How Austin Lets Musicians Make a Living Rockin' and Rollin'
A major reason why folks are flocking to the SXSW festival this month is because of hundreds of live concerts happening all over town. But the fun doesn’t stop in March: Austin, with more live-music venues per capita than any other U.S. city, is the “Live Music Capital of the World.” And it’s more than just the city’s official slogan. (It was voted on in 1991, after blues musician Lillian Standfield returned from a gig in Houston, saw a city limits sign and thought Austin needed a slogan to promote all the music played in town.) Music is an economic driver that translates into millions of dollars annually for Austin; a government study commissioned in 2005 found that music accounted for half of Austin’s arts-related tourism dollars. So Austin’s government and businesses realize that because music is the thing that makes the city special, they need to help musicians stay in business.
“This town is rich in music talent, and you can see countless musicians playing every night of the week,” says Alissa McCain, director of programs and operations at the Austin Music Foundation. “But because there’s a deluge of artists here, that’s why it’s important to diversify. We consider artists to be small business owners themselves, and we try to help them diversify their revenue streams so they can make a liveable wage, whether it’s running their band or starting a company in the music scene.”
To teach musicians how to monetize their art, the Foundation holds Small Group Sessions, free courses focused on marketing, accounting, and legal issues in the music industry. Recent courses include “Making a Video on a Budget” and “Accounting for Creative People.” It also sponsors the Austin Music Mixer, held every third Thursday for musicians and music-industry professionals to mingle and make contacts.
The Foundation’s signature program is its Music Industry Boot Camp, a free quarterly education seminar intended to make musicians better business people. The most recent boot camp was a three-part primer on Austin’s urban music scene, and how those artists can jump-start their careers.
A third of the Foundation’s budget comes from the City of Austin, which has multiple programs meant to boost musicians’ profiles. Austin has an official Music Program Manager, so that there is a dedicated person to musicians and their economic development. Don Pitts, formerly an executive at Gibson Guitar, holds the role of keeping Austin’s 100-plus music venues happy, giving them tags that their musical acts can put on car dashboards so they don’t get tickets while unloading their gear, and offering free energy audits from the electric company to help them reduce utility bills.
The city’s music marketing department promotes live music venues to event planners, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a “Hire an Austin Musician Program” with an online directory of 1,500 local acts. There’s also a music industry loan-guarantee program that allows private lenders to help music companies that want to hire more employees or improve facilities. (It has since expanded to film and other creative industries.) And Austin city council meetings have to be the liveliest ones in the nation, as a local band plays a live set at the beginning of each one, held weekly.
Add to those efforts a healthcare alliance for musicians, and it’s obvious Austin takes good care of some of its most prominent — and profit-making — small businesses. Says McCain, “Austin is a great place for people who are edgy and think differently, so it’s conducive to startups and small businesses in the music industry.”