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.
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music, it is now a massive multimedia extravaganza to the point where music, while still a main attraction, is somewhat superseded by the various digital dealings.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.