The “crisis” in Austin music: Creating the infrastructure for a better Live Music Capital

http://www.mudmagazine.co/new-blog/2016/5/17/trouble-in-the-streets

On Thursday, Sept. 15, a congregation formed late in the evening at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in West Campus for the church’s monthly Front Porch series. They gathered to discuss the state of the music industry in Austin and the current issues at hand. Ted Gioia, a jazz specialist from Dallas who is a widely recognized author and music researcher, led the talk with an impactful keynote on the state of the music industry at a global level and later hosted a panel of various stakeholders within the local Austin music industry. He discussed his stance of the music industry being in a state of “crisis,” an echo of Mayor Steve Adler’s rhetoric, urgently challenging the audience to seek ways to bring business to the city and build technology with the purpose of uplifting and supporting music.

A few nights later, Henry + the Invisibles took stage at Empire Garage with a killer lineup of other local artists to celebrate the release of his most recent album, MUSAIC. While the bill featured all very talented musicians, they have varying degrees of financial stability. Throughout the night, these artists spoke with me about the state of the music industry, providing their perspective on the so-called “crisis.”

Though this report is admittedly incomplete because of its small sample size, On Vinyl will follow this story, gather more information from both artists and industry professionals, and continue reporting more artist and industry perspectives. The key goal is to spark conversation that we hope will in turn spark real action and real change.

Since there are no universally agreed upon benchmarks, criteria, or a specific threshold in which to identify a music industry “crisis,” one must determine this circumstance subjectively based upon the given facts.

According to the most recent Austin Music Census conducted in 2015, 50 percent of Austin musicians with a secondary source of income take home less than $25,000 annually and almost 70 percent of total musicians make less than $10,000 a year. According to the 2016 Austin Music People Industry Economic Impact Study, there has been a decrease in economic impact of the music industry of 15% and a loss of 1,200 jobs in the last four years.

So is there a crisis? To examine the general state of the music industry, we will observe some of Gioia’s anecdotes discussed within his keynote and qualitatively measured perspectives collected from various music stakeholders.

Exploring Global music scenes with Ted Gioia

During Gioia’s keynote speech, he canvassed the general issues within the music industry by using personal anecdotes and framing the issue within a global perspective. He spoke about the importance of observing how other cities in America and around the world have dealt with the issue of sustaining their local music industries. In New Orleans, for example, while they have symbolically named their airport after Louis Armstrong, possibly the most famous jazz musician the city has ever seen, they have failed to upkeep the actual spirit of the city in maintaining the infrastructure to support the city’s jazz scene.

During the Great Depression in Mississippi, the state turned down the opportunity to grant a small loan ($25,000) to H.C. Spier, the “godfather of Delta Blues,” that would have moved Paramount Records, one of the largest record labels at the time, to Jackson, Miss. and therefore would prevent having to send musicians such as Muddy Waters and Charlie Patton from traveling to another state to record music. Turning down this business or any other business that supported music had a domino effect on the state of music and culture in Mississippi.

In both of these examples, both New Orleans and the state of Mississippi not only failed to maintain the infrastructure created to support their local music scenes, but they neglected to lay down a solid foundation of support for music in order to preserve the success of the various musicians within their communities.

By comparison, Austin is positioned to continue its success in live music performance–if it does its due diligence in continuing to provide support for its creatives and the music industry. With more than 250 live music venues and hundreds of artists, it is one of the few cities in the United States with a Music & Entertainment Division. As a result, Austin has built some of the necessary variables of a solid foundation to sustain its title as the Live Music Capital of the World.

However, Austin’s Achilles heel is its lack of diversity, the bureaucracy found in local politics that stifles the impact of the Music & Entertainment Division and lack of general maintenance of foundational support for the city’s current music infrastructure. This infrastructure includes not only venues but other music-related businesses such as record shops, recording studios and even businesses that indirectly affect the music industry, such as private and public transportation networks and others in the tech space. Without maintaining and building a foundation that is conducive for the modern environment of business, it is difficult for the music industry to build more infrastructure for artists to operate and thrive. Regardless of whether you want to call that a “crisis” or not, that is what’s holding back Austin’s music and the music industry in many other local communities.

Music in relation to other industries

Gioia also asked the audience to observe how other industries within art and entertainment (two very different categories of culture, he maintained) have built sustainable models of business. For example, in film and television, HBO has somehow mastered the craft of investing in the network’s talent, creating a film and television experience that celebrates complexity rather than removing it, and building a sustainable business model which consumers are willing to subscribe to.

Additionally, Gioia discussed the life cycle of the food technology industry in relation to the music industry. While difficult to relate to the music industry at a surface level, he explained more in depth that the early food industry was built towards the goal of creating a more convenient, less complex way to consume food. For example, early technologies included canned and processed foods, the invention of the microwave, and finally, the creation of frozen dinner meals. This is similar to the trends found in the music industry which, through time, have found easier ways for people to access music (first, through vinyl, and then cassettes and then compression of the music into compact discs which eventually led to digital streaming).

However, at some point in the life cycle of the food industry, there was a turning point in the technology created. Rather than creating a simpler way to consume food, the technology behind the food industry began to value the art of fine foods rather than the convenience of processed foods. Businesses like Austin-based Whole Foods were created to support higher, enriched lifestyles centered around artisanal foods. Rather than seeking simpler ways of doing things, people craved and celebrated the complexity and art behind food which can be illustrated by the capitalization of wine aerators, obscenely priced mango slices at Whole Foods, organic this-and-thats and the creation of the oil-free air fryer. Technology and businesses began to complement and support the art with the level of respect that it deserved.

Like the rapid development of food technology and the popularization of fine dining and rolling with the punches of the demands of viewers like HBO, Gioia determines to find that same sort of evolution within the music industry. But how?

Possibly Gioia’s most important takeaway was the difference between entertainment and art. He described entertainers as “people who gives the audience what they want.” In contrast, artists are essentially people who give audience what they want to give them. While Gioia argued that music should be celebrated more as an art form than as entertainment, I don’t necessarily disagree, but I also don’t fully agree. After much thought on the subject, it’s become apparent to me that music is in-and-of itself an art form. However, it must be a mix of entertainment and art. Quality music must be complex but relatable enough to not be completely abstract. There must be a relationship built between musicians and their audience, and mastering this technique is what separates the good from the great. 

How do we create “artisanal” music that illustrates a greater difference between “entertainment” and “art?” How can we build supportive technology that is simultaneously frictionless in use but does not subtract from the complexity of the art of music? Finding the answers to these questions may be the launchpad for a disrupted music industry.

Is there a crisis in the austin music industry?

Gioia noted that while not everyone may agree with him about key perspectives about the music crisis, he argues that most industry professionals and artists acknowledge that there is, indeed, a crisis. But is this true? Is there a crisis, or is it a perception that is merely a “self-fulfilling prophecy” as KGSR’s Andy Langer suggests?

Who better to ask than the artists themselves?

Henry + The Invisibles

At Saturday night’s Empire Garage party, Henry Roland (and his invisible band), hosted the Henry + the Invisibles album release party. Never failing to pack the house, Henry is one of Austin’s most successful musicians who inspires awe both as a human being and as an artist. With love, respect, kindness and positivity, his optimism is contagious both onstage and offstage.

On a scale of one to ten, he’s a million. I first discovered Henry at the inaugural Float Fest of 2014. Obscenely talented, he appeared on stage with the soul of Elton John and the spirited guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix. While he’s able to bongo, drum, strum, fingerpick, rap, sing and do ventriloquistic performances with his football-shaped alien puppet friend, his most impressive move is stringing his guitar behind his neck and flawlessly playing a killer guitar solo as if he invented guitar solos decades ago. Since the 2014 festival appearance, I have seen him an additional handful of times, every time as if it were the first. This man will blow you off your feet so quickly that you’ll think you’re flying, and he is the sort of musician that not only makes you move but moves you. The intimate relationship he has with his audience is absolutely unmatched in the live music scene.

“If you want the opinion of a bystander who has known him for 8 years, he’s come a long way. He’s been all heart and soul the whole time,” said one of the patrons who, along with about a hundred other people, grooved along to his soulful and funky music. Before I could get her name, she shimmied off into and joined Henry’s dancing crowd.

So with so much talent, what is Henry’s perspective on the state of the music industry as a full-time musician?

“I don’t feel an [affordability] crisis particularly. If you want to live here, you’ll find a way,” said Roland. “If you’re struggling, I would say, go back to the drawing board and see what you can do better.”

Roland, a BMI artist, performed his first gig on Sixth Street at the ripe age of 16. Referring to the BMI Live program where artists may turn in their set lists for live performance royalties, he said, “I get paid royalties to play and a lot of bands don’t even know about that stuff! … There’s so much stuff that nobody even tells you!”

While there are Austin Music Foundation panels and seminars available to the public, Henry is correct–many artists are still unaware of their licensing rights and how to collect their streaming and live performance royalties. Infrastructure built to support these artists such as BMI Live or ASCAP OnStage are excellent examples of ways for artists to earn money, but are completely underutilized by local independent artists.

So do Austin musicians just need to get more creative with their revenue models and discover extra revenue streams from researching various licensing royalties and technologies that might support them?

Trouble in the Streets

Certainly, there are different perspectives between music industry professionals and the artists themselves. However, there are also disagreements on the topic of the music crisis–or whether there is one–even between different artists.

With a strong beat, impactful message and eclectic music that truly, in the most literal way possible, takes you on a journey, Trouble in the Streets, a jam band and hip-hop trio, discussed in length their opinion on the state of the music industry. As a successful group in their own right, they had a different perspective than Roland on affordability and the Austin music “crisis.”

“I could see both sides. There’s an abundance of innovation and local musicians, but with that abundance comes over-saturation,” said the band’s keys player and vocalist Nnedi Agbaroji. “There is a double-edged sword because of the DIY aspect of music now. It makes it easy for anyone to create, and not that that’s a bad thing–it’s a beautiful thing–but it makes it difficult for you to get your message out.”

Agbaroji echoes the struggle of balancing Austin as both a music city and a tech city. Her counterpart Bobby Snakes, Trouble in the Streets drummer, provided his own theory.

“A lot of the crisis has to do with the national economy and the real estate market. The financial crisis of ’08 affected … the music industry in so many different ways. … All the sudden, we had to fend for ourselves. With the internet, we got in more control of everything,” said Snakes, implying that with technology came the growing responsibility of every independent artist to take care of the creation, digital and physical distribution, booking, touring, licensing and all other functions of music usually taken care of by the traditional manager-label-publisher model of the industry.

Because these functions became more easily managed by digital means, more artists began to independently manage themselves in order to compete in a saturated market that allowed all musicians to distribute their music online.

“Not too long ago, that was how people made their money–merchandise, CD sales–but that’s becoming an obsolete medium in distributing music,” says Agbaroji.

Additionally, as noted by the band’s bassist, Andy Leonard, “Touring is necessary for bands to make money these days. It’s not about album sales anymore because people just get it for free and you can only do a couple of shows per month in your hometown or else you get watered down. We need some sort of way where people can discover you before they come see you to get them excited to come see you play.”

Leonard’s statement observes how the music industry has essentially operated in the same way for decades while the number of artist revenue channels have dwindled down significantly. This opens up a lot of doors for technology such as the live events discovery app Spotcaller and illustrates that somewhere along the decades of existence, the music industry has failed to pivot with the birth of the ever-changing tech era. Now, if there ever was a time, is the time to make such changes in the structure of the music industry.

Interrobang Brass

I discovered Interrobang Brass at 3 in the morning two SXSWs ago with a rowdy group of moshers surrounding them. Intrigued, I asked them to play the On Vinyl Boat Party in 2015 and ever since, I’ve been to more of their shows than probably any other band in Austin, sometimes stumbling upon them accidentally as I had that night. The group considers their music as “loud and questionable.”

When asked about Austin’s affordability crisis, Interrobang trumpeter Ari Burns said, “It’s tough–I think it’s harder than it should be. It takes so much work for someone to be a full-time artist. I think it discourages a lot of people who could be really good at it. It’s do-able but barely do-able.”

Bringing up the subject of gentrification, Interrobang trombonist Sung June Lee said, “These poor neighborhoods housed a lot of low-income people and musicians who really made the music industry here happen.”

When these neighborhoods are taken over by developments by the California Club, Lee says it’s the musicians who fall victim. “There are good’s and bad’s. Unfortunately the music industry in Austin is taking a huge hit for it.”

When asked about some of the solutions needed to alleviate this “crisis,” Lee and Burns both agreed on the creation of technologies that would help musicians communicate their art to non-local markets. Lee suggested a streaming service that programs music from local areas and showcases the new or upcoming musicians of a community. Burns suggested the creation of an artist discovery app that allows patrons to discover local music events quickly.

What does “Crisis” really mean?

As observed by these three talented bands, artists struggle with several city-wide issues: technology, lack of technology, gentrification, artists who don’t do their due diligence in researching licensing rights and revenue streams, and even the housing bubble of ’08!

First, let’s identify why both technology and lack of it are issues which artists such as Trouble in the Streets and Interrobang Brass feel that they face. Ted Gioia explained it like this: There is plenty of technology that feeds off of music, almost like a parasite or marketing pawn, but there isn’t enough technology that supports music as an art form. In other words, technology must support music rather than music support technology. Technology must be a supportive infrastructure for music to thrive. If technology continues to build without the infrastructure needed to support music, we will continue to see that more revenue streams of musicians will grow “obsolete,” as observed by Agbaroji.

It is similar to the relationship between gentrification and culture. Physical infrastructure can be positive as long as it supports culture. Some of the new developments in the Red River District fail to meet that standard. Instead, these new buildings and businesses are purely being built for profit, and when society builds business purely for the sake of capitalism, it loses the culture that builds its identify as a society in the first place.

Next, let’s examine Henry Roland’s argument: Do some musicians fail because they do not take the initiative to fully understand licensing, royalties, and other basic revenue models within the music industry? In my opinion, absolutely. And like Will Bridges, owner of Lambert’s, mentioned during the Front Porch panel, proper music education is the building block of a sustainable music industry. Not educating artists (or young people) on the basic ways to manage their talent, book shows, collect their royalties, and license their music, we are essentially eliminating music as a viable career. If you don’t build the proper educational infrastructure for music, it will not even have the opportunity to thrive or be a sustainable career.

Lastly, let’s touch on the economics of the music industry. As Bobby Snakes pointed out, there are various economic factors that lead to a “crisis” in music, one of them being the housing market crash in ’08 which had a domino effect and ruptured many industries. Many people had no discretionary income to spend on music and art; the industry suffered greatly. Something as huge as a hole in housing market is not easily curable. However, the industry must do a better job to treat music less as a commodity and more of an art form that deserves high respect. Part of this means that we must be willing to pay more than $5 a the door and that we should add complexity to our art and music. Echoing Gioia’s HBO argument, musicians should strive to create better quality music, and the industry behind it, particularly in radio, should strive to support such efforts.

“People want more than just a simple bass line and easy lyrics. They want more thought behind it,” Agbaroji said.

A good local example of such a station that embodies this philosophy is KUTX. The curation of the radio station is phenomenal. Instead of repeating the same 40 songs constantly, the station maintains its integrity by valuing good quality music and good curation. The station itself relies on fundraising to make up for the lack of sponsorship deals.

INVESTING IN LOCALIZED MUSIC INFRASTRUCTURE

There are three paramount actions that I believe are integral to Austin’s strategy in sustaining our title of Live Music Capital of the World, building upon our legacy as a music city, and sustaining the soul and culture of the city itself:

  • We must abide by a local-centric philosophy to build scalable music support systems in local communities so that these communities can celebrates the art of their local musicians;
  • We must invest in sustainable policy infrastructure (especially in music education), educational infrastructure (teaching the value of music in schools and providing music education), physical infrastructure (venues, public transportation, incubators, affordable housing, recording studios, etc.), and technological infrastructure (technological tools for musicians to refine their craft or help create financial stability);
  • Lastly, we must insist that music is valued more as an art form than it is as a form of entertainment in order to maintain a level of respect for musicians.

Creating communities that support their local musicians

“Honestly, for [our band], it’s having a real community around you that supports what you do. … You want to get your music out there as much as you can, tour as much as you can so that you create these hubs and these communities all over,” says Agbaroji. “And that’s how people will support you–because they believe in what you’re doing and they’re willing to put forth some capital to help you continue spreading your message. I think that’s the big thing–to have a message worth sharing and getting the community underneath you to help you do that.”

Austin, though touted as the Live Music Capital of the World, is not immune to damage caused by the technology-allergic music industry that fights change through “legislation, lobbying and lawsuits,” as Gioia put it. To have a success music scene, however, Austin must marry technology and music. By supporting both industries, it can foster a healthier environment for city-wide cultural growth.

Laying down the foundation for a healthy music industry

To attract business from other states and promote growth by inviting the brightest minds in tech and the best talent in music, Austin must make itself an attractive environment for businesses through policy strategies. This means working with the state to decrease the high liquor tax on music venues (or create tax credits for bars that operate as official music venues), lifting local regulations on the transportation network industry, fair distribution of the hotel occupancy tax, and finding a way to effectively execute the Agent of Change principle.

In addition to policy infrastructure that is friendly towards music and tech, the city must also find a way to create educational infrastructure for young people and for working musicians, physical infrastructure for low-income musicians through more affordable housing programs, and create a stronger foundation to encourage growth for music tech companies such as TipCow, On Vinyl, Spotcaller, Synesthesia Live, Solstice Live, and the many others headquartered in Austin.

The music industry is ripe for disruption

While there are plenty of opinions on the subject, I am personally compelled more by the objective data collected by the Austin Music Census conducted in 2015 and the Austin Music People Industry Economic Impact Study that indicates the average musician’s struggle to pay rent than the equally important qualitative information gathered from various stakeholders’ opinions including Ted Gioia’s observations. While I do not like the term “crisis,” and prefer much more positive wording, I have observed that the music industry is ripe for disruption regardless of individual opinions on the severity of the issues within the music industry. There is certainly room for change, and now is the perfect time to introduce this change. The local community must create technology that supports “artisanal music,” and we must maintain and build upon the foundation already created for businesses to build technological infrastructure to help sustain and grow the music industry. The music industry, including local city government, non-profits, and music tech companies all the same have the responsibility to create policy and physical infrastructure that supports musicians and artists.

On stage, Trouble in the Streets’s Nnedi Agbaroji is an amazingly beautiful, multi-faceted person. While she has a soothing and melodic singing voice, the real beauty lies in the fact that she carries herself in a very relatable manner and pushes a self-empowering, positive message. Off stage, she appears to carry herself with just as much character and spreads the message of valuing music as an art form through her passion as a musician and human being.

“I’m quitting my job next month to do this full-time. … Very fulfilling work–I’ve been there for three and a half years and I love it but at the same time, [the band] is my passion,” she says.

“It’s really great that this conversation is happening.”


PHOTO CREDIT: MUD Magazine