Discussions about the state of the Austin music industry have almost become a cottage industry unto themselves in recent years, with issues hashed out repeatedly at city hall, local clubs, conference panels and the like. The latest, Thursday’s “The Crisis in Music: Austin Edition,” took place in a chapel as part of All Saints’ Episcopal Church’s monthly Front Porch Series.
The couple of hundred citizens who gathered for an hourlong talk by music historian Ted Gioia and a panel of Austin music experts arrived at no overarching conclusions or simple solutions to the challenges documented in recent studies such as last year’s Austin Music Census. But Gioia’s talk nevertheless was engaging, and surprisingly optimistic in a long-term view.
It didn’t start out that way. Gioia, a jazz specialist who’s written several authoritative books on the genre, began with a caution against taking cues from other music-centric cities with similar issues. “The role models out there aren’t very good,” he said, citing New Orleans and Mississippi as examples of regions with rich musical legacies that he believes have relied too much on “symbolic gestures” rather than nuts-and-bolts support.
Austin certainly isn’t immune to that practice, as panelist Harold McMillan noted later. “We have a lot of experience with symbolic gestures: We’re the Live Music Capital of the World,” he said with a tone of slight sarcasm that drew chuckles of agreement from the crowd.
So what about those nuts and bolts, then? The rallying point of Gioia’s talk, which he broke down into overviews of economic, technological and artistic elements of this music “crisis,” was that Austin is ideally positioned to reshape the future of the relationship between music and tech because it’s a hub of activity for both industries.
That’s certainly not a new observation, nor is Austin unique in this regard. Seattle, for instance, ruled the music landscape in the early 1990s and claims guitar legend Jimi Hendrix as one of its own, within the same cradle that rocked Microsoft and Amazon. San Francisco certainly has a musical legacy as well, though Silicon Valley has so transformed the Bay Area’s culture that Austin may well possess a more viable music-tech balance today.
But Gioia certainly was on point when he stated that “you will not be able to solve these problems unless you understand them on a global level.” The challenges facing Austin musicians partly are just a microcosm of the city’s affordability issues in general, and that same story is being told in communities across the nation and beyond. Austin Music People director Jennifer Houlihan noted later that in some respects the struggles of musicians are “a canary in the coal mine” of larger civic concerns.
As Gioia continued speaking, though, he grew increasingly intrigued about future prospects. Trends in food that stress the value of craft and artisan alternatives to mass production are a harbinger, he suggested. “This is already happening in music,” he said. “The industry just hasn’t figured it out yet.”
Interacting with panelists’ questions later, he envisioned a tech industry that invests more directly in music. At present, “the art supports the technology,” he noted, with music given away for free to play on devices that are often expensive. But that wasn’t always the case: Gioia pointed out that RCA was a tech company that started a record label to invest in musicians.
What we need, he suggested, is a new age “when the technology uplifts the art. There is opportunity here. There is no reason for pessimism.”
The panelists’ responses to Gioia’s address touched on a broad range of topics. Mayor Steve Adler cited discussions he’s had recently with the Asian tech company Alibaba as an example of how the global landscape could eventually influence how music is re-valued, even on the local level. McMillan, founder of the DiverseArts Culture Works nonprofit, said he hopes to see more attention paid to the deep roots of Austin music. Blues guitarist Eve Monsees, co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop, brought up the multimillion-level sales of Adele’s recent album that wasn’t on Spotify, implying that current tech models aren’t necessarily the permanent way forward.
Will Bridges, who helped relaunch Antone’s nightclub this year, stressed the importance of music education in schools, while also observing that despite Austin’s “Live Music Capital” claim, “we’ve never really been very good at the record business.” Gioia suggested this might actually prove to be a strength, given that old record-business models are in such need of reinvention.
Nicole Bogatz, secretary/treasurer for the Austin Federation of Musicians, discussed the need for musicians to collectively hold the line in placing value on their work, citing the decline of paying gigs on Sixth Street as a prime example. University of Texas jazz professor John Mills acknowledged that while “it’s sort of against musicians’ nature to work collectively,” the devaluation of their work is unacceptable. “That was never the case” when he came to Austin in the 1970s, he said. “Musicians didn’t play for free.”
Houlihan’s concluding take was to underscore the reality that “all of these different qualities of the music scene are interwoven; they’re not independent of each other.” Tackling the challenges isn’t easy, and as Bridges admitted earlier, there is no single “silver bullet” answer. But, Houlihan said, addressing them “is an opportunity we should be privileged to take.”