Austin Music Census finds city at tipping point as Live Music Capital

Updated June 01, 2015
Jay Janner
James Taylor, partner and general manager of Holy Mountain, gets ready for business at the Seventh Street live music venue. A “for lease” sign recently went up outside the club after the landlord indicated the rent was going up.

A first-of-its-kind survey of Austin’s music industry points to emerging fault lines that threaten the city’s status as “Live Music Capital of the World.”

According to the 233-page, city-commissioned survey of nearly 4,000 people who live in Austin and work in the music industry, the biggest problem facing musicians and music venue owners is affording to live and do business in a city that is increasingly becoming unaffordable to the creative class.

For instance, half of the musicians who live in Austin earn less than $25,000 a year, including income from nonmusic day jobs. Venue owners say rising rents, razor-thin profit margins and declining cover charges make it difficult to stay open. Music industry entrepreneurs or small-business owners say they can’t find affordable office space.

“The report shows that our music industry and culture are at a tipping point,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “One of the things that makes Austin special and part of our soul is the creative culture and music in our city.” Adler called it a “grave concern” that Austin could be at risk for losing what he called a “foundational element” of its culture.

The city paid $45,000 to Titan Music Group to conduct the Austin Music Census, compile the findings and offer policy recommendations.

Since Austin branded itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” decades ago, it has benefited from a largely organic growth to its music industry and is now home to dozens of music venues, thousands of musicians and hundreds of music industry businesses, some of which are globally recognized brands such as South by Southwest and C3 Presents, which runs the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

But the census argues that Austin’s music industry cannot continue to grow — and in fact my retract — without a comprehensive long-term economic development strategy.

Among the study’s findings:

The census also delivered a set of policy recommendations for the city to consider, including:

Adler said he’d like the council to study all of the study’s suggestions.

Don Pitts, the head of Austin’s music and entertainment division in the Economic Development Department, said at first the census was sobering in its findings, particularly in exposing how little musicians earn. But Pitts said now he’s “bouncing off the walls with optimism” because he sees the census as a sort of blueprint for the role his office and government should play in enhancing Austin’s music industry, with some help from the private sector and nonprofits.

Frederico Geib, a Brazilian musician who has lived in Austin for 12 years and has a band called Frederico7, said learning about the study’s conclusions at an Austin Music Commission meeting on Monday was like “watching my life.” He said musicians often grouse among themselves about how to balance their day jobs with their music careers and still find a way to afford to live in Austin.

Besides being a working musician, Geib said he is a music teacher and provides translating services. For him, the question the study posed was: “Do local musicians really matter?” He said Austin has carved out a reputation as “a great place to throw a party for the rest of the world” to enjoy, but that there seemed to be a lack of focus and concern about cultivating local music.

Another key revelation from the study: Venue owners seem “to operate on narrow margins that are getting progressively narrower over time.”

“Rents are skyrocketing,” said Jason McNeely, who runs Hotel Vegas on East Sixth Street, in a neighborhood that has shifted from a strip of Mexican restaurants and Tejano bars into ground zero for Austin’s condo and trendy nightlife explosion.

His venue is healthy — for now. But the speed of the neighborhood’s transformation and the overall climate of development make it difficult for him to feel confident about the club’s longevity and the future of Austin’s music scene.

“If you can’t have a thriving community downtown, if you can’t have a thriving music community on the east side, where will we go?” McNeely said.

The Red River Cultural District, a cluster of clubs around Seventh and Red River Streets, became a flashpoint for this conversation last month when news broke that popular venues Holy Mountain and Red 7 were facing hefty rent increases. Though Red 7 manager Tyler Swindell told the American-Statesman he believes his club will stay open, a “for lease” sign went up outside Holy Mountain last week.

Attendees of the Austin Music Commission meeting watch a presentation Monday of a report of the city’s music industry at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. Frederico Geib, a Brazilian musician who has lived in Austin for 12 years, said learning about the study’s conclusions was like “watching my life.” Photo: Shelby Tauber

In South Austin, Scott Ward, owner of coffeehouse and music room Strange Brew, said his live-music operation “breaks even at best at this point, but it’s only three years old.”

Strange Brew now keeps $1 of the cover charge, which typically ranges from a few dollars to more than $20, with the rest going to the performers. “We had to do that in order to survive,” Ward said. “In the first year, I was probably losing about $5,000 a month, and the coffee shop was supporting that and keeping it alive. So I had to make changes.”

The narrow margins also helped spur Strange Brew to present multiple performances every night and add afternoon shows on weekends. In addition to providing more opportunities for income, Ward said it helped create more viable jobs for his staff.

James Moody, owner of the Mohawk and co-founder of promotion company Transmission Entertainment and Fun Fun Fun Fest, believes venues in the Red River district need to study the multishow model, add happy hour events and increase hours of operation to offset rent increases.

“You need to build your club in a way that it’s not just hose it off at midnight and then open your door when your door guy wakes up,” Moody said. “Those days are done.”

ABOUT THE STUDY

Nearly 4,000 people who work in the Austin area - including 2,380 musicians, 1,401 music industry professionals and 187 venue owners and managers - participated in a detailed online survey between Nov. 12 and Jan. 27 about the city's music industry. City-hired Titan Music Group also conducted eight focus groups and 20 interviews to gather more in-depth information to help shape and interpret the survey results. See the full report here.