Building Austin's music empire through tech —
August 12, 2020

Building Austin’s music empire through tech

By Lesly Reynaga and Lauren Bruno

If Austin could be described in a few words, most people wouldn’t miss these two—music and tech. Both of these industries are key to our city, contributing millions of dollars to our local economy every year. It is no secret that music and tech go hand in hand everywhere in the world and, as the years go by, these two industries continue to grow even closer together. The question is, what would happen if our city were to find ways to support initiatives to integrate our prominent music scene with the many tech companies settling in Austin?

The music industry is ever-changing, and it now exists mostly on the internet through technology. In a fast-growing city like Austin, this can no longer be ignored and must be embraced with open arms. Not only is music fully integrated with technology today, but the audiences who support it are aligned with it as well. Of course, there are also many challenges that our local music scene faces.

Let’s consider some of the discoveries of the Austin Music Census, released by the City of Austin Economic Development Department’s Music and Entertainment Division in 2015. This was the first-ever census of its kind to be conducted in our city, incorporating the input from 4,000 local musicians and music industry operators.

The Census found that 50 percent of Austin musicians with a secondary source of income take home less than $25,000 annually and almost 70 percent of total musicians make less than $10,000 a year. Taking into consideration the many affordability challenges that not just musicians but the entire Austin community faces, it is critical for our city to respond to these alarming figures with innovative action.

One of the main goals of the Music Census was to identify needs and gaps to then be addressed by the City and potential partners and collaborators. In February, Mayor Adler released his unprecedented Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution as a response to this study. As stated in the resolution, “…in spite of the City’s significant contribution to the music and creative industries, a new business model is needed that integrates new technologies, marketing and export strategies, and, builds its commercial music and creative industries, to tackle the challenges for the future of the City’s $4.35 billion creative industry, generally, in the face of an unprecedented affordability crisis, an outdated land development code, and ill-fitting permitting process.”

This statement touches on fundamental concerns that are addressed on a city staff recommendations report that was released on June 27. The report, titled “Music & Creative Ecosystem Stabilization Recommendations,” is a 68-page document with several recommendation items from which City Council will be able to pick to be voted into action.

A total of 10 focus areas were identified in the report—Affordable Space; Agent of Change Principle; Cultural Tourism; Entertainment License; Incentives, Tools & Loans; Land Use Regulations; Music Genre Development; Permitting and Licensing; Professional Development; and Revenue Development. The report proposes several great measures, such as an entertainment license that will streamline the permitting process for live venues, the creation of an Austin Music Walk of Fame honoring Austin musicians and an export initiative to promote our music industry around the world. Nonetheless, there is very little to no mention whatsoever of innovation and technology in the report.

Austin is at the forefront of music and technology, and we must find ways to support a mutually beneficial relationship between the two that will help both industries thrive. Our city has a unique advantage and many possibilities to grow our economy and our creative sector like no other city. Local artists and technologies are being born every day, but the lack of resources and opportunity is driving them away from this town. In fact, the Music Census found that there has been a decrease in economic impact of the music industry of 15 percent and a loss of 1,200 jobs in the last four years.

More music sales are happening online every day. According to a Nielsen study, 15 percent of the money spent on music in the U.S. in 2014 came from digital sales, second only to concert ticket sales. The same study also shows that two out of three U.S. music listeners stream music online each week, and 39 percent of U.S. smart phone owners purchased music on their devices in 2014, up five percent from 2013. These numbers show how digital music sales are redefining new sources of income for musicians.

With almost extinct revenues from record sales today, artists are being pushed to diversify their income sources. Some of the main ways in which musicians make money today include instant concert recordings, YouTube, digital sales (iTunes, Amazon), streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play), merchandise sales, movie and TV licensing and sponsorships. Of course, to make money through most of these also requires large exposure to wide audiences and a bigger-than-average fan base.

It is true that Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, but unfortunately, live music venues are seeing their consumer numbers approach a critical state. Our immersive music festivals are thriving on the new music consumption trends brought about by globally popular technology. However, these same consumers do not possess a vehicle to be introduced to emerging Austin artists. While it is important that we find ways to sustain our live music scene—as addressed in most of the items on the recommendations report—it is also evident that technology is creating new revenue sources and even jobs for musicians. The answer to expose local talent beyond city limits lies right before us—exploit our tech resources.

Imagine integrating multiple technologies that are already available to our city into one website with the purpose of creating a music marketplace where local artists can gain visibility and sell tracks, albums and videos online. This website would remove the high competition found in similar global technologies, where millions of artists compete for a hot track. Placing this tool in millennials’ hands could be an effective means for supporting Austin artists not just locally but at national and international levels. Millennials use new tech to discover emerging bands and artists, especially as streaming platforms have completely redefined the ways through which new generations consume music. With the ease of a click, millennials are able to purchase and listen to tracks and full albums on a computer, whether it’s a desktop, tablet or phone.

To add yet another layer to this project, it also provides an opportunity to integrate Austin’s music diverse genres and sub-genres. The development of a business support infrastructure that invests in new markets and promotes new emerging talent opens a door for musicians from all backgrounds to be showcased. From indie rock to hip hop to punk rock to Latin pop, our music scene is home to very diverse acts and we must do our best to include and promote all talent.

City funding is essential to the creation of such a centralized website/app. Increasing exposure of local musicians to new audiences can have a subsequent effect in demand for live performances. Beyond generating track sales revenue for the artists, this tool would build up anticipation for live performances by the most-played bands. This could benefit local venues as bigger crowds would be drawn to the night clubs where increasingly popular local bands perform. New job opportunities would arise for other creatives in the music industry such as producers, film and video makers, record labels, publishers, etc.

The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Instead of creating new competing technologies, partnerships with existing resources would be a smarter investment. From big names such as Apple, Dell, Microsoft, AT&T, Google and Samsung to smaller-scale companies such as Duo Security, Rackspace and OnPrem Solution Partners, there are plenty of well-established prospect tech companies in Austin.

Austin is also home to a variety of music tech apps, which could be critical to help this project and its musicians succeed. Take, for instance, Solstice Live, which provides a service that connects artists and venues for bookings. Solstice Live has already created an extensive talent database that could potentially be a good starting point for this project. The opportunities for new partnerships are endless, yet it’s crucial that our City takes the first step to make this initiative happen.

Austin is a proud community, and we take much of that pride from our incomparable music culture and the weirdness that comes with a wide variety of creative expression. As the Live Music Capital of the World, it is our responsibility to highlight and provide every resource possible to continue to build a strong music empire that can continue to evolve with the rest of the world in the most efficient and technologically updated way. The growth of the creative industry depends on how quickly we can adapt to new technology.

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