Becoming a Music City Could Be Good for Business – If Done Right
Note: This was published in The Rivard Report on July 2, 2018.
There is momentum building within the local music community and among some city officials to have San Antonio become known as a music city. In fact, the state music office has recently declared San Antonio to be a Music Friendly Community. According to its Website, “Participation in the Texas Music Office’s ‘Music Friendly Community’ program provides Texas communities with a network for fostering music industry development, and sends a clear message to industry professionals that certified communities are serious about attracting and developing music industry growth.
“Cities that have received the official Music Friendly Communities designation from the Texas Music Office include Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Denton.”
But, I have to offer a cautionary warning—be careful what you wish for.
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), “A Music City, by its simplest definition, is a place with a vibrant music economy. There is growing recognition among governments and other stakeholders that Music Cities can deliver significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits.”
It is often assumed that cities with abundant cultural amenities attract visitors, new businesses and residents, and retain existing residents. The subject of this warning is limited to one cultural amenity, live music. Austin, our robust neighbor to the north claims to be the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and if it is, it is in trouble.
The view of Austin from San Antonio looks very good to some because of Willie Nelson, Austin City Limits and a massive event known as South by Southwest (SXSW). But according to Andrew Flanagan (www.tpr.org), the primary music core in the city is declining. “The Austin music industry isn’t whole. The business underlying ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’ stands bifurcated between its lucrative festivals . . . and a dwindling local music scene.
“Large events and a rapidly expanding population have put an unintended strain on the infrastructure of the local music scene which helped them and on which they still rely . . .” The demand for housing by the influx of highly paid technical workers has driven the cost of housing to a level that is unaffordable for working musicians. Too, the rising rents of commercial property have forced many small- and medium-sized live music venues to shut down.
Another well-known music city, Nashville, no longer has an economic environment that adequately supports songwriters and live music performers. Many in both of these well-known music cities have had to move due to rapidly rising real estate prices. Even some established names in the music business, such as Billboard Magazine, no longer have offices in Nashville. Without incurring the expense of renting office space, it’s too easy to maintain a staff of virtual or at-home employees to fill the few pages devoted to country music.
In my opinion, city policy makers would be well advised to act with an effective but limited amount of effort in encouraging a healthy music scene without becoming overly bureaucratic about it. Without getting mired in the details I will give an example.
According to The Journal of Urban Affairs, in 2002 Austin began to look seriously at the power of cultural activity as an economic generator rather than as a supporting amenity. It transferred the city Cultural Arts Division (CAD) from its Parks Department to the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office (EGRSO).
After a lengthy process that included forming a 70-member leadership council comprised of local arts, civic, education, and business leaders, 212 pages of a master-planning document were produced, including an executive summary and consultant’s report. It was finished two years before the city council partially approved it, and then the council chose not to fund it.
That’s several years’ worth of work, 212 pages of information, countless money spent, and still Austin has nightmarish traffic (only partially relieved by a system of toll roads) and a declining primary music core thanks to soaring real estate prices.
The focus was on attracting people to Austin who create for a living; folks like computer programmers and engineers who make good money working in tech companies and buy expensive cars and houses. The result has been an unaffordable cost-of-living for the lower income people who create for a living—songwriters, musicians and singers.
San Antonio can easily avoid this type of logjam. First, be aware that it happened in Austin and then, use the taxing authority it already has to promote a healthy music scene that benefits venues, live music performers and consumers. Free-market forces should take care of the rest.
Next, don’t get greedy. Let Austin have its reputation, declining as it may or may not be. San Antonio already has its own, and a very good one, in my pretty-well-informed opinion.
In much the same way that government provides infrastructure so people can live and work to generate economic activity, government can help create performance places and spaces by adopting favorable taxation policies for or making small reimbursement grants to venues that feature or will feature live music.
Small and medium live music venues find it financially burdensome to pay music license fees (a federal law) to BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, the major performing rights organizations (PROs). Many who choose not to pay the fees, stop featuring live music altogether. Still others continue to operate at the risk of being sued and choose not to promote live music in the media for fear of being discovered by the PROs. Without engagement with the public through local and social media promotion, audience development and the resulting increase in the velocity of money in the local economy is stunted.
Simply put, becoming a music city could be good for business if done right.
Flanagan, A. (Feb. 24, 2017). The struggles of Austin’s music scene mirror a widened world. Retrieved from http://tpr.org/post/struggles-austins-music-scene-mirror-widened-world#stream/0
Grodach, C. (2011). Before and after the creative city: the politics of urban cultural policy in Austin, Texas. Journal of Urban Affairs, 34:1 pp. 81-97.
State of Texas Music Office. https://gov.texas.gov/music
Terrill, A., Hogarth, D., Clement, A. and Francis, R. (2017). The mastering of a music city: key elements, effective strategies and why it’s worth pursuing. Retrieved Mar. 10, 2017, from http://www.ifpi.org/Mastering-of-a-Music-City.php
Conserving Country Music
Country music is in trouble. Local radio stations no longer reflect the musical tastes of local markets. They have yielded to national trends in order to appeal to a narrow segment of listeners who would just as soon listen to Hip-Hop as they would to today’s country version of that urban genre, Hick Hop.
I spent two months shy of 20 years working with Texas Wildlife Association in San Antonio, Texas, producing its monthly color magazine. While there I learned about the difference between preservation and conservation.
The idea that you can protect nature by doing nothing is preservation.
If you fence off a piece of land, and let nature have its way, it becomes a wasteland. In that case, nature happens because of itself. Humans have no role in mitigating the damages that are done by fire, flood and the overpopulation of wildlife that threatens its potential. The resulting overgrazing leaves the topsoil vulnerable to erosion, which in turn limits the ability of the land to sustain wildlife and its habitat.
Conservation, on the other hand, is a process whereby humans act in such a way as to assist nature in its ability to sustain itself. Conservationists are stewards of the land. They care passionately about its well being.
Flood control initiatives, crop rotation, controlled burns that facilitate abundant re-growth of grasses, and managed hunting are but a few things conservationists do to conserve nature. So, what does this have to do with country music?
There are those ‘preservationists’ who wish to preserve the supply and demand free will of the markets. The land (or country music in this case) is losing its fertility as a genre, a place for diverse musical human expression.
Market forces in country music are destroying its ability to sustain itself, in my opinion. Broadcast deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s made it possible for individuals and corporations to own and operate virtually as many radio stations as they could afford. The problem is this: these buyers couldn’t afford the huge number of stations that they bought. So, they borrowed heavily as they made their deals.
Unable to make their payments, they cut expenses. People lost their jobs and were replaced by automated programming equipment. Budgets for music research were trimmed or eliminated. Small staffs now operate multiple radio stations from a single location, and program direction comes from places not near the point of origin for the broadcast signal.
In other words, local taste is no longer reflected in local broadcasting.
If you care about any of this, it’s time for some flood control. Become a country music conservationist. Get your friends to join you and flood your local country music radio stations with requests for your favorite artists. If you happen to like what you hear today, you might want to listen to Jim’s Jukebox on Spotify to hear what I’m talking about. There’s more to country music than a strong Hip-Hop beat with a one-note melody.