use Austin artists. One of the most lucrative things that can happen for a songwriter is to get a sync deal (placement in television or film), so if we could make it worth a studio's while to choose Austin-based artists over others, it would definitely help some artists get a financial leg up. Same goes for out-of-town festivals and labels. If you wanna work with an Austin artist, we'll make it worth your while, because we take care of our own. It would be a powerful message.
3) The other thing we could do is work with a major label to create genre-specific subsidiaries that are based in Austin and largely Austin-run, but leverage the distribution networks and marketing arms of the major. The caveat, of course, is that all artists would be Austin-based.
This is a marathon, not a sprint, and if we split the money evenly into these three things over the course of the next decade, we would see a huge revitalization of the Austin music scene. Just my 3 cents.
Santiago Dietche(Daphne Tunes)
My biggest ask would be an expanded grant and business proposal program for musicians creating new material – whether that's recording, PR, videos, or otherwise. Some sort of way for musicians to develop a business plan or an itemized way of how they'd use certain low-budget grants, like $1,000-10,000 in value. I see a lot of crowdfunding proposals for new albums and I think it could be awesome for some of this tax revenue to mirror how Black Fret operates, but without all the nominations, red tape, and popularity contests that seem to float around the BF crew.
Alternatively, it'd be great to expand some of the payouts at for-profit venues that take huge cuts of the door to pay sound people and other staff. That way there's more money directly going from fans to the artists in the local show context.
Jason McMaster(Dangerous Toys, Watchtower, Broken Teeth, Ignitor, Evil United, Howling Sycamore)
How about year-round parking placards for working musicians? Should be regulated to city lots since it's hard to get money-hungry, privately owned pay lots to donate to us – unless they opt in to our program. We're part of the reason they make money.
Paul Minor(Texas Tycoons)
One very straightforward method for getting the funds into the pockets of musicians is a sponsorship model. The Live Music Fund works out to over $10,000 a day for a year. With those resources, the city could work as a local independent promoter, presenting a series of shows at different professional venues, covering all the production, staff, and venue costs, and paying several bands corporate party level fees for each gig.
These regular, city-sponsored shows would disperse the funds directly to musicians and music businesses in a fairly egalitarian way, providing a nice payday for the artists, stimulating business, and saving expenses for venues while directly promoting the live music capital brand. The city could also use part of the fund to produce an annual "locals only" free outdoor festival featuring a wide range of Austin artists – perhaps on an ACL Fest stage or two during the week between the two fest weekends – as a gesture to the townies for tolerating the tourists.
Michael Mordecai(trombonist, owner BBA/Management & Booking, founder Fable Records)
Over the years, the city (and before them, the Chamber of Commerce) attempted to come up with ways to help our music industry. Areas the city might be able to assist the music community could be:
Parking: Big problem, probably fairly easy solution. I've heard many people with good ideas about this issue.
Property Taxes (which force high rent): Music venues being forced out due to high rent is something the city could jump in on.
Promotion: The Chamber of Commerce placed ads in magazines back in the mid-Eighties showing a train track with musicians: Willie, Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel, Eric Johnson, and about 40 local bands. This was a very effective ad that brought national attention to Austin music. The "Live Music Capital" slogan, which got changed to "Live Music Capital of the World," has proved effective and the city should continue to promote [it].
Public Concerts: ACL Fest was basically born from the free public concerts the union used to produce at Auditorium Shores. That concert series came from free concerts at Zilker Hillside and public parks and Downtown plazas. Kansas City has a great free concert program. (Most free concerts series around the country lost support when the "green sheet" funding of the musicians' union took a nosedive 25 years ago.) The city has a great stage at City Hall, and there should be concerts there every day of the week.
Tipping: The city recently attempted to pass out some electronic "tip jar" type machine. I don't know how that worked out, but there have been a few apps developed for tipping. The best I've seen is being done in Kansas City, where Visa put an extra line for "Band Tip."
Local Label Support: Advertising dollars similar to the railroad track ad could be spent to promote the recordings of Austin artists. The city could play a huge role in bringing together the local labels (new and old) with Spotify playlists for Austin, which could basically be what they play at the airport. I believe the Austin Public Library also has a playlist where they actually license the music and pay local labels and artists. I've been saying for decades that the city might be able to offer office space, personnel, and infrastructure to establish a conglomerate of Austin's local labels. None of the local labels have the capital to become an actual label, but together we might be able to market Austin music.
Central Office "Music Row": In the past, there have been pockets of synergy where the music and arts industries were in close proximity. The Austin Sun was across the street from Sheaxnuff Studios and Castle Creek, Fable Records, Half-Price Books, the Vault, Blue Parrot, Casa Blanca ... then the Austin Opera House with Arlyn Studios, Austin Rehearsal Studio, Benson-Vale, Alvin Crow Band, Concept Music, Music Lane Studio, Eric Johnson's studio, Musicians Union, Fable Records, plus all the musicians who lived in those crappy apartments. The city really missed an opportunity to bring the arts community together in either Mueller or the power plant. It would be nice to see a place where we are all physically closer.
Loan Program: The city did a great job with the music business loan program (Rock 'n' Roll Rentals). I assume that's still viable and ongoing?
Airport: It's totally cool to have live music in the airport. Austin has influenced several other airports to copy that, but I believe Austin may have the most – as we should.
Coordinate the nonprofit support organizations: HAAM, SIMS, HOME, AMF
Identify the Professional Musician Support Groups: AFM, Austin professional musicians group(s), AJS, classical groups, all-genres nonprofit support groups
House Concerts: The city might launch a house concert network.
A $100 grant for every local artist per show from the HOT fund. Venues would have to register for free and fill out a form stating who played when. Artists would register and request their funds. Kind of like a performers' living wage subsidy. Covers and bar splits would stay the same. Musicians would get a little boost directly from the city.
If venues and bars controlling the reporting is problematic, music lovers could be recruited and trained to document shows and submit the forms. Maybe a 15-person audience would be the threshold for getting funds. Maybe big festival performances would not be counted.
I'm sure there are pitfalls in this I am not seeing. My math suggests that around 90 musicians could take home $100 every night.
Adrian Quesada(Black Pumas)
Spitballing here: Potential subsidizing of "official" city gigs like the New Year's Eve Downtown event and other such things where pay could be raised for bands. Sponsoring/subsidizing local bands who play ACL Fest and the like by paying them more than the really low fee local bands get when playing such events. I also like the idea Jason McMaster brought up about helping with parking for musicians playing or industry folks working Downtown. Help HAAM with money and resources in being able to keep up with demand, and SIMS as well. Finally, the city could sponsor music events like Free Week, Red River Nights, Saturnalia, RAS Day, and Levitation to help with the massive burden of costs.
Leslie Sisson(Moving Panoramas)
Parking is definitely a nightmare when playing locally. I've always wished venues could have spots in front of their clubs blocked off during music hours for their artists, like what 3ten and Empire are able to do, but that's far from a $3 million dollar project.
Since this tax is coming from hotels, I assume part of it would help promote tourism to this city. What better way to promote this city than to send its artists to other cities? Touring and album production are a musician's biggest bank breakers. For our newest record, we didn't have much budget left to tour after putting so much into recording and mixing, so we barely toured at all. We also didn't have a booking agent.
Sure, we could've DIY booked a tour ourselves willy-nilly like we've done in the past, but we've come close to nearly breaking our band doing this. Not necessarily financially as much as emotionally, because we're on a budget, driving ourselves, sleeping on floors, eating fast food, stuck in a tiny minivan in blizzards, etc. Living the typical touring dream, right?
I think of all the Canadian bands I've toured with over the years who were touring with the help of government grants to promote tourism in their country's artists internationally. I've heard their government cut that funding lately, [but] we could use this as a partial model to pull from.
I also think of these private organizations we have in Austin, like Black Fret, doing something similar. However, I can't put in an application to Black Fret for a grant like I could for organizations providing artist grants in other mediums like fine arts and film. I realize these are typically nonprofit grants and music is considered for-profit, but honestly, I feel like being a musician is a nonprofit effort, especially these days when artists struggle to profit from their music on most levels.
I'd love to see some of this money made available to musicians directly, where they can apply for grants to fund their music projects with guidelines similar to creative arts grants where they must prove they used the funding for music projects such as recording, touring, promotion, etc., with something to show for it that could have the city's stamp on it, like any creative arts grant.
Our label doesn't provide tour support or recording support, but they do fund promotion, vinyl/CD production, and distribution. Touring has always been our missing link and is what we always fall short on after all the money has been put into the albums. Having an extra financial boost to get us on the road the right way would've helped us tour to help promote the album and could've helped bridge the gap between us having local success and national success.
There's another part to this equation, though: touring the right way. This is where the city might also be able to help. Something else Austin lacks is key ingredients of the music industry, primarily larger labels, booking agents, management, licensing/publishing. Part of the reason bands in bigger music cities do so well is because these industries are in their backyards and vice versa. People working in these industries are physically seeing artists in their hometowns. They're all making friends, going to the same shows, eating at the same restaurants, and friendships are the reason for our success.
We have so many amazing artists here. If I were a music supervisor, I'd be making monthly trips to Austin to find and place these untapped artists. We all know licensing and publishing are the only ways to make money in music lately, but it's unsteady. I'd love to see some sort of music industry ambassador program here in this city, outside of the madness of SXSW, that allows these industries to have a hub here or even a satellite office where their reps can come participate in this community in person, in the trenches, at places like Hotel Vegas and the White Horse, to see what Austin artists might have to offer on a larger, national scale. The city could even put on shows or mini-fests presenting these artists monthly, quarterly, biannually, etc. for these visiting reps. Austin already has Free Week and Hot Summer Nights in place, [and] that could be great starting places for something like this.
If the city could use some of this funding to help preserve its local venues and help artists get paid a fair amount locally, it would also be great. I'm not entirely sure how that would work, but I know I've seen something similar during Hot Summer Nights thanks to the Red River Cultural District, where venues are allocated a set amount of fair guarantees for bands in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion while providing free shows and bigger crowds. I'm not a booker or venue person, so I'm not an expert on this, but I feel like it worked and pieces of that model could be used on a different scale to help.
I know sponsorship has been a big factor in these situations, so to continue to grow these relationships it's worth rewarding the businesses sponsoring music with incentives. Perhaps with tax breaks if they don't already [get any]? Combining sponsorship funding with this city funding, or even using city resources to help bridge the sponsorship-to-music connection, couldn't hurt.
Finally, my biggest struggle as a musician is paying the bills while trying to balance making music, managing our band, working a day job, etc. I've struggled for years finding work that allows me to do both. I feel like a broken record saying this, but I'd love to see the city, state, and community get involved in taking care of their musicians by helping them find employment outside of music that allows them flexibility to create their art and tour.
I'm still racking my brain on this one and hitting walls. I've gone back to school and applied for jobs at city and state startups, and while coming very close, I've also come out empty-handed, sometimes worrying that it's because I'm a musician that I can't get hired. I mean, no one wants to hire the typical night-owl, road-warrior artist in their office, right? Employers want their employees to prioritize their jobs, I get it, but I don't have kids, I don't take vacations, I don't have any other obligations outside of my job except maybe my dogs and music, so [it] seems like a fair trade.
I taught music for years and I work in television half the year, but these jobs don't provide benefits or stability, especially when I'm on the road. HAAM and SIMS have been lifesavers, but I have to make poverty-level income to qualify for them. I don't need to be making six figures to survive, but it'd be nice to have a job in or out of music that allows me to still afford to live in this town comfortably.
There's no middle class in music, and at the rate that the cost of living is increasing not just here but everywhere, there's not going to be room for the musicians to stick around if they can't make a living somewhere, even if it's not in music.
I have a master's degree and have gone back to school to learn coding and design because [of] all of these startups coming here with great benefits, PTO, life/work balance type jobs. These folks are moving from the east and west coasts and driving up rent prices and home values partly because the culture and music of this city make it so appealing to live here. I figure if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, but I'm still having trouble getting my foot in there, too. It'd be nice if folks like me could have some help getting on these employers' radars.
It's all part of the ecosystem here, so as long as whatever we're doing is helping improve that, I'm all for it.
Music venues, record labels, publicists, recording studios, publishing, etc. make up some of the for-profits that are struggling or are underrepresented in our city. Using that money as incentive to nurture growth of the core music industry would be helpful. Also funding some of our great labels to produce compilations, playlist placements, sync licensing, etc. for local artists would serve the scene. The ultimate goal should be to help create success in the best of our music creators, so these for-profits would need to show transparency in applying those resources fully toward that goal.
We should also provide education and mentoring for all music creators. The music business is changing so fast it's hard to keep up with it all, especially for DIY artists. Our youngest creators definitely need all the help we can give them.
How to actually divvy it up is tricky. We want to keep that process lean so it doesn't eat up the money before it gets to work-grant programs. A board of volunteer governors made up from the local music industry [groups] or maybe smaller, self-governing groups similar to our neighborhood associations that appoint one or two representatives to bring their interests to the board might work.
When one ponders the needs of the many, $3 million doesn't look like much, but it's something. If we're smart and honest about it, we can do some really nice things with it.
Charles Stephens(Chucky Blk)
It would be best-used to help artists struggling to live in Austin. I know a lot of artists who have sacrificed so much just to be in this city, only to find out how expensive it is to actually live here. Musicians going homeless is not unheard of, so I think a rent-assistance program specifically for us could combat that. Also, maybe a parking pass/stipend for musicians – especially with the recent price hike Downtown. Last thing, using it toward a music trade show similar to NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] would be an excellent way to further mix the tech and music elements of this city. There's my 2 cents on the $3 mil.
Bradley Jaye Williams(Conjunto los Pinkys)
In my experience, the habitat for live music has mostly disappeared or is changing fast. Now, I'm thinking of ways to present the music to people outside of the bar, cantina, dance hall, or concert setting. Use funding for performances of local live music, including park concerts, residencies in venues, restaurants, schools, coffee shops, farmers' markets, nursing homes, and other public places. Create a system for matching funds for local musicians' performances. The State of Texas Artist Roster Program pays out additional matching funds to presenters with qualified touring musicians. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted for the City of Austin's program.
Sadie Wolfe(Batty Jr., Wild Child)
The Live Music Fund should go to as many working Austin musicians as possible. This would require the creation of an Austin Musicians Registry to verify artists' continuous performances in Austin. HAAM does a check like this when you sign up for insurance. Money could be dispersed through similarly verified Austin venues when a band plays a gig. The money could also go toward offsetting production costs of shows – paying sound engineers, lighting design[ers], door people, etc. Currently, these overhead costs often come out of ticket sales, so the responsibility falls on the artists and the concertgoers rather than the venues. Essentially, the bands are paying the venues' employees, and then paying themselves.
In my experience, these production costs have ranged from $100-400, leaving very little money leftover for the musicians themselves. Say 100 people are at your gig and tickets are $5 apiece. That's $500 minus $250 for production, which equals $250 split between three bands. That's $80 per band ... then divide that by an average of four people per band. That's $20 per person minus parking! That's leaves about the cost of a cheeseburger and fries for at least three hours of work, plus show promotion and band practice. This is not fair pay! This isn't even minimum wage!
A band/venue registry would also help create more accountability for venues and artists through written contracts. Venues would be incentivized to pay bands fairly in order to receive a piece of the fund, and musicians would be incentivized to play more gigs in Austin, rather than look to touring outside of Austin to get paid.