Friday, December 23, 2011

Austin's Musicians Caught In Conundrum

by John Burnett
December 23, 2011

Sixth Street in downtown Austin, Texas, is one of the city's premiere live music districts. Guitar-shaped Christmas decorations hang on light poles, and the street is alive with bands and bars. Tonight you can hear ­­­­­­­­Austin Heat at the Thirsty Nickel, Mike Milligan and the Altar Boys at Maggie Mae's, or you could catch Misbehavin' at the Dizzy Rooster.

Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Young people are moving there in search of its plentiful sunshine, freewheeling lifestyle, hi-tech jobs and vibrant music scene. However, more and more musicians find they cannot afford to live in the self-styled "Live Music Capital of the World."

In Austin, music seems to bubble up like an artesian spring. Yet many musicians cannot make a reasonable living wage in this town, which is why they need cheap rent. Hence the moment of silence last week when the Wilson Street Cottages were boarded shut.


Despite the high cost of living, more than 170 new people move to Austin every day. Consequently, Austin has become the most expensive city in Texas to buy or rent a home in.


So here's the kill-the-golden-goose paradox: The music scene is one of the biggest reasons why people are flocking to Austin, and all those new people are crowding out the musicians who make the music.

One of Austin's greatest creative success stories is South by Southwest, or SXSW. In a modern downtown office building, a staff of 83 annually produces an interactive media festival and a film festival as well as the storied music festival. In March, 2,000 acts will play in 80 clubs across the city over the course of the festival.

"I feel like at this point there's so much momentum behind the idea of Austin being a place for artists and musicians to gather, that it's going be really hard to stamp that out," says Roland Swensen, the founder of SXSW.

Swensen agrees that high-priced real estate is pushing starving artists further out into the periphery suburbs of Austin.

"But there's give and take here. I mean, yeah, it's more expensive, it's harder, but there's also more opportunities now than there were before. There are many more places to play than there used to be," says Swensen.

So, what can be done?

In the past five years, the city of Austin has committed $55 million to affordable housing. In fact, the developer of the new Wilson Street apartments says 10 percent of his units will be designated "affordable." Councilman Mike Martinez, who often speaks up for musicians, suggests taking the conversation in a different direction.

"It's very difficult to talk about because venue owners and promoters tend to be more resistant to this conversation, but it's paying our musicians a living wage," he says.

That's a hard argument to make, especially in a town bursting with guitar players, all elbowing each other aside to become the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.


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