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A podcast about live music, why it matters and what comes next.

Do musicians need corporate support to survive in the new Austin?

A person on stage with his foot on an amp points out to a crowd.
Gabriel C. Pérez
J Soulja performs at the KUTX Summer Jam in 2018. The Austin hip-hop artist said he prefers corporate sponsorships to dealing with record labels in part because it feels more personal

Once a college town attractive to artists for its music scene, Austin has become a hub in the last few decades for tech companies, corporations and startups. This influx of highly paid workers has contributed to an increase in the cost of living, pushing the creative class out.

But what if business did more to help them stay?

Corporations can support local music in a number of ways. One route is by sponsoring an artist either by giving them money, products or some combination of the two. In return the artist can represent the company, and hopefully, raise the profile of its brand.

For Austin hip-hop artist J Soulja, who has worked with brands like Swisher Sweets, sponsorships are the preferred route to take when it comes to funding. He says it’s better than dealing with record labels.

“I've gone to several different A&R [artists and repertoire] meetings as a hip-hop artist, as J Soulja, and they tell me, ‘Yo, I like you, you’re talented, but I'm not going to offer you a deal because you don't have 10,000 followers" on social media, he said.

This need to be established and popular can be a reality check for some artists. How can you get the followers if you don’t have the financial backing? In J Soulja’s mind, sponsorships are more like real partnerships; they’re more personal.

“You know, the sponsorship is a lot more – ‘Hey, let me get to know you. Can you do interviews? What's your personality like?’” he said. “ In my situation, I can't say for anybody else, but for me it felt a lot more receptive.”

Corporate support can also just be investing money in musicians. PNC Bank is doing just that.

“It was all about us sitting down and thinking about: What's authentic to the city? What are the passion points of the people who work for us? What are we going to do that really ties us into the community of Austin,” Dillan Knudson, regional president for PNC Bank, said.

A person smiles at the camera with the Austin skyline behind him
Michael Minasi
Dillan Knudson, regional president for PNC Bank, determined that supporting local music was one way to tie the bank to the community.

The answer was simple for PNC: Support the Austin music scene.

Knudson and Hugo Lagarda, a former director of client and community relations for the bank, were tasked with launching the PNC brand in Austin last year.

Lagarda’s strategy was all about the first principal of marketing: Associate yourself with something people really love and care about.

“And so the music passion point is just, in my opinion, the most powerful one because it's highly leverageable,” he said.

Sponsorships can be beneficial for both the artist and the corporation, and when PNC decided to invest in the Austin music scene it had one focus.

“What it really came down to was it's all about the musician. Like, what can we do to help the musician? How do we support the musician? How do we help them with livable wages?” Knudson said. “And then how do we do that? Because we also have to be a bank, right? ... People rely on us to be their financial partners.”

PNC decided to invest in Austin music in three ways. First, it provides grants and sponsorship dollars to nonprofits that support musicians, like HAAM, Austin Music Foundation and Black Fret.

Second, the bank provides financial education for musicians around things like first-time home-buying, managing credit scores and small-business planning.

And third, PNC committed to creating performance opportunities for Austin musicians. It hires Austin musicians to play events and encourages other organizations to sponsor live music. It also created a residency program at the PNC Plaza at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Each month a different artist who is part of the Austin Music Foundation’s artist-development program gets to play three shows at the PNC Plaza before that evening's national touring act.

PNC’s main goal was to increase its brand awareness in Austin, and so far, Largarda says, it has been pretty successful.

“In October of last year, a quarter of Austinites knew who PNC was, and coming into April, we're close to half of the city recognizing the brand, which is just unprecedented brand awareness growth,” he said. “And so yeah, it's a testament to the music, the music passion point, I'd say.”

Find out more about corporate support of the Austin music scene in the latest episode of Pause/Play. Listen by using the player above.

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