Five Takeaways From the New Austin Music Census
2022 survey shows musicians moving farther from city core
By Chad Swiatecki, Fri., Feb. 3, 2023
The latest appraisal of Austin's music economy shows that the city's prized cultural hallmark is in flux and unquestionably feeling the squeeze caused by boomtown growth.
The data and findings come from the Greater Austin Music Census 2022, an update of a 2014 effort that for the first time showed empirically that local musicians were legion but struggling to keep up with the cost of living in the Live Music Capital. The new census was conducted gratis by Sound Music Cities, the consulting group founded by Don Pitts, the former head of the city's music office who commissioned the initial census when he was still working in and around City Hall.
Just over 2,200 musicians and music industry participants completed the online survey that was open for two months last summer, reflecting a 43% decrease from the almost 4,000 replies in 2014. Those responses show a music scene that is diversifying in terms of the types of jobs and performance opportunities available locally, but with undeniable challenges remaining in terms of the likelihood of sticking it out long-term in the Austin area. Find some of the most noteworthy conclusions to draw from an early run through the 87-page, chart-heavy report below.
Affordability Bites: For anyone who's been comatose for the past decade, the census serves as a clear wake-up call that Austin's growth and affordability crisis is having a corrosive effect on its music and creative community. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they are struggling to afford housing, with 36% saying they plan to leave the Austin area in the next three years. Affordability has been the buzzword du jour in political and civic circles for years now, and the census puts another exclamation point on the problem by showing how the lack of affordable housing is squashing the hopes of local musicians.
Outer City Limits: The overall musical exodus from the area means more musicians living farther away from Downtown Austin, with a rough average of 11 miles' distance from respondents' homes to what used to be the center of music and cultural activity. The city's 10 central ZIP codes saw residency of survey respondents decline by 12%, while out-of-county areas (San Marcos, Pflugerville, Manor) saw an increase of 7.7%. In short, Austin musicians are becoming Central Texas musicians, with venues and performance opportunities showing a small move away from the city core (the 78704 ZIP code specifically) and toward new growth areas in the south and east.
No Data on Dollars: While the affordability info paints a clear picture of the dire financial straits faced by Austin musicians, the lack of specific questions about annual earnings from music does somewhat defang the findings. The 2014 census had an easy and loud reference point that almost one-third of Austin musicians earned $15,000 or less per year. The lack of a follow-up inquiry on that matter means there's no opportunity to do an apples-to-apples comparison of earning power that could have easily resonated with the general public.
Aging Trend: The census shows an undeniable increase in middle-aged and senior respondents compared to data from 2014, indicating younger adults could be becoming more rare in the Austin music community overall. The 25-to-39 cohort dropped from half of all respondents to 38%, with those age 40-54 and age 65 and over showing single-digit increases. That trend suggests the area's music industry is likely to shrink in the coming decades unless there's a substantial change of course.
Eyes on Inclusion: One of the most noteworthy new features of the census was the polling on 14 diversity, equity, and inclusion matters. Those responses painted a mixed picture, where concerns over ageism, sexism, and elitism are the clearest concerns. Analysts within the report noted that minority groups tended to view the treatment of their community more harshly, adding even more friction and likely reducing opportunities among those groups.
At several points, the results note mixed returns with how the music scene has rebounded or struggled following the complete shutdown of live performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the cancellation of South by Southwest 2020 and dealt a major blow to the creative economy. Those financial challenges have added even more urgency to musicians' increasing flight from the city center, said James Russell, executive director of Trail of Lights and frequent advisor to local politicos on matters surrounding the creative economy. Russell said the out-migration creates a need for Austin to work with surrounding communities such as Lockhart and Bastrop to create venues and opportunities for musicians looking to stay within Central Texas.
"As the exodus from Austin continues with folks seeking a cheaper cost of living and quality of life, the surrounding communities have a huge opportunity to learn from the data that has been compiled and figure out how to embrace the folks that are coming to their communities from Austin. Be it sound ordinances or land development codes, they can learn from things that we've been chasing our tail on by having policies necessary to preserve the culture early on and not have to play catch up."
The affordability issues shown in the new music census results back up recent analysis by the nonprofit group Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers, which aids musicians 55 and older in the Austin area with their housing needs. Hanna Cofer, president of HOME, said 22% of its grant recipients now live outside of the city limits, with 50% reporting they earn less than $1,500 per month including Social Security. She said spreading music-specific resources around the five-county region would likely have more impact than trying to preserve venues and other resources in the city core that is becoming prohibitively expensive.
Newly elected Mayor Kirk Watson said he hopes to use the census results while working to build support for the music community. In a prepared statement he said, "Austin music has long been essential to the character of our city, but we know that the people behind that music are struggling with the same affordability emergency that's affecting families throughout our community. The findings of the music census underscore the urgency of addressing our affordability issues to ensure interesting, innovative, and creative folks can continue to make magic here."