On Monday, Titan Music Group released a city-commissioned report, based on more than 4,000 survey responses, which basically said that due to rising cost of living in Austin and stagnant pay for musicians, the vaunted Austin music scene is struggling to maintain its vitality. That general finding, laid out in 230 pages, cost the city $45,000. To which I will add, free of charge, “no shit!”
This is not a new issue. I’m reprinting here, an updated essay I wrote two years ago, when some movers-and-shakers, including Terry Lickona of Austin City Limits, were putting together a resolution for the Texas State Legislature, which proposed tax breaks for live music venues. The Lege had a good laugh over that one.
by Michael Corcoran
The live music venues. That’s the key component to the whole thing. Musicians need audiences and whatever money they can get. But running a live music club in Austin doesn’t make financial sense. Everybody wants to be on the guest list and hosting bands is expensive, with the extra equipment and personnel it takes for sound, security, load-in, etc. The acts don’t make much money because there’s just not much to divvy up.
When the clubs aren’t healthy, the scene loses vitality. All those festivals that come through town are a good excuse to people-watch and get drunk and to have something to talk about later. And they bring in tons of cashola. But the strength of the local music scene is in the acts who live here because there are a lot of places to play.
In Nashville, some bars and restaurants that host live music have a line on the credit card receipt where you can leave a tip for the musicians. But in Austin, where live music is a quality of life issue, the singers and players have to fend for themselves.
As Austin is becoming more like Dallas and Houston, which both had to wait for their own Uchis, the one thing that distinguishes the Texas capital as a model of good living is the live music scene. No city in Texas comes close to the talent level and the audience astuteness. You hear boosters from Houston and Big D tout their better scenes and you wonder if next they’re going to try and convince you that being murdered is better than dying in your sleep. Compared to Austin, those are ghost towns, aside from a few pockets like the Kessler Theater in Dallas.
I was in Dallas this past weekend and had a terrific time being shown the new Oak Cliff by Mr. Dallas Himself, Robert Wilonsky of the Morning News. The transformation is as impressive as our Eastside Sixth. We ended up at the Belmont Hotel, which is like the San Jose with a spectacular city view from a DC-9 at night. God, the women were gorgeous and bold- and Tommy Stinson of the Replacements was sitting in with the band. I realized from the reaction of the crowd that maybe three people out of 100 had even heard of Tommy Stinson. If a Replacement joined an Austin band onstage there’d be people in the audience who’d been asleep 15 minutes earlier, when they got a phone call to get their ass DOWN HERE NOW! Music is just background up in Dallas. Is the same thing starting to happen here?
Will give Dallas and Houston major props for their rich musical history. Austin’s heyday didn’t start until kids started moving here in the ’60s to keep from getting their asses kicked for having hair like girls. But, as corny as it sounds, music is a way of life in Austin. There’s more respect for people putting their hearts and souls into songs. But not from the city. Austin bows to the beat of real estate and, as we’ve said earlier, a live music venue is, financially, the dumbest use of downtown spaces. The only true motivation for opening a live music venue is because you have a passion for the music and the other people who love it.
I grew up in Honolulu, which had as weak a live original music scene as there was in this country. But I had my first legal drinks listening to live rock bands there in the clubs of Waikiki in the ’70s. Disco was king and the clubs were all getting rid of live music and piping in “The Hustle.” So what the city did was come up with a special “cabaret license,” which allowed a club to stay open and serve alcohol until 4 a.m. if it hosted live music at least past midnight. Closing time everywhere else was 2 a.m. So bands had places to play, even if it was just at gay bars that wanted an excuse to pump Donna Summer til 4.
If Honolulu can do something that helps bands, why can’t the live music capital of Travis County? There’s been talk of giving tax breaks to live music venues. Please, pass that next lege go-round. When a great club closes, it’s, culturally much bigger news than a high tech company moving to North Carolina for better incentives. Yet Austin clubs get no sweetheart deals. They get the TABC and parking tickets.
This beautiful thing we’ve got going on in Austin could go away. The city has to be more proactive in helping the clubs that book bands, when they could be making more money with jello shots and techno and the San Antonio Spurs on a dozen big TVs.
Sometimes city money goes to the wrong people. I’m not in favor of musicians- or those claiming to be- getting special treatment when it comes to affordable housing or all that. “Too many squirrels and not enough nuts” was how one commenter summed up the local music scene’s money woes. The problem with “musician” is that it’s a job title you declare, not necessarily one you earn. But we know which clubs are keeping the Austin music scene thriving. Elected officials should start thinking about those clubs as the cultural treasures they are and do whatever it takes to keep them strong. South By Southwest became an international sensation living in the house of cards that’s the live music clubs. There’s a lot riding on those boxes of sound.