Last year’s first-of-its-kind Austin Music Census, released in June, identified Austin’s music venues as a key building block to the scene as a whole, but the survey revealed they were struggling. Some of the pressures on venues, factors like rising cost of living, are broad issues affecting the whole city, with no easy answers. But one key concern, “productivity loss from regulatory inefficiency” — in other words, navigating an often- complex city bureaucracy to obtain and maintain upwards of 15 permits a music venue requires to operate — seems within the city’s scope to fix.
To address confusion and put venue owners in the same room with folks from different city departments, Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division hosted its first Venue Summit on Monday. Representatives from the music office, Austin police and fire departments and the Development Services Department attended. The session, held at the Mexican American Cultural Center, was packed. Music office representatives say 90 people attended.
The meeting was fairly straightforward, with helpful tips related to safety and an update on the music office’s initiative to create an Entertainment License that could help streamline the permit process for venues. But a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation revealed confusion about city code from business owners.
One area explored in the meeting was the difference between a Certificate of Occupancy issued by Development Services and the Official Occupant Load Card issued by the fire department. Both documents relate to club capacity, and a venue is required to have both to operate. If venue owners makes any changes to their venue’s layout, they are required to submit plans to the city to have the load card recalculated. An answer to a question provided by Captain Stacy Cox with the Austin Fire Department and Jan Adler with Development Services seemed to indicate the standard the city uses to calculate the load card for standing room only clubs had been amended in recent years, but it was unclear.
“From the meeting on Monday, I was unable to tell myself what the changes were or were not quite frankly,” Nikki Rowling, president of Titan Music Group, the company the city contracted to conduct the Music Census, said on Wednesday.
There was also confusion around what exactly constitutes a change to venue layout. Does shifting the position of a sound board or temporarily making the sound booth bigger for a show require evaluation from the fire department? Again, the answers were unclear.
Cox and Adler said any specific questions could be addressed during their departments’ walk in hours. Those hours are from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, somewhat inconvenient for venue owners whose work days frequently end after 2 a.m.
“Our venues describe the City’s permitting system as inefficient, cumbersome, and confusing,” Jennifer Houlihan, director of Austin Music People, a musician’s advocacy group said Wednesday. “61 percent of respondents (to the Austin Music Census) found it extremely or moderately difficult to communicate with the proper officials — or even know who to contact about what.”
Houlihan added she was grateful to the music office for facilitating the summit to open lines of communication. “We have a long way to go, but our chances of success will be much greater with frequent conversations like these,” she said.
The Austin American-Statesman has reached out to the City of Austin fire and Building Services departments for comment.
Mary Huber contributed to this report.