Becoming a Music City Could Be Good for Business – If Done Right

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Piñata Protest performs at Botánica Music Festival.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Piñata Protest performs at Botánica Music Festival.

Momentum is building within the local music community and among some City officials to market San Antonio as a music city. In fact, the Texas Music Office in February declared San Antonio a Music Friendly Community.

Participation in the program "provides Texas communities with a network for fostering music industry development, and sends a clear message to industry professionals that certified communities are serious about attracting and developing music industry growth," according to its website.

Fort Worth, Austin, and Denton also received the State's music-friendly designation.

But, I have to offer a cautionary warning – be careful what you wish for.

According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, “A Music City, by its simplest definition, is a place with a vibrant music economy. There is growing recognition among governments and other stakeholders that Music Cities can deliver significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits.”

It's easy to assume that cities with abundant cultural amenities attract visitors, new businesses, and residents, and retain existing residents. The subject of my warning is limited to one cultural amenity – live music.

Austin, our robust neighbor to the north, claims to be the “Live Music Capital of the World.” If it is, it is in trouble.

The view of Austin from San Antonio looks great to some because of Willie Nelson, Austin City Limits, and South by Southwest. But according to Andrew Flanagan of Texas Public Radio, the primary music core in the city is declining.

“The Austin music industry isn’t whole," he wrote. "The business underlying ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’ stands bifurcated between its lucrative festivals ... and a dwindling local music scene.

“Large events and a rapidly expanding population have put an unintended strain on the infrastructure of the local music scene which helped them and on which they still rely ...”

The demand for housing due to the influx of highly paid technical workers has driven the cost of housing to a level that is unaffordable for working musicians. Too, the rising rents of commercial property have forced many small- and medium-sized live music venues to shut down.

Nashville, another well-known music city, no longer has an economic environment that adequately supports songwriters and live music performers. Many in both of these well-known music cities have had to move because of rapidly rising real estate prices. Even some established names in the music business, such as Billboard Magazine, no longer have offices in Nashville. Without incurring the expense of renting office space, it’s too easy to maintain a staff of virtual or at-home employees to fill the few pages devoted to country music.

City policymakers would be well advised to act with an effective but limited amount of effort in encouraging a healthy music scene without becoming overly bureaucratic about it. Without getting mired in the details, let me provide you with an example.

According to The Journal of Urban Affairs, Austin in 2002 began to look seriously at the power of cultural activity as an economic generator rather than a supporting amenity. It transferred the City's Cultural Arts Division from its Parks Department to the Economic Development Department.

After a lengthy process that included forming a 70-member leadership council comprised of local arts, civic, education, and business leaders, a 212-page master-planning document was produced, including an executive summary and consultant’s report. It was finished two years before the Austin city council partially approved it – and then the council chose not to fund it.

That’s several years worth of work, 212 pages of information, countless dollars spent, and still Austin has nightmarish traffic (only partially relieved by a system of toll roads), and a declining primary music core thanks to soaring real estate prices.

The focus was on attracting people to Austin who create for a living – folks like computer programmers and engineers who make good money working for tech companies and buy expensive cars and houses. The result has been an unaffordable cost of living for the lower income people who also create for a living – songwriters, musicians, and singers.

San Antonio can easily avoid this type of logjam by first becoming aware of what happened in Austin and then using the taxing authority it already has to promote a healthy music scene that benefits venues, live music performers, and consumers. Free-market forces should take care of the rest.

Next, let's not get greedy. Let Austin have its reputation, declining as it may or may not be. San Antonio already has its own – a good one, in my  fairly well-informed opinion.

In much the same way that government provides infrastructure so people can live and work to generate economic activity, government can help create performance spaces by adopting favorable taxation policies for or making small reimbursement grants to venues that feature or will feature live music.

Small and medium live music venues find it financially burdensome to pay music license fees – a federal law – to major performing rights organizations. Many who choose not to pay the fees stop featuring live music altogether. Still others continue to operate at the risk of being sued and choose not to promote live music in the media for fear of being discovered. Without engagement with the public through local and social media promotion, audience development and the resulting increase in the velocity of money in the local economy is stunted.

Simply put, San Antonio becoming a music city could be good for business – if done right.

12 thoughts on “Becoming a Music City Could Be Good for Business – If Done Right

  1. Think bigger. San Antonio already has something it should be promoting that few guests even know exists and that could be expanded by making tourists and conventioneers aware of it. San Antonio should promote itself as a live entertainment city. When I tell people who are here for conventions that there are 5 live theater venues downtown (Majestic, Empire, Aztec, and Tobin [2 theaters]), they are surprised. (I don’t know what happened to the announced plans to revitalize the Scottish Rite Auditorium, but it is a potential additional venue along with the planned revitalization of the Alameda.) It would be far better for people around the country to know they can come to San Antonio for major live entertainment. It could help our struggling local organizations (symphony, ballet, opera) as well as provide the basis for scheduling more nights of entertainment at each venue creating a better situation for local people to attend more events. Of course, promoting live entertainment could also encompass promoting the smaller live music venues in the city, too–a plus/plus situation.

    • Thank you for your comments. I am unaware of objective data that would support your argument that few visitors know about our live entertainment, but you do make a good point. It is about entertainment, and music is definitely part of our variety of entertainment.

      I haven’t stayed in a downtown hotel in several years, but there once was ample in-room literature that listed all kinds of activities (including live music) for visitors to read. Also, I would think many folks intending to visit our city could find entertainment information on the Internet.

      • I actually communicate with many visitors to the city every week (although I am required to keep why confidential). Those who come for conventions do not generally seek out information about entertainment, but if you tell them about the options, they show an interest. Those who come for vacations tend to be thinking only about the big venues–The Alamo, the River Walk and sometimes Sea World (and don’t usually even know about the other missions and definitely don’t know about the live entertainment venues and their scheduling).

        What I was trying to point out is that people have to KNOW about the entertainment opportunities for them to grow and expand and that knowing about them could increase tourism and attendance at other live entertainment venues in town. San Antonio has far more major entertainment venues downtown than most cities and is already hosting a large number of major entertainment programs. Yet no one except for local citizens usually is aware of them.

        These major venues already exist and provide programming. And, related to the theme of the article above, the city could more easily move to being more of a “music city” by first promoting San Antonio as a place to come for major live entertainment that is already happening. Anyone interested in live entertainment enough to come here for it would then naturally search out the other entertainment venues–smaller theaters, live music venues, etc.

        Do you know any city in the country that is promoting itself as a live entertainment destination other than New York and Las Vegas? San Antonio has the facilities and enough current programming to immediately start doing so, too. We would never get the crowds that go to those cities, but we could increase our tourism with people who have no idea of what is already happening here in terms of live entertainment and would come here specifically for that. There are travelers who go where things are happening that they can enjoy, and San Antonio (and almost every other city) leaves those tourists to chance in terms of attracting them. I suggest PLANNING for it to happen and PROMOTING it to happen.

  2. A committee has been formed to give recommendations to the City Council; however I have failed to find a contact from the city that is able to return calls on who is on the committee, what have they done, and how can one join this committee?

  3. Austin is actually doing quite a bit to try to help musicians, including a paid street performer program (https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Street_Performance_Pilot_Program.pdf). Much more information can be found at http://www.atxmusic.org.

    In fact, they just held an event for musicians to highlight the programs from which they can receive support (https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2018/06/city-tour-support-tipping-program-previewed-in-summit-for-austin-musicians/).

    Definitely artists are being priced out of Austin, but to claim San Antonio has some sort of leg-up on Austin in the music industry is, well, a little blinded and biased.

    But I guess Austin could use more mariachi bands.

    • Thank you for letting me know about the street performance program. I didn’t mean to denigrate Austin. I once lived there and loved it. The only “leg up” San Antonio has for the time being is that it has recently been recognized as one of the most affordable cities in the country in which to live, according to Martucci, B. (n.d.). Top 10 most affordable U.S. cities to live n. Retrieved March 20, 2017 from http://www.moneycrashers.com/most-affordable-cities-live

      I have a research paper I will be happy to send to you if you wish in which I also suggest a different method for performing rights organizations to calculate license fees based on actual sales rather than on potential sales based on seating capacity that is currently being used. jim@chesnutproductions.com

  4. Given Jim’s excellent information, seems to me a good start would be for the city to invest in expanding music in San Antonio by picking up a venue’s music license fees.

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