Last fall, I started a blog entry after attending a roundtable of musicians, music non-profits and businesses assembled by the guy who wound up winning Austin mayoral election a few weeks later. I wasn’t happy with my behavior at the roundtable and put the entry aside and haven’t reviewed it since.
However, the imminent release of the results of the ATX Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey next week brought this night back to mind. I thought I’d clean up and post this hasty, rambling entry before the release of the results on Monday so we can see how my thoughts align:
Last night, I was part of a roundtable of music business people assembled to advise an Austin mayoral candidate on issues that affect the music community. I was happy to have been invited but once I got there, my attitude soured. My experiences from my days with Austin Music Foundation came rushing back and I thought, “This is going to be another fruitless meeting of the minds where a few people actually talk, the majority sit quietly and nothing really happens.”
Fortunately it wasn’t that bad.
Unfortunately for me, when the group was asked to paint a picture of Austin 15 years from now, I made the mistake of speaking and probably offended most everyone there by indirectly questioning whether anyone there actually goes to live music shows by local bands. I quickly felt like I needed to explain myself but my time had passed. I blew the only 3 minutes I was going to get and had to sit there feeling like a dick for an hour. I even tried to butt in over Michael Feferman at one point to redeem myself but, of course, that was stupid. I left the meeting feeling embarrassed.
I’m not very good in real time with these kinds of things. I get excited and haven’t mastered the art of presenting my point verbally in an organized, non-sarcastic manner. So I thought I’d use this entry to answer the question in writing here.
But first, I want to address my skepticism. I should’ve come to the table with a positive attitude. I didn’t because —– >
I perceive that these meetings are often focused on music businesses that seem more worthy of assistance than actual musicians – like clubs or other businesses that employ several people. Part of that is because musicians often aren’t recognized (even by ourselves) as businesses. Venues, for example, have to go through all kinds of hoops just to open (renting a location, hiring/managing staff, dealing with TABC, etc.) and essentially serve as a work place for the thousands of free-lance musicians, bartenders, sound engineers, etc. Musicians can just go start playing for tips on the street as soon as is convenient.
I get that.
However, I still think that these businesses only exist because musicians are here*. If Austin’s musicians all leave town, many venues and other businesses would close… or become dance clubs. For this reason, I think addressing the issues the creative class faces are important if we don’t want to become the next San Francisco.
I also perceive that good recommendations have been ignored in favor of (often legitimately) more pressing issues. “Musicians who don’t want to get day jobs” aren’t as big a concern as managing resources, traffic issues, budgeting, emergency services, etc. But remember the Austin Music Task Force? That group had a lot of really good suggestions that were simply tabled when the City had a regime change. They never came back to the foreground again but the issues didn’t go away.
Other than legitimate music business people, these meetings are always attended by a few rich and financially well-connected people who are mostly disconnected from the actual music scene but pay a lot of lip service to it. They may even make money off of it.
That’s why I asked the four other musicians present if they ever saw the other attendees at shows… because I don’t and I feel like a big part of the problem Austin music faces is the fact that we’re often just entertaining each other. Most of the audiences I see at all-local band shows are other musicians. That’s partly because of the kind of nerdy music I like but I see plenty of musicians at non-metal/punk/indie/avant garde shows.
The players in Austin’s future have rallied around the revenue generated by music for decades but musicians only get the trickle at the very bottom of that flow. Big events like ACL and SxSW draw lots of people who pay for parking, food, lodging, souvenirs, alcohol*, etc. Your parents spending two nights at a hotel in town for your CD release show is a drop in the bucket.
(I think Austin is becoming less about music and more about just partying. Maybe it always has been. Maybe that’s not bad… partiers love music.)
My point of all of this is that musicians concerns have been out there for a while and so far, we’ve mostly just been shooting in the dark to try to fix them. As a guy who worked on the inside of an Austin music non-profit, I can confidently say that no one really knows what the solution is and sometimes it seems like finding one isn’t enough of priority to really make changes.
OK so that’s why I’m skeptical. Here’s my slightly more coherent reply to where I’d like to see Austin in 15 years:
City-Wide Awareness and Sense of Investing in Culture
In fifteen years, I’d like to see a city of people willing to say NO to making as much money as possible and YES to things we value that aren’t measured well with dollars in order to preserve those things that make Austin special – particularly the creative class that live in a realm of low wages/high expenses.***
I know – I’m living in a fantasy land but allow me to fantasize here. If there are so many of us that are part of that creative class, why not do something to preserve it/?
There are plenty of not-very-profitable things that we value in Austin. The creative class, children/schools, parks, developing business ventures, new ideas, diverse neighborhoods, etc. Heck, even people in boring towns care about some of those! Losing them will surely put Austin on the same downward slope as San Francisco, whose loss of vibrancy seems to be coming to a head after many years of decline.
Austin has a very large community that cares about how special the city is – more than any city I’ve visited with the exception of New Orleans. However, plenty of people move here from other cities DAILY and plenty of them seem to just be here because we have jobs and water… for now. Not because Austin’s “weird”. They work their jobs by day, watch cable tv at night and spend their weekends at the mall with their kids. They may as well live in Pensacola or Dallas. Most of them probably don’t care if “weird” comes to an end and if we don’t somehow indoctrinate them into it, the level of indifference will rise as they continue to pour into our town.
I know —- getting people to care about something that isn’t their kids or their livelihood is an uphill battle. But just like getting people to wear seat belts or to quit drinking and driving, it’s worth the effort! Both of those became laws only after enough people pushed for awareness.
This is a tough sell to the couple who can sell the house they bought for $75K in 1998 for $225K now… or the businesses who can raise its prices because rich people are moving here will pay more… or the organizations and government that want incentivize businesses with tax breaks.
But if we behave as if money is all that matters, we will eventually make it so and we’ll be the new San Francisco. “Not rich? Try Waco!”
The good news is that I think we already have a good foundation for preserving the things we love about Austin. Whatever your feelings are about the phrases “Live Music Capital of the World” and “Keep Austin Weird”, they are excellent marketing slogans for exactly what I’m talking about. I mean, you can buy t-shirts with those things emblazoned on them at the mall. Even if they’ve been co-opted by souvenir shops, at least the sentiment of Austin’s uniqueness remains present in word.
Bottom line, I think that what seems most threatening to our music community is ignorance and indifference. If we make people aware, they will care. Doing so will be a never-ending effort.
*or is it because partiers are here?
**of all the industries that can make money generated by music events, alcohol seems like the biggest winner to me.
***and if you don’t think that what the creative class does is important, I hope you find a lovely condo in Dallas or San Jose someday!