Austin: A city in harmony with its music community | MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly | Indy Week
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Austin: A city in harmony with its music community 

click to enlarge Promotion for one of the City of Austin's many music support programs. - ARTWORK BY DANNY GARRETT (WWW.DANNYGARRETT.COM)
  • Artwork by Danny Garrett (www.dannygarrett.com)
  • Promotion for one of the City of Austin's many music support programs.
What the city of Austin does for its music scene will blow your mind. First, there’s Jim Butler, who works for the city as a liaison between the music community and city government. Butler’s job is to keep Austin’s 100-plus live music venues happy. The city’s music marketing department also promotes live music venues to event planners, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau offers the “Hire an Austin Musician Program,” a searchable online directory of some 1,500 local acts. A live set by a local band opens each and every Austin city council meeting.

“I don’t think there was any kind of particular monumental event that happened where everybody just went ‘Whoa! Hey! Music’s a big deal now!’” Butler says. “It just sort of organically grew over the years.”

In 1976, PBS started broadcasting the live music program Austin City Limits to a national audience. In 1989, the city founded a music commission that still meets once a month. South By Southwest, the weeklong music festival that draws hundreds of bands and thousands of visitors each year, was founded 20 years ago.

Butler recalls a classic comment by Ray Benson, leader of the country swing band Asleep at the Wheel. “I was on a panel with him addressing business people and the mayor, and he said, ‘Well, I came here for two reasons: cheap housing and cheap pot,’ and the mayor right away said, ‘Well, I can help you with one of those.’ Our role as city folks is limited.”

Nonprofits play a major role, such as the Austin Music Foundation, which puts on seminars about how to get a song on the radio and how to deal with taxes and accounting issues. There’s a housing co-op for musicians and a health care alliance, too.

But some things are in the city’s power, and many of them are the kind of small, cheap, easy things you wouldn’t think to do unless you talked to the clubs about what their problems are. That’s Butler’s job. He helped solve the parking crunch for bands by setting up diamond lanes on the main music strip; the city gives clubs a tag the bands can put on their dashboards so they don’t get a ticket while unloading the gear. The city’s electric utility does free energy audits of clubs to help them conserve energy and reduce their bills.

There’s also a music industry loan-guarantee program that sets aside $225,000 a year to provide 50-cents-on-the dollar guarantees to private lenders to help music companies that want to hire more employees or improve their facilities. That program has since expanded to film and other creative industries in town.

Austin’s willing to put up the cash because they know that music creates jobs and keeps the local economy going. A city-commissioned study published in 2003 found that the music industry generated more than $616 million in economic activity annually, almost 11,200 jobs and more than $11 million in city tax revenues. “Perhaps even more important are the impacts that are not as easily measured, especially the connection between technology and the arts,” the report says. The high-tech industry in Austin has grown in large part because geeks want to be where the music is.

The study also looked at what holds the music scene back. Austin has so many bands and venues, its population of 700,000 can hardly keep up with it all, which means stiff competition among musicians and a necessity of drawing tourists. Another problem is the rising cost of real estate (thanks to the success of the high-tech industry), “further reducing profit margins of club owners who lease their facilities.”

Also a problem: “The full impact of certain regulations and ordinances is not always considered.” Fire codes, noise ordinances and parking policies aren’t necessarily “burdensome in and of themselves, but their enforcement has on occasion had unintended consequences.” The report cites a major label SXSW showcase that was shut down due to an artificially low occupancy standard. It recommends that “the needs of the music industry should be considered in both policy development and implementation.”

Check out the study and the rest of Austin’s music perks at the city’s Web site, www.ci.austin.tx.us/music/default.htm.

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