The City of Austin should own a music venue.
Actually, the City should consider owning two.
The City of Austin should own a live music venue. Actually two.
I believe one of these venues should be operated by Black-led operators and promoters. The goal and purpose of this venue would be to stifle the long-standing inequities for talent booking, musical diversity, and promotion within “the Live Music Capital of the World” in a way that strengthens our music industry to levels far exceeding those imposed upon musicians of color.
I believe one of these venues should be operated by Austin-based music nonprofits. The goal and purpose of this venue would be to provide a sustainable revenue stream for essential music-related nonprofits that provide invaluable services to musicians in the Austin area as they continue to experience cost-of-living increases that jeopardize their ability to create locally.
These venues could be purchases of existing music venues - Red River, which I helped designate as a Cultural District during my tenure as vice-chair of the Music Commission, would be a smart site, as would East Austin in the historic SIx Square District. An alternative could be land grants in partnership with local nonprofits not too dissimilar to the structure used for arts nonprofits like ZACH Theatre, of which I am on the board of directors.
I envision the construction or retrofitting of both venues would provide significant tax benefits to the private donors/developers linked to the funding requirements of the projects. The associated tax benefits (not incentives) would represent the kind of win-win-win for the community and constituents, the City and its economic development office, and the “market” and its financial aims that we need to proactively - rather than reactively - optimize for in the coming years as we navigate ourselves out of a housing affordability crisis in the coming years. There are Austinites and developers eager to play a more prominent role in Austin’s music community, and this is a great start.
My grandmother died in January 2021 after getting COVID in November 2020. In February 2021, just weeks after her passing, my friend and Travis County Judge Andy Brown asked if I’d be willing to volunteer with the first-ever drive-thru vaccination site for Austinites. From late February through April, I spent part of eight weekends helping more than 23,000 people in the Austin area get vaccinated at COTA. The first weekend I took off was for my birthday (April 22), and it was around that time that I decided, very naturally for me, I wanted to see a concert to celebrate my new year and experience something that hadn’t been possible for well over a year due to the pandemic. There’d been no ACL Festival in 2020 and no in-person SXSW in either 2020 or 2021, and I missed being around large crowds of people. Don’t get me wrong; I’d seen some small outdoor shows in Austin, but nothing that felt like a true concert of epic proportions.
So where did I go?
I went to one of the best music venues in the world that just so happens to be owned by a city government.
I went to a show at Red Rocks. Yes, the Red Rocks. What you probably didn’t know about Red Rocks is that it is owned by the City of Denver’s Parks department.
So not only did I travel to Denver, I also convinced two recently-vaccinated friends from Austin to travel with me. All told, we paid thousands of dollars between flights, ground transportation, accommodations, and food at local establishments (plus some goodies from local dispensaries) on top of concert tickets and the majority of that money went to a city in another state in the form of sales tax, occupancy tax, and ticket revenue. Somehow seeing Kaytranada spin some of our club favorites was an economic driver for the City of Denver’s Parks department.
I share this story because it speaks to something I would bring to Austin City Council. 1) A genuine passion and professional connection to live music and tourism. 2) A demonstrated entrepreneurial and innovative mindset that can find creative solutions to community problems.
It would not be hyperbole for me to say that, if elected, I would be the most experienced and informed member of the City Council in matters of the creative industries and tourism, particularly music-related. There has not been a member of the Council as embedded in the creative industries as me since 10-1 was introduced. Given District 9’s unique place within the City and economy, I intend to treat this as a benefit to the City and community at large.
The musicians in our City have been struggling, and they deserve a Council member who they know will answer their calls and emails as quickly and often as they would for paid lobbyists or big campaign donors. The musicians in our city, especially Black musicians, have carried the weight of giving to a city that does not always or often value their creativity, their labor, and their legacy. From Kenny Dorham to Tameca Jones, Black musicians have often been honored and rewarded for leaving Austin more than they have by staying in Austin, and that must end today.
While there are Council members who bring unique and valued perspectives on historic preservation or neighborhood association concerns, socio-economic and human services issues, transit and urban planning issues, and a multitude of other facets of the City, the lack of a Council member genuinely connected to the creative industries, such as music and tech, has resulted in a deficiency in both big-picture and ground-level insight into what role City Council can and should play in maintaining our reputation as “the Live Music Capital of the World.”
The music nonprofits in our city - much like our local nonprofits focused on homelessness or food insecurity - are often being tasked with doing government-adjacent and community-benefit work that is forced upon them not because of economic privilege or out of ambition for profiteering but out of necessity to support the very people they love, the very people who contribute to the commercial, creative and cultural fabric of this city but are too-often neglected as the “market” dictates their lives be those of displacement and scarcity rather than abundance. HAAM, SIMS Foundation, Six Square, and countless others do municipal work but do so without the predictable budgetary and resource allocation of government in a state that imposes low service thresholds onto its municipalities due to low tax constraints.
Between now and November 8, I will have various opportunities to share my aims and intentions as a candidate for Austin City Council in District 9. I’ll share policy goals around housing and transit, economic development, and the arts. Today, I’m starting with musicians - a group of Austinites very near and dear to my heart. My wife is a musician, my neighbor is a musician, and one of the first reasons I fell in love with Austin was because of the live music identity of Austin that I experienced at places like La Zona Rosa.
Austin’s status as the Live Music Capital of the World can either proceed into the future as a marketing banner used for signage and brochures only or as a respected and supported foundational pillar of our creative and economic development engine and smart growth flywheel.
Many people hear the words “Live Music Capital of the World” and think it’s cute or some tongue-in-cheek statement. I see it differently. Even before Austin City Limits began filming in Studio 6A for KLRU, Austin’s PBS affiliate, in 1974, and years before South by Southwest originated in 1986, Austin’s reputation as a live music haven was being forged by musicians like W.C. Clark, Roky Ericksen, Janis Joplin, and, of course, Willie Nelson. Even outside of the city, musicians like Kenny Dorham were adding to Austin’s reputation as a live music hotbed.
But it wasn’t just the notion of a bunch of musicians playing in a laid-back college town that made this reputation important; it was the fact that it was happening in the capital city of Texas years before companies Dell or Whole Foods or Tito’s or Kendra Scott were founded. Years–decades later, Austin’s allure and economy sit on the shoulders of these cultural giants. As it turns out, live music isn’t a nice-to-have for Austin (or Nashville or Minneapolis or Barcelona) but a powerful catalyst for entrepreneurship, economic development, and tourism.
If Austin was “the Live Music Capital of the World” back in 1991, imagine what we could consider ourselves now with an industry driving billions of dollars in direct spending and economic impact, attracting millions of visitors and billions of tourism revenue, and playing a 365-day role in recruiting and retaining tens of thousands of jobs from hospitality to technology.
When the Nancy Coplin-led Austin Music Commission and the Bruce Todd and Max Nofziger-led Austin City Council of 1991 took steps to cement Austin’s status as “the Live Music Capital of the World,” they did so in acknowledging the years of work that had already been done and the years of growth that was in the making for our beloved city. It’s now over 30 years since that designation was founded, and much like our land development code – mired in outdated thinking that does more harm to our city’s affordability and inclusivity than good – it’s time we revisit our resolution and resolve as the Live Music Capital of the World and take an honest, pragmatic approach to re-imagining what this will look like in the future for Austin.
By owning two live music venues, having them operated by Black-led and local music-driven nonprofits, the City of Austin can deliver equitable, forward-thinking value and provides the kind of community benefit that breaks down barriers between the “haves” and “have nots.” I also believe investing in our live music reputation and economic engine in this way would set the tone for the inclusive and innovative actions that will need to be taken for housing. These land development residential zoning-related projects frequently bring out our worst sides and most polarizing views rather than fostering a collaborative, solution-oriented mindset.
The community benefit of these venues could be as high as those of arts nonprofits, libraries, and parking lots owned by the City, and the ability to leverage our local expertise in a public-private partnership of this sort could pave the way to multi-city alliances with other music cities such as Nashville, Minneapolis, and Seattle along with cities around the world seeking to replicate our live music success.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Where would the venues be located?
Top recommendations should be for one in the Red River Cultural District and one in the Six Square District. East Sixth Street between I-35 and Congress Avenue could be another viable location given its attraction of visitors.
How would the City fund the venues?
The City could purchase or lease the venues from private owners and provide no- or low-interest financing to local nonprofits to renovate and lease the venues alongside privately-raised funds for the nonprofits.
Who would run / operate the venues?
While the City would own the venues, they would be leased and operated by local nonprofits akin to the land used for ZACH Theatre or the Long Center.Why should the City own live music venues?Because as "the Live Music Capital of the World," the City of Austin must play an active role in ensuring musicians of all backgrounds feel welcome here, particularly those protecting the cultural history of Red River and East Austin, while also unlocking potential for a recurring, earned revenue stream for music-related nonprofits that provide essential services for the music ecosystem.