Save the Music

Power Plays

Subterfuge on both sides of the battle has been tough. While music commissioners scoured the nation for ideas, people, and resources with which to beat out the Music Management Company, Melchior was doing his own counter-intelligence, requesting through city finance director Betty Dunkerley piles of information, including Music Commission transcripts and tapes of meetings and phone conversations, as well as AMN programming lists. "I just want to have as much information about the network as the commission does," said Melchior.

Some music commissioners considered agitating for an investigation of Melchior, who reportedly violated the contract he signed stating he would not "lobby, directly or indirectly, council members or other city officials." They claim that Melchior initiated a lunch with city employee Gavin Garcia and music commissioner Penelope Davies, at which time he asked them what he could do to overcome the music commission's opposition to his proposal. Melchior denied this account, saying he was invited to lunch by Garcia, though he "may have said that I'd love to work with the commission" on getting the project approved.

According to several sources, city staff has been reluctant to investigate the lobbying complaint, for fear of derailing a process that they think has gone on too long. "I think these people in city government have read The Prince, you know that book by Machiavelli?" said Livingston, who thinks city staff has shown an (untoward) bias for the Melchior proposal. Another music insider put it even more cryptically: "I'm not sure Betty Dunkerley uses her powers for good."

Another example of city bias toward privatization: After some participants challenged the bidding process, the city decided to call in an independent consultant to reevaluate the proposals, and asked none other than Time Warner Cable whom the city should hire. "All Time Warner has ever wanted is to get their channel back," said Kent Benjamin, one of AMN's founders, who is no longer involved with the station. "Would you call Jim Bob Moffett and ask him to recommend somebody to evaluate the Barton Springs salamander proposition? That's exactly what the city did."

At the very least, say other critics, the council is guilty of benign neglect toward the station: "I don't see us having a station in three years" (the council's oft-stated deadline for AMN self-sufficiency), said music commissioner and Steamboat owner Danny Crooks. "The Austin Music Network is on its last legs. I think the council expects that too, so they want to throw it at Rick so they can say, 'It wasn't us'" that killed the station.

Crooks, who abstained from the commission's vote, said that competition for the advertising dollars of local clubowners was so stiff that Melchior could never meet the earning targets laid out in his proposal. Andmoreover, ifthe network goes commercial, Time Warner is no longer obligated to keep it in the first tier of channels. Especially since the cable company is hatching a new 24-hour cable news channel for Austin, AMN is likely to find itself in the 50s or 60s range of channels, where advertising sells much cheaper.

A straw poll of councilmembers conducted on Monday confirmed their desire to be rid of the station. The vote for Melchior's proposal, and against the music commission's counterproposal, could be 7-0.

Too Late?

It seems to be all but too late for the Austin Music Network. The sad thing is that with a little TLC – and the infusion of some cold, hard cash – the network could have been a contender. Austin prides itself on being the kind of place where a wacky idea like AMN could work. True, this town is increasingly populated by people who don't know Steamboat from Shinola, and who want the seemingly frivolous expense eliminated. But the mission of the AMN was not only to educate Austinites and their out-of-towner friends about the Austin music scene, but to help develop that scene, by providing new and promising artists a chance to be heard, build a following, fill the clubs.

And if the will were there, the money would be also: The city is proposing to spend a combined $22 million on the Mexican American Cultural Center, and the Carver Library and Museum, as well as a portion of the $13 million targeted for the new Austin Museum of Art. But for all the lip service to the importance of the music community's role in Austin's art and commerce, the money doesn't follow. "Musicians aren't pretty, clean, or nice," explains Darcie Fromholz, a music commissioner with lifelong roots in the Austin music scene. "The benefits (of contributing to the music business) are a little more ephemeral" than getting one's name on a plaque or in a donors' list in some slick quarterly publication.

But while many fear that a commercial station won't fulfill AMN's mission, others point out that while AMN may be giving fair play to local artists, nobody's watching. Said Melchior: "True economic development is for the musicians to be seen on TV, not just appear on TV." Still, there's little doubt that the quest for advertising dollars will dictate bigger names, which will no doubt homogenize the style and playlist.

There are times when letting the free market reign gets the best results. It worked for Cinema West – as soon as the city bowed out of the project, private investors stepped in, and the goal of getting the adult theatre off of South Congress was acheived at no city expense. But if the city truly wants the music network to be a tool for developing new artists, leaving it to the market is a big risk to take. Melchior has already said he has "mathematical problems" with the idea of requiring that 70-80% of the station's programming be local. "There's just not that much material out there," he said. Not enough material, in the Live Music Capital of the World? Don't bet on it.

In Town Lake News ...

Last week "Council Watch" included a call for Austinites to watch their council closely, lest their repeated successes make them too cocky, and us too complacent. Recent developments should remind us all to relax, because there is a committed, diverse, and growing group of citizens watching closely, agitating on behalf of their concerns, and, increasingly, getting results. This group lives all over town, comes from a variety of backgrounds, has a variety of agendas. They are the neighborhood associations. The latest NA victory was brought to us by the Bouldin neighbors, who played a big role in scuttling the mayor's scheme to get the Ice Bats a residence on some prime lakefront property, and get the city a free civic center in the bargain.

What will go on the Nov. 3 ballot instead: a proposal to authorize ARTS Center Stage to raise $50 million to renovate Palmer Auditorium into a first-rate performing arts center, and a plan to use the 5% rental car tax provided by the state's venue statute to finance the civic center. Leslie Pool, co-chair of the Town Lake Advisory Group, said her group is thrilled with the plan; she doled out liberal praise to the mayor and council for their role in making progress toward realizing the Town Lake cultural park. "This is by far the most responsive council I've ever seen," she said.

Pool credited her friends of the Bouldin Neighborhood Association with helping the TLAG elicit some of that responsiveness. She said that although the advisory group had expressed reservations about the Ice Bats plan, it was "the neighborhoods that really got through" to the mayor and the Ice Bats. The team has said they're just as happy to go north of the river, where better accommodations for fans – and their cars – can be found. The mayor said the city will apply the new Smart Growth matrix, to provide incentives like infrastructure and fee waivers.

Ambulance Chasing

It seems like only yesterday that we were begging the council to abandon their smoke-filled negotiating rooms and cut their deals in public. Well, we take it back. After hearing the beginnings of the council's discussion about how to convert the city's EMS system into a countywide one, letting the councilmembers and their staffs churn out the details in private is starting to sound pretty appealing. But as dry as the nuts and bolts of how to provide the whole county with Austin's superior grade of emergency service and achieve tax equity for Austinites can get, it's important. So when the council takes the issue up again this week, try to pay attention.

This Week in Council: Councilmembers will act on several items related to the new Town Lake plan at today's meeting. The heretofore mentioned EMS saga continues today as well.

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