Local music communities are the new A&R: The case of Austin, Texas

By Nathalie Phan

Austin is home to more music venues per capita than any other city on earth, earning it the infamous, neon-lit, hotly-debated title of “Live Music Capital of the World.” Seven nights a week, music fans and patrons can witness local indie shredders passionately sweating, sometimes bleeding, on their instruments along the streets of Austin’s Red River Cultural District.

As more and more tech companies move to the “third coast,” and as Austin finds more fame atop annual “Best Places to Live” lists, the city is also becoming a new, idyllic weekend vacation spot—or, for many tech transplants and their dogs, a permanent place of residence (much to the chagrin of I-35 and MoPac commuters).

But while Austin may be an attractive option for those looking to move to a fun and young locale full of new money, millennial food concepts and lakeside hiking spots, the very music scene that contributes to the city’s newfound cultural reputation also faces major challenges often ignored by the emerging tech and commercial real-estate sectors.

It is becoming increasingly more difficult for local musicians in Austin—and in similar   communities with thriving or upcoming tech scenes such as Asheville, SC and Missoula, MT—to sustain themselves on their chosen art form. The issues of rising rent, high state liquor taxes and complex sound regulations present a more embattled view of the local live music scene than many who are not intimately familiar with the community are able to detect.

These issues are compounded by the lack of foundational music-industry infrastructure such as publishing and label resources, which results in an unhealthy and unsustainable reliance on gigging alone as a source of income. Musicians are forced either to risk oversaturating their presence locally, in a town whose venues face an equally fragile financial environment, or pursue regional or national tour routes that are more likely to drain their wallets and break down their vans than help to expand their audiences.

A significant contributing factor to the dearth of local infrastructure is the concentration of music-industry resources in “bottleneck cities” such as Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, a monopolistic model that is ripe for disruption. Such a model creates an unreliable system that operates more like a lottery fueled by fame and nepotism than like a legitimate talent search. While the concentration of professional networks and opportunities in such cities is unparalleled, it creates an unnecessary barrier to entry for marginalized musicians who cannot afford to uproot their current living situations to take a gamble on their success.

Additionally, the bottleneck cities are not immune to the same issues found in smaller music localities such as a limited number of music venues, labels, and publishers, compared to the thousands of bands that want to participate. In other words, Los Angeles, New York and Nashville do not even have the bandwidth to serve their own local artists, much less the capacity to be the only beacons for the nation’s entire music industry. While it is completely possible for a talented artist or band to gain national recognition by working their way up locally, not all artists are privileged enough to have those opportunities or resources presented to them, particularly if they reside in a city that does not have the foundational infrastructure they need to advance their music careers.

Instead of siloing Top-40 artists and their resources from the rest of the industry, investing more time and money into fostering local music communities can be a new compelling model for A&R.

Think of it this way: If major players invested in local talent across the United States and around the world, artists would be able to use the local resources presented to them to make higher-quality music that better represents their community culture, rather than being forced to conform to the Top-40 mold. The industry would no longer be reliant on farming national celebrities alone, and instead be more inclined to source artists based on top talent that come out of these local communities.

Instead of bottleneck cities being the only gatekeepers to fame and glory, local music communities themselves would then become the free-market deciders of which artists they would like to see reach the national spotlight. They would foster an ecosystem based more on talent, rather than on luck, evening out the playing field for the local independent artists that make up the majority of the music industry.

What Austin’s Doing Right—And What It Can Do Better

While Austin is not the perfect model for a music utopia, it is worth noting some of the existing organizations unique to Austin that are helping artists tremendously.

Healthcare Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) supports artists by giving low-income musicians and their families free health insurance; the SIMS Foundation aids musicians and music-industry professionals with mental-health and addiction services; KUTX 98.9 is a non-profit public radio station that features Austin music and local programming; Black Fret, a music patronage organization, gives grants from $5,000 to $20,000 apiece to a number of bands every year; Austin Music Foundation provides artists with free music business education; and Kids in a New Groove provides children in foster homes with musical instruments and music mentorship, boasting an impressive 100% high school graduation rate for the children they serve.

Unique to Austin, these organizations are major players in helping to sustain the local music community, particularly in the realm of education. For many artists, due to difficulties around affording instruments and music-education programs, their careers start and end in their bedroom before they are even allowed to share their music with the rest of the world. A&R begins at youth. Without basic programs within public education that inspire upcoming generations to pursue music, our society positions itself to have a weak creative culture and a poor creative class.

Additionally, mental and physical health resources, such as Austin’s HAAM and the SIMS Foundation, are crucial first steps in the creation of a sustainable music ecosystem. Artist development is not only nurturing the next big hit but also nurturing the people behind it. In reference to physiological needs being the very base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, musicians must first live in an environment that will satisfy their most basic fundamental needs of being healthy in mind and body in order to realize their full potential.

Like many other local music communities, Austin is also in need of more commercial infrastructure—particularly within the realms of music licensing and publishing, national distribution resources, PROs and labels—to serve as a supportive framework and foundation for up-and-coming talent. Building out these platforms can help even out the playing field for local artists to compete on a national level.

Recently, the city of Austin saw the emergence of a new BMI office that looks like a promising first step towards greater licensing infrastructure for local musicians. While the office is currently limited to just one person, the community has officially established a line to the mothership office in Nashville.

There are few alternatives, if any, for the value provided by having a local PRO office that can help artists connect to resources on a national level, which is why the news of their entry into Austin is so exciting. PRO offices in other cities have proven themselves useful for artists who wish to expand their rolodexes within the publishing and licensing world, and the new BMI representative in Austin is eventually expected to offer the same value to local artists. If the organization proves to build mutual value for the community and for themselves, BMI’s expansion into Austin may be just the beginning of a more expansive network of other major music organizations in the city.

Many view licensing and publishing infrastructure as the last missing puzzle piece that would complete the local music ecosystem, the final channel of monetization for Austin artists. That said, there are already more than a handful of local badass companies that seek to provide other various services and value to the music community. The multi-faceted organization Mosaic Sound Collective provides artist-education programming, band rehearsal spaces and coworking spaces for music-related businesses, and will soon feature affordable housing for musicians; Gold Rush Vinyl offers the nation’s fastest turnaround time for high-quality vinyl pressings, with discounts for local Austin artists; Urban Artist Alliance, a support organization for urban artists promoting diversity and inclusion through artist consultations on copyrights, publishing, licensing, touring, booking, recording; and a number of record labels such as Super Secret Records, Modern Outsider, Holodeck, and Trickfinger Records.

I also operate two of my own music companies- a local artist support organization called On Vinyl Media that helps local artists sell their merch and vinyl online, release new music, and helps businesses include local music in their retail environments; the other, SoundSync Music, is a newly launched synch company that exclusively represents Austin musicians to help them gain placements in film, TV, advertising, and gaming. SoundSync Music is my and my business partner Louie Carr’s direct response to the lack of licensing infrastructure we see in the local industry, a problem we view as an opportunity to collaborate with Texas’s fantastic film scene and to continue to converge music, film and technology.

One last organization worth mentioning is, of course, SXSW. They’ve already done a great job at converging music, film and tech, but of course, there are plenty of opinions on how well they actually help the local music scene in Austin. In my opinion, SXSW has done a fantastic job in bringing big money to the local economy, in particular, music venues, often times attributing to the majority of revenue the venues see each year. This allows the venues to continue to pay for local programming through the rest of the year and helps them stay afloat. Of course, this is on a case-by-case basis for each venue and there are certainly other issues such as the festival driving the supply of music to a high and therefore causing many local artists to play without compensation, high traffic congestion, higher crime rates relative to other months of the year, and lack of affordable parking options for “unofficial” artists with heavy musical gear.

How Majors and Indies Can Work Together

The issues surrounding the creation of a sustainable local music economy that is a part of a much larger music ecosystem as a whole is obviously not an easy issue to solve. However, I do believe that large companies such as the Big 3 have a responsibility to invest back into local communities.

By broadening their talent search and investing more money in A&R in local communities, they would be expanding their presence in these communities, helping to advance the careers of local artists, and the value they provide to the community will certainly benefit them in the end. Music is all about culture. Reviving or helping to sustain the culture in many smaller localities should be a part of every label’s mission. Focusing on marginalized communities should also be a priority as part of the bigger mission of sustaining culture in music.

In Austin specifically, I feel that if a major label were to put significant investment in local artists, including physical and mental health resources, they could work hand-in-hand with smaller local labels. There’s no reason a giant corporation like Warner Music should not co-exist with small local labels such as the ones in Austin. In fact, it would behoove Warner and the other majors to invest in the local labels themselves, not through a buy-out of a label’s catalogue, but as a resource. For example, majors could work with indie labels to provide nationwide distribution and promotion services for a percentage of sales without owning the label outright. This may also work with synch licensing or publishing and a number of other resources. The advantage of this hypothetical model is that it would allow the labels to maintain control of their product: the music. The integrity of the music, and of the culture behind the music, would remain in tact. The distribution (or fill-in-the-blank service), handled by the major label, would be a specialized service that brings value to all parties involved.

Expanding the number of artists each major label works with would increase the pool of artists that “make it big.” It would increase local participation in music, increase cultural activity and spike curiosity in exploring other localities of music. It would help music do what music was created to do in the first place: be an integral part of a community’s culture.

But since corporations are run by numbers and not by compassion, it’s important to consider where the money to invest would actually come from: the locals themselves. The return on any investment in the local music community would come from patrons of music both locally and globally, but in order to tap into these markets of patrons, major music organizations will have to increase local participation in music.

Austin’s Diversity Problem

Despite its progress in building local music organizations, there remain heavy roadblocks to sustainability and innovation in Austin’s local music scene—including but not limited to diversity, an issue that is surely not unique to our city.

Although Austin has branded itself as a tolerant and progressive place to live, many of its neighborhoods, including those that house the city’s most popular music venues, are being desecrated by gentrification. Without sustaining the cultural background of Austin, the gentrification overtaking neighborhoods such as East Austin combats diversity, affordability, and the “weirdness” that Austin once had in the 80s.

The issue is one that Austin has been struggling with for decades. As reported by the Statesman in 2011 on the 2010 U.S. census compared to the 2000 census, “The number of African Americans residing in Central East Austin – once considered the epicenter of black and brown life in Central Texas – shrank by 27 percent during the past decade, while the number of whites living there increased by 40 percent, and whites surpassed blacks as the second-largest racial or ethnic group.” According to the last U.S. census in 2010, Austin’s population was 68% white. Overall, the community’s response has not been proactive enough in its commitment to inclusivity and diversity, most likely because executing on this dedication requires the construction of more supportive pillars and resources to attract diverse talent. This requires more funding and resources for organizations such as the Urban Artist Alliance (whose founder and local hip-hop artist Terrany Johnson has been battling health issues which has limited his bandwidth) and Brown State of Mind. It also requires talent buyers to make it their professional responsibility to include people of color and other marginalized populations on each and every bill that they book.

With so few support organizations such as UAA and Brown State of Mind that are attempting to unify people of color and other minority groups to create a community for musicians, and with essentially little to no funding that go into these organizations, POC artists have an especially difficult time finding the resources they need to get to the next level of their careers. Diversity, sadly, is often not seen as a priority in Austin, though it should be a crucial part of A&R within local communities. Both major/national music companies as well as local music organizations and companies can get involved in fixing the issue by prioritizing it and ensuring diversity to be standard practice.

In summary, local music communities such as Austin could benefit from investments in infrastructure across the entire lifecycle and commercial needs of their talent—from early music education, to diversity-oriented initiatives, to licensing and publishing ventures, to venue-friendly sound regulations and liquor taxes, to newer music technology that can create more revenue streams for artists. Building out strong local communities to be the core of the music industry will have a great effect on the overall ecosystem, as self-sustaining music cities will be better equipped to bring forth their best artists and bands to the national stage.

Perhaps in a utopian future, Austin will be a bright shining beacon of light and poster child of music communities for other music cities to model theirs after, a truly self-sustaining music ecosystem. But if we don’t invest more in local A&R models including working to bring major music companies to Austin, supporting diversity initiatives or organizations that work to unify people of color in music, and creating more local licensing resources, the music business in Austin and in other localities will only become more homogenized. Music will continue to be seen as merely a form of entertainment that one spends his or her discretionary income on and not as a form of art and reflection of culture that receives the investment of time and money that it so deserves. It will be a spectator sport for those who do not have the resources or opportunities to participate. It will continue to be a commercial product which holds no artistic integrity. If local music does not prevail, true music fans will not even have the opportunity to discover local artists or participate in local culture through music. But as a community, we can work together to support our local artists, make sure that marginalized people are able to participate in helping shape our culture and music, and create a music ecosystem that is healthy and self-sustaining.

You can find Nathalie on Twitter @natphantastic, @soundsyncmusic and @onvinylmedia, or email her at nat@onvinylmedia.com.

If you feel like tipping your writer, PayPal us and let us know who you want to tip in the notes section!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s