Too Little, Too Late for the Dying Austin Music Scene

willie-nelson-mural

Earlier this week I took a trip into downtown Austin to see the new Willie Nelson mural unveiled a week or so ago near the corner of 7th and Neches streets, in the crux of Austin’s traditional entertainment district. It was done by a local artist named Wiley Ross, who has also painted other music-themed downtown Austin murals on the sides of buildings. It’s part of the charm and musical heritage that makes Austin, TX a one-of-a-kind city.

But soon all that may be left of the Austin music scene are the murals and other token gestures to what Austin music once was. The legendary venues, the world-class musicians, and the stellar music pouring out of vibrant venues on to busy streets as people flock from all around the country and world to discover something new and take in the culture of what is dubbed the “Live Music Capital of the World,” are all fading away under incredible pressure from gentrification, affordability issues, and a general eroding of support for live music in the Live Music Capital.

People have been contemplating and predicting the death of Austin music for as long as Austin music has been a thing. There was concern that Richard Linklater’s Slacker movie from 1991 might expose Austin’s weirdness to the rest of the word, and thus ruin it forever. When MTV’s “The Real World” moved into a converted warehouse in downtown Austin in 2005, people were sure this would be the beginning of the end. Yet enough of a scene has been held together through these challenges and others to where we can still complain about the unfortunate demise of Austin music today.

But now there are startling statistics to legitimize these ever-present concerns, and the situation has never appeared more dire.

Last week a study contracted by Austin Music People, and conducted by TXP Inc. concluded that just in the past four years, Austin has shed an estimated 1,200 music jobs—a whopping statistic when you consider both the size of the Austin scene, and the amount of individuals who still move to Austin every year specifically to participate in music. Economically, the financial activity of artists, venues, and industry has also dipped 15% recently, from .

This shocking data stimulated Austin’s new mayor Steve Adler to call a press conference last Friday (2-26), and announce to the city that action would be taken.

“We didn’t need another study to tell us Austin’s music industry is suffering under Austin’s affordability crisis,” Mayor Adler said. “The news that we have lost 1,200 jobs was sobering. We will not long be the Live Music Capital of the World if we lose musicians, if we lose music venues.”

So what did Mayor Adler do? He directed Austin City Manager Marc Ott to conduct yet another study to determine the best recommendations for how the city can support the dying music scene, including ideas such as allowing venues to charge patrons for gratuities for the bands, and creating land trusts to make sure Austin’s venues can remain standing. The city has 90 days to come back with what it considers are the best suggestions—meaning yet another season will go by of more talk, and no action.

But even if and when action is taken by the city, any act of government intended to save Austin music will be too little, too late.

Short of putting a complete moratorium on new condo construction and enacting rent controls—both of which are politically unfeasible—residential construction will continue to encroach on Austin’s traditional entertainment corridors, crowd out venues, continue to raise rents, reduce the inventory of older affordable housing, and continue to push Austin’s musical population further out of the city, or out of the region entirely to seek communities that actually support creative endeavors instead of conducting endless studies and delivering lip service in lieu of real action.

In the end, it’s Austin’s ever-present intellectualism that has allowed things to get so bad, and not just in the music realm. For years Austin, TX was considered a shining beacon on a hill of how to plan a modern city. It was the model of America’s urban future with its educated population, low unemployment, green zones, and civic activities from music, arts, night life, and family-oriented recreation. Austin’s urban planning was used as a template for other urban areas on how to grow smartly. Throughout the 90’s, Austin was the model for the city of the future in how it conducted itself. But this sleekness and efficiency, and brilliant strokes of master planning gave way to arrogance about what kind of city Austin was and allowed long-term and looming planning issues to go overlooked.

All of a sudden, Austin finds itself with some of the worst per capita traffic in the entire United States, and its infrastructure is ten years behind taking care of all of its residents at the moment, let alone where the city will be in ten years from now as it experiences some of the fastest growth in all of North America.

There will be plenty of suggestions moving forward on how to save Austin’s music scene, but few, if any will include the wide sweeping brush strokes needed to make any true, significant improvements, or even help stop the bleeding. Token affordable housing units that are government subsidized don’t make up for the true equity of home ownership, or the freedom of cheap rent that musicians need to create a sustainable financial futures for themselves. Paying Austin musicians a few bucks more for each gig would be nice, but may only work to further discourage the support of live music as it becomes less affordable for patrons who are also struggling with rising rents and other affordability issues in the city.

There is no issue with venue space in Austin, TX, despite what some may say. As I strolled down Red River, and walked down 7th Street where the Willie Nelson mural is located, I could see entire city blocks where venues have been shuttered, and not just fly by night operations that never had a chance to begin with, especially in Austin’s contracting music economy, but legendary venues like Red 7, which had moved to 7th street recently and is now shut down permanently. It’s next door neighbor Holy Mountain, which used to be one of the promising new venues in town, and is now permanently out of commission as well. All down Red River and 7th are prime hot spots with no tenants. It’s not just the lack of space, it’s the lack of patrons.

But discouraging potential revelers from even going downtown is Austin’s lack of parking. For every venue knocked down to build a new condominium complex, two parking lots are eminent domained for the same pursuit. Residents aren’t allowed to park on certain streets overnight, and public transportation is paltry. All of these factors add up to why Austin has so many pedestrian and bicycle deaths each year, and record drunk driving arrests. It’s such an effort to get and stay downtown, it’s too expensive anymore to live within walking distance, and nobody wants to get a DWI. So people stay home and instead stream music on Spotify.

And while the city ponders how to offer token, symbolic support to the musicians and other music professionals who do remain in the city, they’re missing the most important tool to shoot some adrenaline into Austin’s struggling music scene: promoting it to the rest of the world.

Nashville, TN is experiencing its own issues with rapid growth and affordable housing inventory for its music professionals, but at the same time demand for music in Music City is through the roof. Unquestionably Nashville has become increasingly more expensive over time, but so has the rate of pay for musicians as tourists flock to the city in droves and pump the local economy with liquidity. There’s barely an empty spot in Nashville’s Lower Broadway district, and many of Austin’s musicians are flocking to Nashville for the increased opportunity, and better affordability.

The ABC television drama Nashville, as well as savvy tourism plays by the local government have sold the city to the rest of the world as a musical destination spot. Conversely, Austin uses events like SXSW to promote its music scene, which only work to spread anecdotal testimony of how Austin music is a bloated, disorganized dinosaur. Most of Austin’s entertainment districts are crumbling. Austin’s overflowing homeless shelter is right across the street from the new Willie Nelson mural in the heart of its downtown entertainment district, discouraging well-to-do tourists from the area for the sea of homeless.

There are sectors of the Austin music economy that are doing well, like the annual Austin City Limits Festival in October that recently added a second weekend. But far from helping to promote the local music economy, ACL Fest instead imports big mainstream acts from around the country to place as headliners, ostensibly sucking life out of Austin music instead of supporting it.

Same goes for the festival’s namesake—the long-running Austin City Limits television show on PBS that was originally set up to help promote Austin music to the rest of the world, and instead features mostly artists from Nashville, Los Angeles, and other cities. Both ACL Fest and Austin City Limits do offer token support to local musicians, filling in a few spots per season with native talent. But the vast majority of spots go to artists outside the scene. Where a city like Nashville uses the resources of local programs with national reach like the Grand Ole Opry, Music City Roots, and ABC’s Nashville to promote itself and artists big and small from the city, ACL spends the majority of the time promoting artists from other cities to help keep ratings strong, and satisfy corporate sponsors such as Budweiser and Dell.

Austin’s local corporate promoter—C3 Presents—recently sold a 51% stake in the company to LiveNation, and seems to be one of the few sectors of the local music economy unaffected by the recent contraction. And depending on who you speak to, C3 Presents could be part of the reason for the contraction. With ownership of numerous local venues, as well as being the promoter of ACL Fest, C3 swings a big stick in Austin, and has ostensibly helped squeeze out smaller promoters and venues, even if inadvertently. If you want to play Austin and have it be a successful gig, it’s best or essential to have C3 in your corner. At the same time, C3 Presents seems to be one of the few successful sectors of the local Austin music economy at the moment, and could be the firewall to Austin’s music recession.

It’s unfair to characterize everything in Austin music as terrible. All across the city there are pockets of resistance opening up, or maintaining their foothold in neighborhoods. On South Congress, the legendary Continental Club still survives, even if it’s the only club within city blocks. On the east side, The White Horse and others have cropped up, even though they’re few and far between, instead of the rows of clubs Austin once was known for, and that only exists in any great measure any more on 6th Street—the city’s most notorious music zone. But as any local Austin musician will tell you, 6th is for tourists, and the true talent of Austin took their music elsewhere in town many years ago.

But as the entertainment zones get scattered throughout the city, they butt up against noise ordinances and permitting issues that have gutted the heart of Austin music as much as anything. Though possibly one of the easiest fixes to Austin’s music dilemma, the streamlining of the permitting process by the city has been all talk and no action. Heading into 2016’s installment of SXSW, word is numerous venues that have housed music over the years got entirely shut out, even though the big push last year to save Austin music focused on permitting specifically. And with more residential overlay in the city’s traditional entertainment zones than ever, there are more sets of ears to complain to city officials about noise coming from events and venues. Once again poor zoning, and poor planning come into play when it comes to trying to preserve the vibrancy of Austin music.

So the question remains, how to solve it all?

Instead of focusing on small, symbolic solutions to the big problems with Austin music, the City of Austin should instead focus on the big problems that go beyond the music scene and affect all of the city’s citizens, and then the music problems will be much easier to tackle.

Austin has an infrastructure problem. There needs to be more parking downtown, and more public transportation that operates after the bars close at 2 a.m. There needs to be better zoning to give venues and event planners the latitude to operate successful music endeavors without the concern of going to war with neighbors. Austin’s traffic issues need to be wrinkled out, so patrons don’t feel like it’s a burden simply to travel to an from entertainment corridors. The affordability issue of Austin life needs to be tackled with more than just token gestures. Austin must grow out, not just up. While growing up instead of out is a system that is well-meaning, it only works to benefit the wealthy who can afford new high density property, and propels developers at the front of the line, while putting low income residents and preservationists at the back of it.

And the City of Austin must insist that if you’re using using local parks, and are benefiting from local tax incentives, you must make sure you’re benefiting the local economy by putting Austin musicians first, not musicians from other locales simply because they create buzz, sell tickets, and appease sponsors. Anything with “Austin City” in the title should benefit the City of Austin and its musical residents first.

There’s no more hypothesizing what Austin might look like if the music scene is bled out of its system. All you have to do is walk down 7th Street or Red River to see it. So will the solutions be small baby steps that look to support the dwindling artists and infrastructure that’s still left? Or will there be big proposals and bold plans that not only fix Austin music, but fix Austin in general, and return it to that shining city on a hill that all other cities, and all other music scenes, used to emulate?