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Why doesn't commercial music in the U.S. get much financial support outside of, say, fans?

People walk past a person sitting on the sidewalk playing guitar with his guitar case open for tips.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUTX
The music scene in Austin does not get a lot of outside financial support.

Austin is home to a thriving music scene, but that scene hasn’t received much financial support outside of fans buying music and going to shows. That’s not uncommon in the U.S. While some art forms like the opera and the symphony get regular public and private investments, commercial music typically gets left to fend for itself. Why is that?

Charles Carson, an associate professor of musicology at UT Austin’s Butler School of Music, says it all starts with the American identity, which is built on pragmatism and independence.

“Pragmatism being things have to be worthwhile. Things have to have a reason,” he says. “So I'm not going to do anything that's not going to pay off immediately or definitely.”

The idea that the U.S. was an independent nation filtered down to the individual. “And if you think about that on the national level,” Carson says, “there was a concerted effort to make that part of the individual identity of actual Americans.”

Carson says both pragmatism and independence led to the American belief in laissez-faire capitalism: the idea that the market is the ultimate decider of value. If something makes money, that means it’s valuable.

In commercial music, few people achieve massive success. But, Carson says, those exceptions prove capitalism works and therefore prove commercial music doesn’t need outside support.

By all accounts, the Austin music ecosystem has done well in capitalist terms. The music scene brings in $1.8 billion a year. Music has become a major draw for the city.

“People are not traveling around the world to come here and sit in traffic, right? That's not a draw. They're not coming here to pay $4,000 for a studio,” Carson said. “They're coming here for art. They're coming here for the experience.”

But Austin is becoming too expensive for residents in the music industry. And it’s not clear that the music scene will survive on its own.

The city has made strides in supporting the live music scene by creating the Live Music Fund. There are also quite a few nonprofits that provide support – DAWA, Black Fret, SIMS, the Austin Music Foundation, the list goes on.

But is this support enough to maintain the music scene? Will we let the market decide the fate of the ecosystem? What are possible strategies to sustain the industry? Hosts Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen focus on these questions in Season 4 of Pause/Play. Download and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Elizabeth McQueen is an audio producer and podcast host at KUTX 98.9, Austin’s NPR music station.
Miles Bloxson is a producer and host for KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9.
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