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Come On Feel the Noise

Can Ted Gioia save the Live Music Capital of the World?

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Eliza Gilkyson performs during Unplugged on the Front Porch, one of Austin's homegrown, do-it-yourself venues established to spotlight and support local musicians.
Liz Williams

A heck of a lot of people have moved to Austin recently. A big reason for that is the rich music scene, dating back to the Willie Nelson/cosmic cowboy heyday of the seventies. With this influx of people comes rising costs, which are beginning to hurt the music scene. Because while this mecca for music is known for festivals like SXSW and Austin City Limits, it’s really about the night-in-and-night-out live shows at a large variety of venues around town. And it’s becoming tougher and tougher for musicians to make enough money to afford to live in Austin. But the artists aren’t the only ones struggling. Venues are forced to close because they can’t afford their increasingly pricey leases.

The issue has been debated a lot in the local press and even in national publications like the New York Times, back in 2010, and more recently in the Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork. In 2015 the City of Austin Music and Entertainment Division* published the Austin Music Census: results of a survey of four thousand Austinites working in music in some capacity. It was not a rosy picture. “The report shows that our music industry and culture are at a tipping point,” Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, told the Austin American-Statesman.

Now that the problem has been diagnosed, or the symptoms have been identified, city leaders have begun looking for a remedy. Part of that problem-solving will occur on Thursday at a symposium entitled “The Crisis of Music in Austin.” The program was organized by Stephen Kinney, the executive director of the Front Porch, a nonprofit mission of the All Saint’s Episcopal Church that offers programs on religion, politics, and culture to the secular world. It will feature speakers including, among others, Mayor Adler; Jennifer Houlihan, the executive director at Austin Music People; Harold McMillan, the director of DiverseArts Culture Works; Will Bridges, a co-owner of Antone’s and Arlyn Studios; and Eve Monsees, a co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop.

“I’ve come to treasure local Austin musicians as the troubadours of our competitive and fragmented culture,” Kinney said. “They bring folks together and help us to connect, build community, and think and feel more deeply. But it’s hard to make a living as an artist and musician in Austin right now. I’d call it a crisis for Austin’s soul.”

The program should begin with a bang when Ted Gioia, an eminent, Dallas-based author, historian, and musician who likes to write controversial articles about the industry like “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting,” delivers his keynote speech. “I’m going to get up there and I’m going to say thirty to forty very provocative things that are going to jolt people out of their seats,” Gioia said. “But I also hope to be inspiring. I think this is like a revival meeting, but instead of religion, it’s music. I want to get people worked up and excited about the potential. I’m going to say some hard-hitting things. But I’d like to think that by the end of the day people will be onboard.”

Gioia has an eclectic background that informs his original, holistic take on music. He received a degree in English from Stanford, a degree in philosophy from Oxford, and an MBA from Stanford. He worked as a strategist for a company in Silicon Valley, where he was known as the guy with the piano in his office. He has consulted with Fortune 500 companies, and he helped Stanford develop a formal jazz studies program, working alongside artist-in-residence Stan Getz, the jazz saxophonist. His brother is Dana Gioia, the California State Poet Laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. His understanding of the convergence of technology, music, and arts education is singular.

Gioia will draw from his experience researching “music ecosystems” that have lost their way. For example, in 1920 New Orleans was the center of the jazz world, only to see some of its more important musicians, like Louis Armstrong, move to Chicago by 1925, followed by another exodus to New York by 1935—a city that became the new epicenter of jazz largely because it had things working on a granular level and New Orleans didn’t. Musicians in New Orleans were forced to leave town to get a record contract and likewise, to earn a livelihood as a performer. This was not the case in New York and is an important lesson to be learned for Austin. “When you have a vibrant music ecosystem, you can’t take it for granted,” Gioia said. “It doesn’t take much to destroy it.”

The Austin music industry imbues the local economy an estimated $2 billion yearly, according to Gioia, but the whole foundation is on shaky ground. Close to 90 percent of the music businesses in Austin have five employees or fewer and aren’t in a position to weather a downturn. Meanwhile, about 30 percent of Austin musicians make $15,000 or less a year, and close to half of them could qualify for federally subsidized housing—if they could find it. “Although music is good to Austin, it wouldn’t take much to send everything tumbling,” Gioia said. “You already hear horror stories of people moving out of town because they couldn’t afford to live there, or clubs shutting down. People can see how vulnerable everything is.”

In order to solve these surface issues, Gioia will dig deep. He will plumb what he refers to as the 74 subsectors of the music industry that combined make up an ecosystem. He will look at the perspectives of the piano tuner and the music software designer, the saxophone teacher and the CEO of a streaming service. Not wanting to give away too much prior to his talk, Gioia hinted that some solutions to Austin’s problems might include bringing musicians into the schools to cultivate new musicians, honoring local musical heroes to celebrate Austin’s heritage and help guide the future, and creating a job skills development program so that musicians can be equipped to pursue secondary employment.

“There was a period of about ten years in which L.A. challenged New York as the center of the jazz world,” Gioia said, referring to his 1992 book West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945–1960. “And its single biggest advantage had nothing to do with jazz. It was the non-jazz jobs that were available to musicians in L.A. They could record a commercial jingle or do a TV soundtrack. There were all these entertainment-related industries in town that gave them work outside of the jazz spectrum.”

Gioia might begin his presentation by addressing the global problem in music, that of kids and young adults not wanting to pay for it, and simply not having the rabid interest in it that the youth did fifty years ago. Evidence of this can be found by looking at the MTV Video Music Awards’ declining viewer ratings, despite this year’s participation of one-name wonders like Beyonce, Brittany, and Kanye. He will talk about how technology companies took the music industry away from the music industry, and how the tech sector can be both a threat and an opportunity. And he will look into the future of the industry for the next five to ten years, debunking myths along the way and providing a roadmap for Austin to thrive in it.

“Austin has an extraordinary skill base,” Gioia said. “When people think of Austin’s strength in music, they tend to think of the guitar players in town. But the tech industry, the economic situation, the business climate, the location of a world-class university, the mix of both homegrown musicians and visiting musicians, and the balance between a musical heritage and a quest to forge a music of the future are a great advantage. You have these in lesser or greater degrees in other cities, but there’s no place that has quite the skill mix and attitudinal mix that you find in Austin.”
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, September 15, 7 p.m., frontporchaustin.org

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Austin Music Commission, a civilian volunteer advisory board within the City of Austin Music and Entertainment Division, published the Austin Music Census.

OTHER EVENTS ACROSS TEXAS

ADDISON
Chocolate for the Win
There is a famous self-help book by Dale Carnegie called How to Win Friends and Influence People, and while it’s not cited specifically, a surefire way to accomplish said goal is through an offering of chocolate. At the Dallas Chocolate Festival, participants get their hands gooey in the pursuit of making winning ganache and influential chocolate bars and, along the way, eat a lot of artisanal treats.
Addison Conference and Theatre Center, September 9–11, dallaschocolate.org

AUSTIN
Upstaging Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was progressive in its time with its depiction of gender-blurring androgyny, and in keeping with that sort of outside-the-box thinking, Austin’s Present Company Theatre, helmed by Stephanie Carll, cousin to the Austin singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, will stage the production at Whole Foods—on the roof—as part of its Shakespeare at the Market series.
Whole Foods, September 9 to October 2, presentcompanytheatre.com

HOUSTON
Reaching New Heights
Before Hamilton, the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda was known for creating another gem of a musical, the four-time-Tony-Award-winning In the Heights. In the production, three generations in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York grapple with cultural shifts a bit like the evolving population of Houston must do, where Theatre Under the Stars will host the Broadway play for two weeks beginning Tuesday.
Hobby Center, September 13–25, tuts.com

SAN ANTONIO
All That’s Fit to Print

The Los Angeles graphic designer and street artist Shepard Fairey is known primarily for his depictions of Andre the Giant and Barack Obama. His work can be seen in many places, from clothing retailers to cityscapes, but the eight large-scale pieces on display through this weekend only at the McNay Art Museum—acquired through one of Fairey’s L.A. print shops, a favorite of the San Antonio collectors Harriett and Ricardo Romo—will be on public view for the first time.
McNay Art Museum, September 9–11, mcnayart.org

SAN ANTONIO
On a Mission
The San Antonio Missions didn’t rest on their laurels when last year they earned recognition as a World Heritage Site. This year they’re building on that distinction with the inaugural World Heritage Festival, a five-day affair including a mass, an exhibit, and a tour, plus a program called “Restored by Light,” with the facade of Mission San Jose, the “Queen of Missions,” returned to its original, eighteenth-century appearance using projection technology.
San Antonio Missions, September 7–11, worldheritagefestival.org

 

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  • Charlie Primero

    I read this very same article in the Austin American Statesman regarding the imminent demise of the Austin Music Scene due to the high cost of living when I lived there in 1985.

  • Nikki Rowling

    I am the President of Titan Music Group, LLC, based in Austin, TX. My company was commissioned to design and create the Austin Music Census; I am the architect and lead author of that study, which we delivered in June of 2015. I wanted to point out a couple of likely well-intentioned but nonetheless misleading reporting oversights in Mr. Hoinski’s article. The Austin Music Census was not commissioned or published by the Austin Music Commission. It was commissioned and published by the City of Austin – specifically their Entertainment and Music Division. This is an important distinction, because, to my knowledge, it is the first time in the U.S. that a municipal city government has made such a comprehensive, data-driven effort to understand its music makers and economy. Credit where credit is due.

    Additionally, there are a number of statistics and facts about the Austin music economy presented in this article, and after a quick read, it appears all of them are sourced from the Austin Music Census, but with no citation, for no reason that seems apparent.

    Lastly, the Austin Music Census was a tremendous effort – thousands of local music stakeholders participated, and we were able to gather a very rich set of data to analyze in new ways.

    One example: because the nomenclature in which music business jobs are described has little in common with federal NAICS job description codes, existing federal data about music industry employment from government agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics is generally viewed by the industry as wildly inaccurate. For the Austin Music Census, we originated an internal “mapping” system to collect job data from Census participants in terms they are familiar with, then translated this employment data to create and define 26 job sectors and 74 subsectors that comprise Austin’s music economy. This internal mapping system was subsequently used as the basis of analysis for the Census.

    The article above states that Mr. Gioia “will plumb what he refers to as the 74 subsectors of the music industry that combined make up an ecosystem.” Unless there is a coincidental overlap and Mr. Gioia has another system that also defines 74 subsectors, something is amiss here.

    I certainly laud the effort of all who want to participate in this on-going discussion in Austin, which has been an educational and productive conversation over the last year. There is a lot of information, mis-information, and strong opinions about this topic. In the best of times it’s difficult to keep it all straight. But a commitment to getting the facts right is an important piece to furthering productive conversations.