Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Under threat: Austin's music industry as an element of the city's cultural ecosystem and economy

Corrected: August 4th, 2016

In the section below, suggesting income tax exemptions for artists, based on the policy in Ireland, I failed to double check whether or not Texas has a state income tax. IT DOESN"T. Thank you to the reader who pointed out the error.


I've mentioned in the past Austin as an example of doing discipline-specific cultural planning around the music industry.  Austin City Limits, a live music show on PBS, has been broadcasting for 40 years, and that has been one of the anchors for the city's music sector.

While the South by Southwest conference has been around for almost 30 years itself, having originally focused on music, it is now a massive multimedia extravaganza to the point where music, while still a main attraction, is somewhat superseded by the various digital dealings.

Despite the city's success as a "live music capital," the continued rise in prices--either to rent or to buy--for residential and commercial spaces has put the industry under threat, especially in terms of the ability for musicians to be able to afford to live in the city which faces hyper demand due to its place as the state capital, the home of the University of Texas, and as the center of the state's IT industry.

Musicians are moving out of the city and even out of the state ("We Can't Make It Here Anymore: Austin music arrives at the affordability crossroads," Austin Chronicle) and many venues are closing ("The Crisis of Gentrification Hits the Austin Music Scene," Pitchfork).

Without musicians and places to play, especially for bands that aren't mainliners, it's tough to be a center for live music.

Image from "10 best places to see live music in Austin."

Although part of the problem might be "too much of a good thing" because relative to the size of the potential audience -- so many live music events held every night, two dozen or more -- there are too many events given the number of people willing to go out any one night, especially in terms of various music genres, cost, and the number of events they are willing to "consume" in an average week or month.

Other issues concern a change in the nature of music economy generally and within Austin, shifting away from clubs to festivals and events, and the decline in the kinds of places (bookstores, record stores, etc.) that used to support flexible side jobs for creatives, an issue that Scott Timberg discusses in his book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (review), which includes a chapter on Austin's live music scene.

In response, in February Mayor Steve Adler put forward a resolution before the City Council, the Austin Music & Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Res­o­lution, in response to a report which found a 15% decline in the annual revenue in the industry, for musicians, businesses, and venues.

The resolution called for a more detailed study and recommendations for a path forward.  Since late June after the receipt of the report, Music and Creative Ecosystem Stabilization Recommendations, Austin's City Council is considering how it may act and how to implement the recommendations ("Omnibus Resolution Report Arrives: Mayor’s plan to save Austin music takes shape," Chronicle) in a manner that can be successful.

The report focuses on the needs of "the industry," not so much on the needs of individual artists.  However, the recommendations are focused on assisting the business elements of the industry, from mediating disputes between residents and venues over noise to simplifying licensing requirements and developing new sources of revenue, rather than looking at how to assist artists in continuing to live in the city.

Often there is a tension between artists and the state in how creative expression is harvested for economic benefit, such as arts-based revitalization.  I don't think cities have to be apologetic for this, after all, cities have to focus on revenue generation in order to continue to exist.

Still, strategies need to be developed that support artists as a class, without compromising their ability to express themselves however they choose.

Housing for artists.  In terms of housing, community land trusts and portfolio investment in housing can help to create and retain lower cost housing for artists.  The national community development corporation, ArtSpace, builds artist live-work housing around the country, although this type of housing is not constructed without controversy ("Who Gets Subsidized Apartments?," New York Times).

City Arts 2 building in the Station North district in Baltimore.

Mortgage assistance programs could be another strategy.  Jubilee Housing of Baltimore has created some great artist housing developments out of old factory buildings.

-- Best practices in affordable artist housing, Artspace
-- "Colorado's affordable artist housing efforts catching on quickly," Denver Post

Paducah Kentucky is known for its Artists Relocation Project, which recruited artists to live in the city through provision of mortgage and renovation assistance, and low cost house purchases in a targeted neighborhood adjacent to downtown.

Tax exemptions.  Maryland's arts and entertainment districts provide a couple of incentives, not particularly major, in terms of sales tax abatement on sales of items within designated arts districts, such as in Silver Spring, Cambridge, Cumberland, or Highlandtown in Baltimore.

But in Ireland, artists receive a tax exemption on the first €50,000 of their total income.  CORRECTED.  It would be difficult for Austin to pass a tax exemption from local taxes for artists, and it would be nigh impossible to do so for state income taxes, which would require approval by the State Legislature, This is an interesting idea but would have the most impact for artists were there an exemption from federal taxes.  Such an exemption would help cities like Austin encourage creative endeavor and attract and retain working artists.  Saving taxes on that amount allows people to spend more money on housing in otherwise escalating markets.

However, Texas does not have a state income tax, and despite this, Austin is losing artists because of housing price escalation.   Given the earnings of the average artist, an income tax exemption many not be particularly significant, especially as side earnings would not be eligible for the exemption.

Space access recommendations are weaker than they should be.  The report's recommendations on "affordable space" aren't as specific as the recommendations in my previous post, "BTMFBA: the best way to ward off artist or retail displacement is to buy the building," focused on buying and holding buildings reserved for arts and creative uses, with the Paris SEMAEST community development corporation's program to buy and hold retail spaces to support independent retailers as a model example, along with Pittsburgh's Cultural Trust and the Playhouse Square Development Corporation in Cleveland.

Instead the report focuses on incentives and facilitating development that can include venue and related spaces, and providing access to city-controlled space, but does not propose a method of actively creating and/or buying such spaces on the part of what we might call a creativity-related community development corporation maintaining outright ownership.

Supporting music genres systematically.  It's not well-developed in the report, but the section on "Music Genre Development," is particularly important in how it acknowledged the wide range of music genres within the sector, even if it doesn't discuss how dominant genres absorb most of the attention and energy within the sector, and the difficulties various genres have in terms of being successful, the spaces they need to break out, etc.

I covered some of this in terms of DC in the past entry, "The song remains the same: DC's continued failures in cultural planning as evidenced by failures with Bohemian Caverns, Howard Theatre, Union Arts, Takoma Theatre...," and the comment thread made me realize how important it is to treat the various music genres within a city in terms of cultural planning in a systematic and objective fashion.

(Watching a PBS show on the White House, they showed President Obama sponsoring various culture events.  I joked with Suzanne that if I were President, I could have Social Distortion, Bad Religion, Iggy Pop, and the Murder City Devils play at various events.  In short, we like what we like and we might ignore, even unintentionally, genres of interest to others.  Also see "Philadelphia Inquirer)

Conclusion.  Still, the way the report addresses the needs of a particular sector of the creative economy is a model of how to approach cultural master planning in a discipline-specific manner, in big cities like DC or New York, both of which are going through cultural master planning processes currently.  Music and theater are two elements within a city's cultural ecosystem that are deserving of dedicated elements within a broader plan.

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