Remixing the Music (Department)

The city is still trying to hit the right note with Austin's music scene

Starting Oct. 1, live music – an intrinsic part of Austin's identity and lifeblood of the city's tourism industry – should have an office at the city, if the City Council has its way. The creation of what's being called "a centralized location within city government" for music matters – likely to ultimately be a division of the Convention Center Department – is the outcome of months of discussions and, after a false start last month, City Council remixing the matter itself.

The resolution creating the department, sponsored by Council Members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade, is slated for council adoption today (Thursday, June 18). It would implement the department by the start of the 2010 fiscal year, Oct. 1; structure it to "maximize its ability to further the recommendations of the Live Music Task Force"; and make the entity's head an "accountable official" for implementing music-related code matters, such as permitting for music venues. (For more on venue permitting matters, including the recent Shady Grove fallout, see "Off the Record.") "Our intention is to create a seamless arm, if you will, of the music industry here in Austin, from the perspective of artists, as well as venue owners and operators," says Martinez. "Whether you're an artist or you actually have a venue, there is a level of concern with how you go through the city's maze of requesting a live music venue permit, how to comply with the decibel levels, how to attenuate your sound in case it's affecting neighbors but not necessarily busting the decibel level cap. ... You need folks who understand the biz, who are in the biz. And that's what our vision and my vision is for the music department – to have folks from the industry, who are in it or once in it, and have a much better understanding of the issues that these folks face on a day-to-day basis."

It's a reboot in the battle to create the department, as recommended by the Live Music Task Force last year. The institutional difficulties of doing so were illustrated last month, when city staff presented three proposals ranging from creating an independent department to couching it in the city's Economic Growth and Redevelop-ment Office. Aside from the expense of the proposals – the broadest one coming with a $9.5 million price tag – the bureaucratic proposals, overseen by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards and presented by City Manager Marc Ott's chief of staff, Anthony Snipes, were thought to miss the bigger picture of the task force's recommendation: an office to function as an official city advocate for musicians. (A more conspiratorial reading is that staff was trying to sink the department by attaching such a high price tag.)

The new action from council rectifies this by proposing a leaner, meaner division focused on the task force recommendations. The proposal would create the department by appropriating two unused positions from the Convention Center. By securing funding through the Convention Center – an enterprise department that generates profits, like Austin Energy – a music division won't burden the strained General Fund, money that pays for city services such as public safety, parks, libraries, and the like. With the city facing a budget gap upward of $30 million, the city has to balance the division's creation with its own weakened financial state – and fight to impart the importance of the department to staff. Says Laura Morrison, "We're trying to find how to best serve the needs of the music community but within the constraints."

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