In February of 2016, Austin Mayor Steve Adler warned that the thousands of musicians who drive the “Live Music Capital of the World” were in trouble and he offered a plan to fix it.
“We’re going to need all our creativity, ingenuity, and vision to deal with the crisis that faces the musicians and artists alike who are getting priced out of homes and studio space,” Adler said at the time. “The work they are producing is as vibrant as ever, but this city has never been more unaffordable for them.”
The Music and Creative Ecosystem Stabilization or Omnibus plan, unveiled in June of that year, offered 78 pages of proposals, not only for the music economy but for all of the city’s cultural arts.
More than two years later, almost none of those music priorities have been addressed according to a review of spending done by The Texas Monitor. Musicians remain in crisis, driven out of town in greater numbers by housing that is less affordable than when the Omnibus study was published, Rick Carney, a senior member of the Austin Music Commission, said.
Adler, and everyone else who wanted to help, ran headlong into a political reality, Carney said. Affordable housing is a citywide issue, one the City Council has asked taxpayers to help solve with a $250 million bond in November. The viability of music venues is part of CodeNEXT, a contentious battle to overhaul the city’s development code for the first time in 30 years.
Add to that the city’s intractable problems with transportation and infrastructure and it’s little wonder that the crisis of a small but very visible constituency has gotten lost, Carney said.
“I don’t blame anybody,” Carney said in a lengthy interview with The Texas Monitor. “Mayor Adler was very sincere. He recognizes we still have a crisis. But it’s one of many crises. First and foremost it’s an economic issue that affects all of us. The political reality is music is never a core objective for anybody.”
Carney is in a unique position to assess this political dynamic. Now in his second term with the advisory music commission, Carney took the appointment just after Adler announced that dozens of city staff, commission members and members of the local music industry would collaborate on the Omnibus.
Carney is one of the lucky ones with a steady day job, the manager of music education for Austin’s School of Rock, part of a national chain of music schools. Together with a wife with a solid job, they have been able to remain in Austin. The two dozen teachers he oversees — all working musicians — have it a lot tougher, he said.
Carney is a working musician too, this year celebrating his 25th anniversary as a founding member of the punk band, Jesus Christ Superfly.
In the mid-1980s, when Carney moved shortly after graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, the market for Texas oil had dropped out, convulsing what was a not-very-diverse Austin economy. Downtown buildings were boarded and rent everywhere in the city was dirt cheap, Carney said.
“Austin drew people like me because the stakes were so low and when the stakes are low, great things happen,” he said. “Today, the stakes in Austin are really, really high.”
In the late 1980s, as musicians continued to pour into the city, Mark Pratz, owner of the Liberty Lunch, the long-gone music venue that defined the era, reported on the state of the music business at the time, Carney said.
“Things that were in that report were exactly the same things that are in the Omnibus report today,” Carney said. “The music business here needed infrastructure and it still needs infrastructure.”
Lack of infrastructure was no obstacle when there was such a surplus of cool. By June of 2015, more than 10,000 professional musicians were having a $1.8 billion annual impact on the Austin economy, according to The Austin Music Census. Roughly 140 non-profit organizations were operated by or for the benefit of musicians in the community.
“Year-round economic activity by local artists, venues, and business,” however, had dropped off 15 percent and more than 1,200 music jobs had disappeared. By far, the musicians surveyed blamed stagnating pay and the rising cost of living.
Local and national press got wind of the survey. Pitchfork ran a story with the headline, Crisis of Gentrification Hits Austin Music Scene. “The Crisis in Austin Music” followed and in May of 2016, the local Austin Chronicle said musicians complained, “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore,”
“It’s long past time that our city’s policies and resources become aligned with our city’s stated values,” Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People told the Austin American-Statesman.
The Omnibus was to have been the answer, although from the start, its priorities were split between the music and cultural arts divisions. The priority of cultural arts over music is reflected in the city spending two years after the Omnibus was released.
When Erica Shamaly, manager of the music and entertainment division of the city’s Economic Development Department, balked at providing spending figures, The Texas Monitor made a formal request through the state’s Public Information Act. Shamaly declined to comment on the figures the city provided.
Over the past two years the city has spent about $61,000 on its musicians’ crisis, $37,800 of it on monitoring sound levels outside of music venues to mediate noise disputes with neighbors, according to our research.
Of those programs that directly help musicians, the city has allotted $3,990 this year for a pilot program to install nine kiosks, three to a music venue, where customers can use their credit cards to directly tip performers, according to the city document.
The city also intends to draw $6,300 from a $150,000 fund that was part of Trammell Crow’s Green Water Treatment Plant development agreement to pay musicians $150 for one-hour street performances. The city has so far paid out $2,300, according to the document.
In this budget year, more than $600,000 is being spent on various cultural arts programs. In April, when the Music Commission added a $15 million “music hub” to the $925 million bond package on the ballot in November, cultural arts advocates complained and the idea was dropped.
Carney said the $15 million request was legitimate, but commission members found out quickly that it was going to come at the expense of more established cultural arts groups.
“You don’t want your request, however legitimate to come at the cost of someone else’s request,” Carney said. “You’re putting your city government in the position of picking winners and losers, which isn’t necessarily government’s role.”
Commission members have suggested that musician programs should rightfully get a piece of the more than $90 million collected each year in Hotel Occupancy Taxes. “That just puts us at odds with the Long Center (for the Performing Arts) and all of the other non-profit cultural centers that have been getting their funding from those taxes for a long time,” Carney said. “It’s not a fair way to frame the discussion.”
Meaningful help is going to have to come from the private sector, maybe a kind of patronage system like those supporting symphonies and opera and dance companies, Carney said. The city’s more appropriate role would come in offering incentives for private companies to become patrons, he said.
“It takes political courage to make a cultural argument that music is a natural resource for this city, in the same mind space as Barton Springs,” Carney said. “It’s an argument that’s almost impossible to make at this point. Hardly anyone is going to go out on a limb for musicians.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].