Laying a Viable Path Forward for Music in Austin
The Front Porch convened a high stakes conversation about the plight and possibilities of music in Austin on September 15th. We were joined by a panel of key stakeholders and about 200 in attendance who care deeply about the direction of music in Austin, yet tire of the handwringing over whether the city can sustain its posture as “Live Music Capitol of the World.” We were feeling around for viable solutions. We were also doing our best to avoid beating a dead horse.
The Front Porch added a few secret ingredients to this “Special Event” to help make it a true dialogue. First and foremost, we brought bestselling author and top-notch music historian, Ted Gioia, from Dallas to guide us in the first portion of our quest in a keynote speech. Second, we designed our panel discussion to allow fast input from key locals who spend their days deeply invested in Austin music. And, third, we invited EVERYONE back for an informal reception with pizza and drinks to finish it off and keep the gears moving. We hope that everyone who wanted to chat with Ted, Mayor Adler, and our other distinguished panel members got a chance to do so.
We want to give major credit where it is due: to local drummer, Philip Marshall, who dreamed up this event, launched us into action, and helped run the whole thing; to Heather Wagner Reed of Juice Consulting, who got the word out for us and got all of those key folks together, in one room; and, of course, we also want to thank our whole volunteer team from Unplugged on The Front Porch. If you haven’t joined us yet for one of our Unplugged concerts, we hope you’ll join us this Thursday (10/20) for an evening with Matt the Electrician! Full event details can be found here.
While using the word “crisis” in the event’s title set off alarms, Gioia’s message was actually incredibly thoughtful, positive, and forward thinking. In his keynote, Gioia addressed everything from the history of pop music and record labels to today’s youth, YouTube, and Kendrick Lamar. He talked about Fortune 500 companies and the poorest of blues musicians. But, in everything, Gioia’s primary focus was the future viability of music itself.
Gioia began by surveying what other music cities are doing. The Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans, for example, touts their city as the “birthplace of jazz,” yet the value placed on nurturing their music ecosystem is found wanting, according to Gioia. He made the point that we should beware of symbolic gestures and said, “If you want to have a vibrant music scene, symbolic gestures will kill you in the long run. It feels good to put up the banner at the airport, but what you need to do is actually understand what is going on in the music ecosystem and support it and nurture it.”
Gioia, who has written 10 books about music, then explored the music ecosystem in economic, technological, and cultural or artistic terms. Discussing the economic crisis in music, Gioia claimed that most people will no longer pay for music and that musicians are under pressure to give their music away as content in order to gain exposure. He pointed out that this is not the case with HBO, video games, or the NFL. HBO, for example, hires the very best talent for top dollar, focuses programming towards adults, and gets top dollar for it. He asks, “What do these folks know that the music industry doesn’t know?”
He then explored the impact of technology and the Internet on the music industry, making the case that Silicon Valley has taken over the music business. The iPhone has made Apple the largest music company in the world, though it was not designed to play music but to sell phones faster than the competition. Gioia believes this constitutes a dangerous shift in the music industry, as there are now people controlling the downstream distribution of music who don’t really care about the music itself. “The tech companies have taken control of music but they do not love it or understand it… They have degraded the music experience,” he says.
And yet, he notes, with different technology this effect could be reversed. If musicians and tech groups can get together on this and problem solve, perhaps both could partner their way forward. It must to happen in a great music city that is also a great tech city. Gioia asked to great laughter, “Do any of you know of a city that meets that description?” He then made the claim that Austin is the only city that has the music base and the technology base that could create a different technological experience that would upgrade the experience.
The real crisis in music, of course, is that whole areas in arts culture have been co-opted by the profiteers of the digital world. Gioia made a compelling appeal for why. “You need to solve the artistic crisis if you want to solve the musical crisis. You cannot just view music as entertainment that brings in the dollars. You must nurture the artistry.” To preserve and nurture a sustainable music ecosystem, Gioia insists that we must discern the distinction between entertainment and art: “Entertainment gives us what we want, whereas art challenges us, pushes us, opens up new horizons. When you deal with a work of art, you must adjust to the artist. We have to expand our minds to grasp it; we have to get out of our comfort zones and learn to think and look in new ways.”
Gioia sums it all up by telling us what he thinks is going to happen over the next 10-15 years in music. He calls the wisp he glimpses of this new movement “the birth of artisan music… It’s a respect for craft. It’s a respect for the heritage and tradition, but it’s taking music into new places… It requires a community of real artists who can play. It requires a tech base that can work with the musicians. It requires a community that has a vibrant economic base and a community that loves music. Austin is positioned to make this happen. Let’s work to make this happen for the good of all in the city.” To listen to the whole talk on KUT, click here or on the photo at the top of the page.
When the event moderator, NPR’s John Burnett, asked for panelists’ responses to the address, most had more questions and comments than we had time to take. Here are a few takeaways and quotes.
Mayor Steve Adler said, “There are lots of conversations that we could have this evening about music and what I loved about what you [Ted Gioia] said is that it was almost entirely forward looking and that’s the conversation that we have to have in this city right now. We are where we are.” So the question is begged: where do we go from here, and how do we get there? How can we support the music scene and make it stronger?
Harold McMillan, founder and director of DiverseArts Culture Works, noted the irony that, while Austin is the “live music capitol in the world,” the big money music business could do better to celebrate the roots and vibe of the local Austin music scene. Eve Monsees, co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop, felt that the Austin music community has been stressed out and spread thin by its many challenges and that we need to pull together to support each other’s efforts to thrive.
Will Bridges, local entrepreneur and new owner of Arlyn Studios and Antone’s nightclub, accented the need to support our music ecosystem by providing more music education for kids. He also reminded us that Austin’s live music scene is often driven by the live music experience, and not by the record industry. Nicole Bogatz, the secretary/treasurer of the Austin Federation of Musicians, argued that the community could do a better job of giving musicians the livable wage they deserve.
Dr. John Mills, professor of jazz studies at UT’s Butler School of Music, recognized the pressure musicians feel to give away their music on YouTube and elsewhere, and that this makes it difficult to make a livable wage. Jennifer Houlihan, the director of Austin Music People, sees that the challenges to the Austin music community represent the challenges that folks all over Austin will be facing sooner than later. Jennifer hopes that as the music community addresses these problems—affordable housing, public transportation, health care, etc.— and asserts that it can lead the way to helping Austin solve some problems.
The festive reception following this conversation–courtesy of the Philip Marshall Trio, Salvation Pizza, BookPeople, and Black Star Co-Op’s beer–reminded of the power we all have when we all come together, across all our divides: to think, envision, and act as the caring, creative community we are.
The Front Porch is planning a follow-up event for this spring to consider solutions. As Ted Gioia suggested, these problems could very well be solved by collaboration between new-wave techies and old soul musicians. Out of Austin’s 140 music-focused nonprofits, creative juices are churning right now, and the support for these folks isn’t going away. People are interested in finding solutions, but the key to solution finding must be through a common vision, openness to new perspectives, and partnering across our silos.
Too many questions linger; we can’t possibly ask them all. But, what we can do is continue this dialogue, in attempts of finding those solutions more readily and being a viable part of this shift towards new horizons in how we look at music both locally and globally. We at the Front Porch readily admit that we are not the music experts ourselves; we are, rather, hosts to this important series of conversations about our city’s pride and joy, music. We hope you’ll all join us for our next music forum, which has yet to be titled. For now, mark your calendars for the evening of April 20th! And join us for our other happenings in the meantime!