Can the Bands Play On?

The Live Music Task Force tunes up to protect Austin's claim to fame

Hizzoner jams with Brandon Tapp (center) and Troy Dillinger.
Hizzoner jams with Brandon Tapp (center) and Troy Dillinger. (Photo by Traci Goudie)

"Live music in Austin is facing a life-or-death crisis."

That's the alarm sounded for 2008 by Troy Dillinger. The longtime Austin musician organized the Year of Austin Music to call attention to the dire economic realities of the local music scene. In a nutshell, says Dillinger, the supply-and-demand dynamics affecting Austin's live music venues are wildly out of whack. The supply of musicians eager for gigs far exceeds the number of venues that reliably pack a paying house; as a result, bands play for free or at a net loss. Respected bands and artists – not the famous names, but the town's many talented and dedicated midlevel working musicians – struggle to earn even a half-decent living. In a steady pattern of attrition, says Dillinger, clubs have been closing, audiences shrinking, musician income dwindling to a dangerous all-time low. Bands that formerly supplemented their limited local audiences and income by regional touring have seen the ever-rising price of gas devour the thin profit margins on out-of-town gigs. Once slacker-friendly, Central Austin is no longer affordable for a singer-songwriter eking out a living with a dream and a guitar. Could the famed Austin music scene be losing its vitality?

Among those taking these concerns seriously is Mayor Will Wynn, who issued a proclamation in January making 2008 "The Year of Austin Music." When speaking around town, the mayor carries the group's audience-building message: Get off the couch, and go out to see at least one Austin band each month in 2008. (His mayoral self is a Band of Heathens fan, setting a good civic example with his frequent clubbing.) Together with Council Members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, Wynn also launched in January a separate city initiative, the Live Music Task Force. Its charge: A holistic, searching look at the woes of our local music industry and recommendations for workable solutions.

"Are we really the Live Music Capital of the World, and what are we doing to earn the right to keep that title, in comparison with the rest of the country?" asks Bobby Garza, a musician appointed to the task force by his day-job boss, Mike Martinez. "That's an appropriate question to ask periodically, once you choose to give yourself that moniker. Are we doing all we can to maintain that?"

While observers and even appointees initially regarded the task force with a certain de rigueur cynicism ("We're here from the city of Austin, and we're here to help?") task force members have expressed real optimism that their efforts will yield meaningful, positive changes.

"The Live Music Task Force was created because of Austin's music crisis," said member Jill George, who represents the Austin Music Commission. "The most dynamic asset of the task force was its ability to recognize the immediate emergency and quickly put aside self-interests that would hinder the solutions process. The LMTF rapidly moved into action thinking only of the global mission – protecting live music while preserving the quality of life!"


Passion, Drive, and Energy

The task force is no amateur-night act. The 15 members appointed by Wynn, Martinez, and Cole in February include respected club and music-business owners: Steve Wertheimer (Continental Club), James Moody (Mohawk and Transmission Entertainment), Chair Paul Oveisi (Momo's and Second Floor Management). Other members include working musician Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma), promoter Charles Attal (C3 Presents), Rose Reyes (director of Music Marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau), and city music and planning commissioners. They're working on subcommittees with four related charges: helping live music venues, helping musicians, resolving sound issues, and strengthening entertainment districts. "The Live Music Task Force has the passion, drive, and energy to take its recommendations to the next level," said George. "It's an invested, hardworking group delving into the meat of a broad range of interconnected issues."

An even more powerful harbinger of good things to come: Strong leadership from City Council members. Rather than assigning the usual administrative staff to support the task force, the mayor made it a top priority of his own chief of staff, Rich Bailey. Another longtime city staffer called such support "unbelievably rare." A passionate advocate, Bailey has been intimately involved in the details of the four subcommittees' work, personally attending every possible meeting and shepherding the group's success. "You can't get anybody who's more sincere about helping live music and musicians," noted Dillinger. Martinez demonstrated a similar level of investment by appointing Garza, his executive assistant, to the Task Force. Garza (who plays percussion and keys with Latin-power-pop band Maneja Beto) and Martinez (a sometime trumpet player) say they believe other council members are prepared to take meaningful policy action on the group's recommendations, as well.

"This is our chance!" said Oveisi. "The city has said, 'We want to fix this, please be our guide.'"

Oveisi, who owned storied-but-shuttered venue Steamboat in its final incarnation, notes that ramping up the health of the music scene will require action not just by the municipality, but also by venues, musicians, the private sector, and the broader community. He believes the No. 1 focus should be expanding the paying local audience for live music: "If audiences at shows quadrupled, all of these problems would naturally find solutions." With so many well-advertised entertainment choices vying for Austinites' limited time and dollars, the live music scene needs to be competitively promoted – not taken for granted.

Oveisi pointed to two overarching solutions likely to rise to the top of the group's recommendations. First, conduct a major marketing, outreach, and public awareness campaign to inspire Austinites to get out and hear local live music. Second, create and fund a dedicated, empowered city music office, with an ombudsman to help venue managers navigate city departments. All task force members spoke of first tackling less expensive "low hanging fruit": small changes the city could make to help live music venues with permitting, fees, parking, law enforcement, sound dampening, and compiling comprehensive, centralized information.

"The work that comes out of this task force will have far further-reaching implications than I think many folks realize right now," said Martinez.


The Stink of Success

"Music can go away in Austin," Dillinger warns. "There are maybe half a dozen clubs that are doing at all well. In 25 years, I've never seen it this bad." Asked for hard evidence of a state of emergency, Dillinger admits the danger signs are largely anecdotal, but says that's part of the problem: No one has taken the local music industry seriously enough to gather good data on its health. "There's no empirical data that will make people sit up and take notice. It doesn't exist." His nonprofit group's website (TheYearofAustinMusic.org, soon to become SaveAustinMusic.com) cites data indicating that audiences for live music have decreased by 60% to 70% over the past 15 years, while Austin's population has doubled, and that the pay scale for working musicians is "the same or less now than it was 20 years ago." (A comparison of Chronicle Live Music Venues listings shows that 10 years ago in July 1998, 160 venues were listed, including dance clubs; 178 venues are listed in July 2008. Could the real problem be that we now have some 8,000 musicians?)

Said Rose Reyes: "If Austin residents, as well as visitors and tourists, really started going out – into the clubs, filling the seats – part of the problem would solve itself. Musicians are not getting paid well because they're not getting big enough crowds."

Mohawk owner James Moody shares some of Dillinger's concern. "Make no mistake, music in our town is threatened right now," he said. "I've learned that on the task force. Musicians are really upset, saying, 'We feel like this dramatic growth has been built on our backs.'" As Austin makes all the Top 10 Cities lists and continually attracts new residents and growth, "we have to accommodate for that on the lifestyle side" asserted Moody.

Yet he also noted: "On the emerging music side, on Red River, I don't see the market declining at all. We've been able to succeed and grow in concert with the other venues along Red River." He observed: "We're seeing tremendous growth on the independent side – you're seeing that in South by Southwest. In order for our music scene here to grow with the market, that's expanding nationally and internationally, we're going to have to be able to afford to grow with it."

James Moody at his club, the Mohawk Austin
James Moody at his club, the Mohawk Austin (Photo by John Anderson)

Economic development data gathered by the city shows that Austin's music scene – both as a stand-alone industry and as a quality-of-life booster – stimulates the local economy annually to the tune of nearly a billion dollars. (Among the resources posted to the LMTF website is "The Role of Music in the Austin Economy," an enlightening 2001 study that analyzes the status of the music industry and its economic and fiscal impacts. It spurred little action when released, in part due to lack of council support, but its research and recommendations largely still hold.) The fun-time allure of our musicians, clubs, and festivals like SXSW and Austin City Limits helps to attract new business, desirable residents, tourists, and conventions.

"We trade on it every day; it's very much a part of everything we do," said ACVB Music Marketing Director Reyes, herself an enthusiastic clubber. Yet the city has never given the music industry the support enjoyed by other billion-dollar local industries, or even the local film industry. Nor, to be fair, have musicians and local music industry players organized effectively to win that support. Dillinger and others suggested it's (past) time for a trade association and for the city to headhunt a critical mass of music industry companies. A well-rounded group of companies is needed to provide all the support services required for musicians to play, showcase, record, publish, distribute their music, and grow careers from Austin.

The sharp contrast between the city's headline glow of prosperity and musicians' relative poverty informs their sense of disenfranchisement. Certainly protecting Austin's Live Music Capital of the World brand makes economic sense, but there's also a social-justice imperative to dance to the tunes of them that brung us. While big companies make fortunes off our town's hip-and-cool rep, the musicians they celebrate are missing out on the quality-of-life miracle: Many need charitable help from the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the SIMS Foundation just to see a doctor. Observes the HAAM website: "Austin is the 'Live Music Capital of the World,' yet many professional working musicians are self-employed and rarely have access to health insurance. Without insurance, they can't afford preventive health care, including primary medical care, basic dental services and mental health counseling." The ugly truth, says Dillinger, is that cover charges are too low and tip jars too empty, making us a city inured to "desperate bands and desperate clubs" working hard but never getting ahead.


Getting It Done

The first big-picture solution championed by Oveisi and other task force members – a major marketing/outreach/education campaign – will require some serious funding. Local PR and creative shops experienced in such projects pegged the cost at $25,000 for a solid plan alone, and $250,000 to $1 million for a yearlong campaign that could effectively "move the needle" on doubling or quadrupling audiences. A savvy effort would start with good research, establish a baseline, develop a strong plan, then implement a campaign and measure the results. Local creative firms and talents would likely pitch in some pro bono services, but the professionals warned against a "bake sale" mentality of underfunding such a challenging project. (The Year of Austin Music is already developing some public service announcements, but even media PSA spots are hard to come by these days.)

David Rockwood, vice president for community relations at GSD&M, observed: "I think an effort could be made successfully to increase the live music scene in Austin. But would it increase fourfold? Will most Austinites really dedicate themselves to going out to see it once a month? I doubt it."

The other overarching draft recommendation, creation of a city music office, faces hurdles more political and bureaucratic than financial. Why have obvious good ideas for how the city could assist the music industry previously failed to get implemented? It's been nobody's job. LMTF members thus are pushing for a music office to implement the recommendations adopted by council, then continue assisting the industry. (A side debate: Whether the music office should remain within Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office – most say yes – or move to the newly proposed Cultural Arts Division.) Many LMTF members also believe the Music Commission needs greater authority to enact solutions.

Here the council support enjoyed by the LMTF recommendations will prove key. Signs to watch: whether council 1) decisively directs the city manager to create a music office or dedicated music staff, 2) puts money into the city budget to fund it, and 3) establishes specific expectations and a clear time frame for results. To control costs, existing city staff – e.g. Jim Butler, who currently oversees music, film, and interactive as manager of Creative Industries Development within the EGRS department – could be reassigned 100% to music and given the authority to enact solutions.

Longtime city staffers emphasized it would be critical for a music office to have a clear charge from council and the city manager. Potentially, a music industry ombudsman staffer also could reside within the mayor's office.

Will council put money where its mouth harp is? Members currently are studying, tweaking, and cutting the 2008-09 budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Final LMTF recommendations won't reach council until a few weeks later; they'll thus miss the budget cycle. But motivated council members are free to review the draft recommendations now. Martinez said, "There's room for us to get some good stuff done quickly, tackle the low-hanging fruit first, and really plan for next year as well." When rough LMTF budget figures are presented to him, which Martinez anticipated later this month, "At that point, I plan on asking how we can begin planning for whatever comes out of the Live Music Task Force."


Swimming With Cats

When interviewed, task force members weren't very focused on fast-tracking projects into the 2008-09 budget, however. Does that mean key initiatives requiring city funding will get shelved for another year or 18 months? Possibly, but not necessarily.

Wynn said that even though preliminary figures indicated a city budget shortfall for the next budget cycle, money still might be found to invest in the health of the local music industry. He pointed out that annual job growth of at least 2% is essential to stoke both the local economy and an ample city budget. As an economic-development driver, he noted, the live music scene contributes positively to overall employment: "The job growth that has saved the Austin economy this year is in the local, creative-class driven, entrepreneurial sector," Wynn said. "The canary in that coal mine is live music. So, just like we found money to spearhead co-investments with the Chamber (with great results, I might add) five years ago – in a really, really tough budget – we need to find resources now to get serious about supporting the microeconomics of live music."

The Austin Chamber of Commerce's Opportunity Austin initiative, launched in September 2003, set a goal of creating 72,000 new jobs in five years and a $2.9 billion aggregate increase in payroll. Companies that stand to benefit from the economic growth stimulated have invested more than $12.8 million to finance the five-part program. Its strategies are already yielding gains: support and retain existing companies, stimulate earnings, attract new businesses, make our region more competitive with rivals. A music industry spin-off could potentially focus on creating living-wage jobs for musicians and associated professionals.

Meanwhile, on the microeconomic level, Rich Bailey wants to help and encourage bands to develop solid business plans. Others roll their eyes at the very notion. "The problem is the city thinks musicians are the ones who need to fix it," said Dillinger. "But they can't. They're the creatives. It's like asking a cat to go swimming. They can write a song that can change your life, but they can't make sure your nightclub stays open."


Live Music Task Force: Next Meetings

August 11

September 8

October 13 (if needed)

All are Monday meetings at 6pm, City Hall, Boards & Commissions Room. Sign up before the meeting to speak during citizens communication.


The Year of Austin Music "Big Meeting"

Monday, July 21, 7 to 9pm

All members of the Austin music industry are invited to hear project updates and guest speaker Paul Oveisi (Momo's, Live Music Task Force, Austin Music Commission), TYAOM Headquarters – 3708 Woodbury Dr.


The Music Industry and Austin's Economy

According to "Texas Perspectives," a 2004 city of Austin report, the local music scene annually provides:

• Nearly $1 billion in local economic activity

• More than $25 million in local tax revenues

• More than 11,000 jobs

• Tens of thousands of visitors, to SXSW and Austin City Limits Music Festival alone


Musicians: Chime In!

The Live Music Task Force online survey provides a direct voice for musicians, producers, agents, managers, club owners, and others. Help them understand how to keep you working and living in Austin. Survey closes July 31. www.cityofaustin.org/council/livemusictaskforce.htm.

Sample Questions

• Do you have any ideas for ways to improve the vitality of live music in Austin?

• What do you consider the three most pressing issues facing the music community of Austin?

• What role should government play in supporting Austin's music industry?

• On a scale of 1-5, how satisfied are you with the following community issues that impact our local music community? Affordable housing, low-cost health insurance, low-cost health care, job training, studio space, educational loans, business loans, legal assistance, parking/permits, centralized information, booking/management/professional services


Venue Owners: Shout-Out!

The LMTF urges all live music venue owners (or managers) to participate in a special survey. Here's a chance to tell the venue subcommittee members how City Hall and the community could assist you with affordability, financing, incentives, city policies and enforcement, or redevelopment issues. In addition to gathering needed data, the survey asks questions like:

• What are your biggest concerns for the future?

• What ideas do you have for improving live music viability in Austin?

• What recommendations should come out of this effort?

The survey is aimed directly at venue owners and managers; to request a link to the survey, e-mail LMTF Chair Paul Oveisi at poveisi@gmail.com or James Moody at moody@transmissionentertainment.com by July 31.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Live Music Task Force, Will Wynn, Troy Dillinger, clubs

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