City Council responds to music census with increased funding in new budget

Megan Hix

Nothing says Austin like live music — and City Council is taking steps to make sure it stays that way.

When the City of Austin released its first-ever music census in June, findings showed over 68 percent of Austin musicians made less than $10,000 from their craft annually, and 20 percent were living below poverty levels. But musicians weren’t the only ones suffering. Declining revenue from cover charges paired with increasingly expensive, short-term leases have already meant the end of venues including Red 7, which closed Aug. 28, and Holy Mountain, which is set to shut its doors later this fall.

The Austin City Council will aim to reverse these trends Thursday when it approves the new City budget, which includes increased funding for programs such as the Music Venue Assistance Program and the City’s Music & Entertainment Division. Council member Ellen Troxclair, who sponsored the funding increases, said Austin needs the changes because of the music industry’s importance to the city’s culture and economy.

“We are fixing a crisis when it comes to maintaining the music industry in this city,” Troxclair said. “Our motto is the ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’ but we’ve seen through the Austin Music Census that it’s becoming harder and harder for musicians and [venue] owners to continue doing business.”

With increased funding, the Music & Entertainment Division — the Department of Economic Development’s smallest office, made up of only four staff members — will be able to hire two new full-time employees. The new staff members will help keep up with the demands of reviewing about 600 sound permit applications each year. Additionally, the larger team will create a long-term plan to address concerns presented in the music census, such as rent affordability and safer late-night transportation options. 

Even with a proposed increase of $30,000, the division’s spending allowance will amount to about $108,000 of the City’s $3.5 billion budget, despite the industry’s estimated $2 billion impact on Austin’s economy. 

Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Austin Music People, said the additional employees and budget increase are steps in the right direction toward maintaining Austin’s music scene, but there is still more to be done.

“I’d like to see some support for the local agencies, the local labels, the local studios,” Houlihan said. “Any kind of support they could give our small music businesses so they can start to grow, hire people and develop national-level skills,  so that when we get an artist like Max Frost or Shakey Graves that’s starting to hit the big time, they don’t think they have to go to Nashville, New York or Los Angeles.”

Recording studios and some other music-related businesses will fall under the new, expanded criteria for the Music Venue Assistance Program. The program, which currently offers low-interest loans exclusively to music venues, will now offer assistance to recording companies and other music infrastructure businesses. 

“The Music Venue Assistance Program could have a whole bunch of different ways of operating, like short-term loans for those folks who just need time to change their business plan so that they can generate the numbers that [would] be needed to keep their lease,” Houlihan said. “They may just need a little bit of breathing room.” 

Since the program’s inception in 2013, venues including Stubb’s and Cheer Up Charlies have used it to install directional speakers that mitigate noise levels and reduce the number of noise complaints. Stubb’s general manager Ryan Garrett said the success of these programs depends largely on communication between venues and the City. 

“It’s about open dialogue,” Garrett said. “In my experience, the City of Austin has been cooperative. You’re not going to get every wish fulfilled, but it’s about compromise. It’s been a cooperation that’s worked very well for the venue and City.”

Nakia Reynoso, musician and chair of the Austin Music Commission, said community engagement will play a vital role in addressing problems such as affordability. 

“Musicians aren’t making enough money and they can’t afford to live here and focus on their art,” Reynoso said in an email. “Now is the time for Austin music to step up, let our voices be heard and for the city to welcome us in to be part of the process.”