Advocates Offer Suggestions to an Austin Music Scene That 'Needs Improvement'

Jul 30, 2015

Austin music leaders are suggesting changes the city could make to protect and enliven its live music industry. On Wednesday, they presented their recommendations at Holy Mountain, a downtown venue closing its doors later this year – partly because of rising rent.

The recommendations are aimed at five issues advocates say are plaguing Austin’s music scene, including affordability of commercial space, stagnant event revenues, venue preservation, permitting and code enforcement complications and a gap in community engagement.

The brunt of last night’s presentation from Austin Music People (AMP) focused on addressing affordability of commercial space, stemming stagnant event revenues and preserving venues.

One solution proposed by Austin music advocates? Adding a city employee whose sole job is to protect music real estate.

“This issue of real estate, space, venues, all of this stuff, it needs its own person,” says Brad Spies, former chair of the city’s Music Commission and South By Southwest executive says, in a city where buildings are going up every day, music venues should not have to turn down their music to help out a new neighbor.

“If a residential tower wants to move into a music district, the development has to mitigate sound. They have to build thicker windows,” Spies says. “They have to do that stuff.”

AMP touted city programs that, among other things, provide low-interest loans to venues for sound mitigation, but suggested the city try to implement a program to require sound mitigation in new construction projects within 600 feet of entertainment districts, an effort which previously failed in commission.

The proposed full-time employee would ideally act as a liaison between the city, the music community and developers, as well work to develop proposals outlined in AMP’s white paper. The employee would work within the Economic Development Department, which houses the city’s Music Office.

AMP also called for the city to appoint an ombudsman for permitting issues and an “accountable official with substantial, real-world event experience to oversee and help venues navigate the Temporary Event permitting process,” a process which this year’s Austin Music Census found is “extremely or moderately difficult” for nearly two-thirds of those surveyed.

The group suggests the city reorganize the permitting process to create a catch-all permit application that includes all requisite forms.

All of the recommendations, including city code changes and additional funding for the city’s Music and Entertainment Division, come at an opportune time: The city is presenting a draft of its budget this morning.

AMP's report card for the City of Austin, which the group released yesterday, gave the “Live Music Capital of the World” a C-. Below are some excerpts from each category of the report card.

Policy – C

Given Austin’s recent and rapid population increases, a timely and modern revision of our decades-old land-use plan through the CodeNEXT process is critical to addressing the twin threats of gentrification and haphazard urban growth. Every year, Austin loses iconic music venues, old and new. It’s past time to explore active venue preservation options including cultural districts, merchants’ associations, and a shift to using the Agent of Change principle as a policy baseline.

Music Office – C

Unfortunately, while [the Music & Entertainment Division] has bootstrapped its way to a degree of effectiveness, it is severely underfunded and is consistently bogged down as a result of poor city management, which has created a disastrous bureaucratic morass that affects almost all City departments who try to work together.

Music Advisory Board – B

In Fall 2015, the commission will expand to 11 members, one for each of the ten new city council districts and an at-large commissioner appointed by the mayor…Two seats on the [commission] remain unfilled as of this writing. Further, only one of the commissioners appointed to date has served on the commission in the past; all the others are new and subject to a significant learning curve. Considering the commission only meets every other month, this lack of experience with city practices and policies may well limit the commission’s effectiveness for a period.

Community Engagement – D

Indeed, the [Austin Music Census] survey results, focus group responses, interviews, and text write-ins confirmed a sobering shared finding: Respondents across all industry sectors said that “lack of civic engagement to make changes that would benefit the music industry” was of great concern. Yet, respondents also reported that civic engagement was one of their weakest skills in the Skill & Expertise Areas.

Space – C

Austin must first be home to an abundance and variety of performance venues, from tiny coffeehouse stages to amphitheaters and festivals - and the audiences to fill them. The City has not considered the effect of rapid development on creative venues at all, leaving them overly-susceptible to death by market forces.

Audience Development – D

In Austin, a recurring theme from census respondents is that a “cover charge” for local Austin musicians has all but evaporated for many venues, despite the high number of quality local artists. In fact, it appears that some local residents are less willing to pay a typical $5 to $10 cover charge for a night out of local live music than they have been at any time in the past decade. Census participants reported that cover charges have typically stayed the same or declined from ten years ago, or in some cases, disappeared entirely.

Music Tourism – D

[T]here are very few creative-sector focused City initiatives. Indeed, systemic bureaucratic problems on the City side are threatening a number of Austin’s flagship special events, which are a main driver of Music Tourism and the resultant tax revenue to the City.