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Eight Things We Learned About Austin’s Music Industry From the Austin Music Census

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Being an Austin musician carries cachet well outside of the city’s borders. In years past, kids with a guitar and a dream have come to the capital from all over—from West Texas, or the Valley, or Fayetteville, Arkansas. Maybe they saw the abundant venues and enthusiastic audiences during a spring-break trip to SXSW and wanted that to be their life. Or perhaps a musically inclined buddy beckoned them to the big city. But the reality of the much romanticized lifestyle—and whether its economically feasible for most folks—has been difficult to assess since there’s so little hard data.

To that end, the City of Austin Music Office commissioned the Titan Music Group to conduct a survey of the stakeholders in the Austin music industry. They spoke to nearly 4,000 musicians, venue owners and managers, sound engineers, and more to learn what the current reality is like for those in the music industry. The numbers are often depressing—the money in Austin music is garbage, y’all—but also illuminating. Here are eight things we learned after poring through the 228-page document. 

1. Musicians Make Way Less Money Than the Rest of Austin

The biggest takeaway from the census is that the dream of the working Austin musician is basically a lie. There are musicians in Austin who work, but the amount of money that music contributes to their income is downright pathetic: almost 70 percent of musicians who participated reported that they made less than $10,000 a year from music, and based on the sources of income they have available to them, it’s very likely that the “less than $10,000” figure is slanted closer to “0” than to “$10,000.” Specifically, the vast majority of Austin musicians report only two sources of significant income of a potential twelve: live performance in Austin, and live performance on the road. All the rest—sales of downloads and CDs, licensing, session fees, etc.—get checked as “contributes little” and “contributes none,” and that’s as pieces of a pie that, for the most part, adds up to less than ten grand. Any Austin musician can tell you that making $10,000 from playing live is a tall order. 

Which is probably why only 22 percent of Austin musicians are full-timers. The rest either work outside of the music industry (56 percent), work in other roles inside of the industry (15 percent), or are students (2.7 percent) or unemployed (3.5 percent). And even with that in mind, a full 20 percent of Austin musicians with other jobs still make less than $10,000 a year, while 50 percent of Austin musicians with day jobs take home less than $25,000 annually. (Another 2.9 percent say that they “don’t know” their annual income, which suggests that it may have been a while since they filled out a tax return, so we can probably bump that “earns less than $25,000” category up to 53 percent or so.) 

In all, three quarters of Austin musicians, no matter what their day jobs, make less than the Mean Annual Wage for the Austin metropolitan area. A big part of Austin’s “cool” is tied to its live music industry, and that cool-factor has helped Austin boom over the past decade-plus—but while there’s a lot of prosperity in Austin, the musicians who give the city its identity aren’t seeing it. One of the more staggering statistics is that 87 percent of musicians—that is, even those who make a decent living off their music—note that pay is stagnant. 

Rent, obviously, isn’t, which brings Austin musicians to the next big issue. 

2. Musicians Aren’t Sure They Can Afford to Live in Austin Anymore

Whether or not musicians love Austin and want to stay, they may not be able to. A KUT study cited by the Census notes that someone earning minimum wage in Austin has to work 88 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Thirty-two percent of Austin musicians earn less than the minimum wage, which means that some of those folks are gonna have to start thinking about getting out of town. 

It also means that the growth in Austin’s population is not a growth fueled by musicians. The dreamers from Harlingen or Odessa or Arkansas who might have moved to Austin in years past have seen what the rent is in the capital and, it seems, moved elsewhere. At the very least, the Census observes that “the number of musicians who say that they have moved to Austin within the last two years is a smaller percentage of the musician population relative to the number of new general population arrivals.” In other words, those newcomers to Austin are more likely to be tech bros than the next Explosions in the Sky or Black Angels.

3. Austin Musicians Are Younger Than the Rest of the City

It’s probably not a surprise that Austin musicians are young: 49.9 percent of that group is between 25-39 years old, while another 6.5 percent are 24 or younger. That’s a desirable demographic for any city to cultivate, although it’d probably be more exciting to Austin if those young people had money. 

4. Lots of Dudes, Though

The gender breakdown of Austin musicians is significantly less promising, in terms of a healthy, diverse ecosystem that reflects the larger population. Men make up 80% of Austin musicians, which is perhaps unsurprising, but legitimately disappointing for those who want to see female performers. 

Things brighten up, though, when you look at the genders of the people who work in the music industry outside of their role as performers: The industry-only numbers—which include people who work in studios and recording, venue management, media and music journalism, event production, concert promotion, artist management, and more—are far more evenly split, with women making up nearly 45 percent of those positions. 

That is still less than half, of course, and the idea that women work in support roles while men attempt to get famous is a depressing and familiar one to most. There’s a bright side, though. 

5. Nobody Is Getting Rich, but People With Venues Do Way Better Than Musicians

Music industry employees and owners make much better money than their guitar-slinging counterparts. While those numbers are still low in a lot of areas—36 percent of those in the industry who are not performers make less than $25,000 a year—they’re a marked improvement from what musicians themselves face. Indeed, a solid middle-class lifestyle is a possibility for people in the industry: 35.8 percent of employees in the industry earn between $25,000 and $75,000 a year from their industry income alone, which dwarfs that same metric for musicians (9.7 percent). 

6. They’ve Been in Austin a Long Time

Native-born Austinites are basically treated as unicorns—they’re prized for their horns and their mythical healing properties, but nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. But even well-tenured Austin residents seem scarce in a city whose population has been booming like Austin’s has: tell people you moved to the city in 2002 and wait for the jaws to drop. 

But the majority of Austin musicians have a solid tenure in the city. More than 60 percent of musicians have at least ten years in Austin, and that percentage balloons up to 80 when considering musicians who’ve been in town since at least 2010. All of which is to say that, despite the fact that they might be nervous about the ever-rising rent, and they probably spend a lot of time grumbling about how things have changed, Austin musicians tend to be Austin musicians for life—or at least a really long time.

7. All the Development Downtown Makes Running a Venue Unappealing

Here’s a bummer for musicians and venue owners alike: cover charges, which are one of the more reliable ways to pay artists and turn a profit, have been shrinking for a while. A focus group conducted as part of the census found that fans who like local live music like it a lot better when it’s free. 

A recurring theme from respondents is that a “cover charge” for local Austin musicians has all but evaporated for many venues, despite the high number of quality local artists. In fact, it appears from the Austin Music Census that local residents are less willing to pay a typical $5 to $10 cover charge for a night of local live music than they have been at any time in the past decade. Respondents to the Austin Music Census told us that cover charges have typically stayed the same or declined from ten years ago, or in some cases, disappeared entirely. 

This phenomenon has effects on both venues and musicians. While there are exceptions, respondents said that the decline in cover charge has left venues with an annual revenue loss hovering as high as 30%. 

That means that musicians often get paid less than—or, at best, the same as—they’d have made ten years ago. In the tech industry, if wages in 2015 were the same as wages in 2005, it’d be awfully hard to keep coders. 

Not only do venue owners have to worry about making up a 30 percent loss in revenue from vanishing cover charges, they also have to figure out how to compete with big developer dollars. Successful downtown venues like Red 7 and Holy Mountain revealed in May that they were in danger of being forced out of their spaces by their landlords, and the problem of short-term leases for venues is a significant issue for their owners. 

That’s a unique challenge for music venues, which are judged not merely by the quality of the artists that they’ve booked, but also by the quality of the sound in their rooms—something that can be improved through expensive investments that could vanish if the landlord refuses to renew a lease. Most leases for venues are only three to seven years, which makes it tough for an investment like a nicer bathroom or a classy patio to pay off, let alone better soundproofing or equipment. 

And that could, in many ways, mean the end for a big part of the Austin music culture fans have become accustomed to over the years. There was live music in Austin before the development of the Red River District, of course, and there would be live music in Austin should that district disappear alongside Red 7 and Holy Mountain. But for many visitors to Austin over the past fifteen years, Red River is live music in Austin, and the institutional legacy of the venues on that strip of Austin is significant. The loss of Emo’s in its recognizable form in 2011 was a major blow—part of the “cool” that Austin markets is the chance to play the same clubs that, say, Johnny Cash or Ghostland Observatory played. Losing the venues in which visitors and locals built many of their formative concert memories would be a serious risk to the long-term vitality of the music industry in Austin.

8. They Still Love Guitars

Popular music may have moved beyond guitar rock, for the most part—only two of the top ten songs on the Billboard singles chart right now are by rock bands—but Austin still loves it. The top five genres of music that respondents claim are “rock,” “Americana,” “alternative,” “folk/acoustic,” and “pop rock.” There’s roughly a dime’s worth of difference between any of those genres, good for 55.5 percent of the music being made in Austin. After that, things diversify—but only a little. Jazz and R&B/soul account for less than 11 percent of the music in Austin, while country, blues, and hip-hop combine for another 11 percent or so. 

All of which is to say that, when you think “Austin musicians,” you should be thinking “rock bands,” and not the large variety of genres that people tend to enjoy. It’s possible that this is a part of the challenge that Austin artists face—do people still love rock music enough to sustain an industry built around it?—but regardless, the data shows the stereotype of the Austin musician as a bunch of dudes, the majority (though perhaps not the vast majority) of whom are white, carrying guitars and not making any money playing music, is a roughly accurate one. 

(Photograph by Nash Cook, via Flickr)

(Update: A previous version of this post claimed that the musicians in Austin were more ethnically diverse than the rest of the city. That’s true of the Austin metropolitan area, but not the city of Austin itself. For the sake of clarity, we’ve removed that point.) 

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