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What happens to the live music capital of the world when there’s no live music?

The city has millions of dollars to support the Austin music scene. But who gets the money?

 J Soulja performs at the KUTX Summer Jam at Barracuda in 2018.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUTX
J Soulja performs at the KUTX Summer Jam at Barracuda in 2018. The city created a Live Music Fund the following year, but no money has been given out yet.

Since the city created the Live Music Fund in 2019, it has grown to more than $3 million.

But the music community hasn’t seen any of that money yet.

One reason is because the fund is the first of its kind; there’s no blueprint for how to dole it out. Another reason is because there’s been a debate about who the money should go to.

One thing the majority of people working on the program agree on is that there should be an equity focus. The city developed a framework called P.I.E., which is centered around the preservation, innovation and elevation of historically underrepresented groups.

The initial draft of how the program would operate came out in July. Under it, musicians and independent promoters would be able to apply for grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 for live or online events. They could spend the money on venue rental, performance fees to musicians, equipment rental and other expenses related to putting on the show.

Venues initially weren’t included as direct recipients, in part because they received substantially more relief during the pandemic than musicians through federal and local grant and loan programs.

Meanwhile, not all musicians could even apply for unemployment benefits. They could apply for $1,000 grants from the city through the Austin Music Disaster Fund in June 2020 and $1,000 grants from Creative Worker Relief Grant program in August 2020. But that was about it as far as relief money specifically set aside for musicians.

(The city is in the middle of distributing more COVID relief funds now, but at publication time, no musician had received funds.)

Many musicians, like Megz Kelli of the Austin hip-hop duo Magna Carda, had been feeling left out.

“Austin prides itself and markets itself as the Live Music Capital of the World,” Kelli said, “and yet the very people who power the engine of the industry, the musicians themselves, are the ones that have not been supported in meaningful and impactful ways – namely financially.”

Anne-Charlotte Patterson, chair of the music commission, said the city recognized the industry was in something of a crisis and that musicians in particular needed help.

Investing public funds in musicians could empower them to act like small businesses and give them agency to grow their careers, she said.

“It flips the script a little bit on who asks who to dance,” she said. “But there's so much opportunity for collaboration with venues.”

Some people were uneasy about the initial guidelines. Mayor Steve Adler brought it up during a City Council work session in October. While he supported the guidelines’ equity focus, he thought the fund was too similar to existing cultural arts programs.

The guidelines were sent back to the music commission for review.

At a commission meeting the next month, there was a push by some members of the music community to change the program.

The nonprofit Music Makes Austin submitted a plan that included venues, along with musicians and independent promoters. The plan had only two eligible expenses – venues could receive money to pay for local musicians, at a base rate of $150 an hour with a possible maximum of $3,000 per band, and to pay for marketing, which couldn’t be more than 10% of a show's total budget.

At its most recent meeting in February, the music commission voted 7-3 to approve a compromise plan that did three things. First, it expanded the eligible expenses recipients could use the money for to include studios and sync licensing. Second, it stated that the outcomes of the program should be measurable. And third, it decided money from the program would go directly to musicians and independent promoters in the first year and venues would be eligible the following year.

Now, the plan goes back to city staff, who will make the requested changes to the program and bring it back to the music commission, City Council and other stakeholders for review.

And hopefully it won't be another three years before the money is given out.

The next music commission meeting is Monday, March 7, at 6:30 p.m.

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