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Playing in Austin might not pay bills

Austin Music Source

Peter Mongillo
Willie Nelson will play the Formula Austin show.

Last week's meeting of the city music commission, which hadn't met in a few months, started in an unexpected way. The meeting's agenda focused on some big issues for the future of music downtown, including suggested amendments to the city's building standards to reduce the amount of noise entering new buildings, and the results of a case study done through the venue assistance program. That program is designed to help downtown venues, including those in the Red River Street live music scene, survive in the face of rapid development.

Those two issues were overshadowed during the opening minutes of the meeting when Austin-based musician Silas Lowe, a singer and songwriter who has played in several bands in town including the Atomic Duo, stood up during the period allowed for public comment.

"It seems clear that the focus of the Austin Music Commission is to ease the friction between Austin's rapid growth and the live music industry here. This manifests itself mostly in permitting for festivals and volume levels at clubs. ... There is not one working musician on this council, and upon reading the 2011 annual report, I found no mention of musicians, other than buskers, anywhere in the document," Lowe said before the commission.

Though ideas such as the venue assistance program could prove central to the survival of live music in Austin, Lowe spoke of a reality that people who don't personally know working musicians might not be fully aware of — for many, working as a musician doesn't pay, at least not well.

Lowe cited his experience earning a lot more money on tour in Canada than he ever has locally. "In Austin it is hard to find gigs that pay $50 a person," he said. "This is not an uncommon struggle in Austin."

Lowe admits that being able to claim Austin as a home base can help in increasing a musician's ability to make money on tour, but at home, he points to a constant struggle where some (not all) clubs aren't looking out for musicians.

Examples Lowe offers range from not getting paid at all to promised cuts of the bar tab that remain low even on crowded nights.

City music division manager Don Pitts says that musicians having problems getting paid isn't an isolated issue. Although it's nothing new, Pitts says his office has been receiving a much higher number of calls about it in recent months.

The better clubs in town, Lowe says, cultivate a base of customers who go to the club knowing that they will be able to hear good music on any given night, rather than relying on the bands to bring in their own crowds each time they play. He points to groups including Portland's Fair Trade Music (www.fairtrade musicpdx.org ), which works to cultivate a music scene in which musicians are treated with the rights of other workers, as a possible way to begin a dialogue in Austin. He also hopes that the commission will work to involve musicians.

"Generally we don't get artists showing up to the meetings," says commission member Michael Feferman. "We love it. It's important — the entire music community centers around artists." Feferman adds that Lowe's comments were a signal that the commission needs to do more outreach, but that many of the commission's roles, including advising the City Council on ordinances such as parking meters, do directly affect musicians.

The commission generally meets on the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in City Hall. The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 1. Those wishing to speak can sign up in person before the meeting starts.

Venue assistance. Regarding those other issues the music commission discussed last week, city music division manager Don Pitts presented the results of the case study conducted on the Cedar Street Courtyard's sound mitigation efforts. After the city approved $40,000 from a downtown development fund to conduct the study in February, Cedar Street Courtyard, 208 W. Fourth St., installed a new PA system designed to direct sound to specific listening areas, reducing the amount of "acoustic reflections" leaving the club. The new speakers seemed to have worked; since April, there has been an 88-percent reduction in the number of noise complaints, according to the study.

Pitts recommended that the venue assistance plan be put into effect using money from the development fund to offer loans to qualifying venues for improved sound systems and other renovations designed to mitigate sound. Before the City Council approves any such program, however, it would need to decide exactly which clubs would qualify. One question the commission raised was how venues would prove they were worthy of the loans. Would the program be available to new clubs? There is no word on when the city council will reconsider this proposal.

Tickets on sale for Formula Austin show at ACL Live. On Thursday, Nov. 15, Willie Nelson, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Pat Green, Jerry Jeff Walker, Cindy Cashdollar, Del Castillo, Ruthie Foster and the Quebe Sisters will perform at ACL Live as part of the Formula One race weekend. Tickets are on sale at www.formula-austin.com. They start at $190, something that prompted one person to comment online, "Welcome suckers! We're here to fleece your Euros."

A two-day music event is also in the works for Auditorium Shores that weekend (the City Council hasn't yet approved the use of the park; they vote on Thursday) though the lineup hasn't been announced.

Also, if you don't want to shell out ACL Fest prices to see Willie, he's playing at the Backyard on Aug. 25. Tickets for that show start at $26.50.

Contact Peter Mongillo at pmongillo@statesman.com or 445-3696