or: Musicians in this Town Need to Learn Economics
Note: I am no expert in economics. I don’t hold a degree in it or anything. But the field has been one of my many interests for quite some time, at least since I was in my 20s and learned that money was an important thing that drove most decisions that people make. So if there’s an expert economist who wants to correct any of my assertions, please do. I will welcome getting schooled.
Harsh Truth #1: The reason why musicians don’t get paid in this town has everything to do with supply and demand, and little else.
When I moved to Austin, one of the things that drew me here was the music scene. I loved the idea that it would be easy to find people to play with, that it would be easy to get gigs, and that everyone in the city seemed to really love music. I know lots of people get cynical about those things, but in my 13-or-so years of living here, I’ve found all of the above to be true. Yes, it is very easy to find like-minded creative types to start a band with, and get them to play gigs with you. Yes, if you don’t mind playing at 1 am on a Tuesday, it’s very easy to find places to play. And, yes, the people who live here generally like music a lot. Even if you go to a mainstream, corporate-style office building, you’re as likely as not to find someone there who’s heard of Wilco. Where I come from, that would be unheard-of.
The one thing that’s really hard to do is get paid. Like, at all. Back when I was gigging a lot, we considered a good night in town to be one where we landed more than $200. As time went on, we found it was increasingly difficult to get people to come out to our shows. After being a band for a few years, all our friends had seen us play–a lot. And they wanted to go see other bands. And there were plenty of other bands to see.
Musicians in this city love to complain about the fact that people here don’t support live music. But that’s just totally false. People in this city love live music and they support it all the time. The problem is that there are just too many bands and not enough people to go out to see them.
In economic terms, one might say that the Austin live music market is experiencing a glut. There’s just so much good music going on in this town that the market is totally saturated. When a market is saturated well beyond demand, the price drops until it’s basically zero. Right now, that’s the situation for live musicians in Austin.
In a normal market, if the supply of a commodity is overwhelming demand, producers stop producing until the supply decreases enough to bring the price back up to a sustainable level. But with music in Austin, this isn’t happening. This is because many people who play music here (like me) do so not because they’re trying to make money at it, but because they love to do it. To many musicians in town, simply having the opportunity to perform for an audience is reward enough. Any cash they earn is just gravy. They’ve got day jobs to keep them housed, clothed, and fed–music is their passion.
So if musicians in this town are cynical about this being a place to be for serious professionals, I understand that completely. Austin is a great city to make friends, form a band, and gig regularly. But unless you make a concerted effort to get out of town a lot and expand your audience beyond what Austin can offer, you’ll always be struggling to make rent because of the economics of the thing.*
But I’m sick of hearing people bitch about how this city “doesn’t support local music.” This city supports the hell out of local music. It’s just that there’s too damn much of it.
Harsh Truth #2: We need to stop protesting condos.
The entire time I’ve lived here, I’ve heard the same thing over, and over, and over again: “They’re tearing down [BELOVED LANDMARK / BUSINESS / REHEARSAL STUDIO / LAUNDRY SHED] and putting up condos! We’ve got to STOP THEM!
I was sick of this in 2004, and it hasn’t gotten more fun to listen to in twelve years. I hear this especially from musicians and artists, who because of Harsh Truth #1 tend to feel the pinch of development more than most others in the city. It’s easy to see condos go up where your favorite club used to be and get pissed. I get it.
The thing is, stopping an individual development does jack shit for artists and musicians in Austin. Sure, you might get to keep your club or your studio a little longer. But the problem we have in this city is that it’s growing really, really fast. So fast that there isn’t anywhere near enough housing to contain everyone who wants to live here. People want to build condos on the site of your favorite club because they’re pretty sure that they’ll be able to find 200+ people who want to live on that exact strip of land.
If you stop the condo near your favorite club, all you’ve done is just guarantee that those 200 people who would have lived in those condos will go looking for housing elsewhere. And, since, let’s face it, those condos were going to be pretty high end, those 200 people will have no problem outbidding the Annie Street Arts Collective for that charming bungalow in Travis Heights.
I’m not saying that artists who are getting displaced from cheap, run-down housing near downtown shouldn’t try to avoid that displacement. They should. But the problem is that that fight isn’t accompanied with any kind of concrete plan for where those 200 housing units should go. Absent that policy, stopping the condo they’d bulldoze your house for is just delaying the inevitable another couple of months or years.
If you ask me, I think any artist, musician, actor, or working class individual who doesn’t want their home bulldozed for a luxury condo should look at West Austin and say: PUT IT THERE! Those neighborhoods are the richest in the city, and they’ve managed to keep it that way by keeping condos out of their neighborhoods (you know, keeping the supply of housing near them low). That’s been good for them, as they get to reap the rewards of skyrocketing property values and less riff raff in West Austin Neighborhood Park. But it sure has sucked for the rest of us.
Harsh Truth #3: What’s Happening in Austin is Happening Everywhere
You’ve read the articles. You know that the story of the music industry since 2000 has been one of almost inexorable decline. Some segments of the industry, of course, have grown a lot. And the focus has certainly shifted more to online content, videos, and the like. But even the most high profile artists these days will admit that it isn’t as easy to make money playing now as it was twenty years ago. Harsh Truth #1 is true at all levels of the industry, in just about every city in the country.
Harsh Truth #2, that musicians and artists are being priced out of cities that are increasingly getting walled off for the rich (and I might add that by focusing so frequently on immediate displacement without focusing at all on the big picture we are helping the rich in this effort), is also true everywhere. Austin happens to be a particularly extreme example when it comes to economic segregation, but it’s not completely off the scale.
So, in the face of these realities, the next question is: what exactly do we do?
If you ask me, the first step is that we musicians have to organize–and we have to organize around reality. We can’t just get together and bitch about how nobody wants to pay a cover, or about how some asshole developer is trying to bulldoze our rehearsal space and put up a condo. We have to come together with realistic answers to the difficult questions that face the city, and advocate for policies that actually serve our economic interest.
Until we do that, we’ll just keep getting screwed.
*You could also explore other economic avenues–like playing weddings, funerals, and quinceaneras, or YouTube or whatever. But you can’t just play clubs.