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Local scene struggling in ‘live music capital’ Austin

Live music in the Texan capital is now a $1.8bn industry, but local artists, venues and music businesses are at a crisis point, says a new study

By Jon Chapple on 23 Feb 2016

South by Southwest 2011, 6th Street, Austin, Texas, Ian Aberle

Austin's 6th street during SxSW 2011


image © South by Southwest 2011, 6th Street, Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas – the self-described ‘live music capital of the world’ – shed more than 1,200 music-industry jobs from 2010 to 2014.

That’s the finding of a report commissioned by advocacy group Austin Music People (AMP), which reveals that although the economic impact of the city’s music industry significantly increased over those four years, from US$1.6 billion in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2014 (driven primarily by the addition of a second weekend to Austin City Limits festival and the launch of the Austin 360 Amphitheater), the value of Austin’s primary music sector – year-round economic activity by local artists, venues and businesses – declined more than 15 per cent, from $856 million in 2010 to $726 million in 2014.

According to AMP, the study, by TXP, Inc., is “yet another confirmation of what the more than 4,000 respondents to the 2015 Austin Music Census already noted: In a town boasting of our live music heritage, many who work in the Austin music industry can’t even make a living doing it and can’t afford to live in our city”.

“Music tourism is up a bit, which certainly helps some folks,” says AMP executive director Jennifer Houlihan. “but we’ve lost 1,200 music jobs, affecting real people with real families and real bills. We call ourselves a creative and innovative city – our city’s 30-year comprehensive plan declares our commitment to growing and enhancing our entire creative sector, from music to dance to visual arts to film – so let’s get to it. It’s long past time that our city’s policies and resources become aligned with our city’s stated values.”

“If we continue to fail in our support of the local music industry, there will be no music left for those who still live here in Austin”

The solution, says Austin Music Commission chairman Gavin Garcia, is to have Austin Music Office, tasked with marketing the city’s music scene, “concentrate less on permitting and more on economic development and initiatives to increase diversity.”

Bobby Garza, general manager of local company Transmission Events and chairman of the AMP board, says it’s “time for city leadership to act”.

“If we continue to fail in our support of the local music industry, then being the live music capital means visitors can come here for the weekend, spend a few dollars, see a festival, enjoy a restaurant, maybe visit a gallery or buy some locally-designed clothing – and leave,” says Garza. “But there will be no music left for those who still live here in Austin, no places to perform it, no artists to create it, and no businesses to support them – and as they leave town, the tourists and the festivals will follow.

“Music is the canary in the coal mine of our growing city, alerting us to a larger crisis in our essential creative sector. AMP stands ready to help city leadership implement a meaningful plan to address household affordability, regulatory problems, and economic development for Austin’s musicians and other creatives.”

Austin is primarily known as the home of behemoth festival and conference South by Southwest (SxSW), and also hosts Fun Fun Fun Fest, Levitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest) and country/Americana event Old Settler’s Music Festival.