Time for city to face the music panel
After months of discussion, task force to present ideas
Originally published on November 19, 2008
Watching Paul Oveisi at the recent Fun Fun Fun festival kickoff party, it's easy to see why the 36-year-old Momo's owner and talent manager is in charge of the Austin Live Music Task Force.
With his easygoing manner, it's hard to see that running the task force - charged with figuring out how to integrate rapidly expanding Austin with its identity as the "Live Music Capital of the World" - has been an exhausting and stressful process for Oveisi. It has put him in the position of herding cats on a 15-person board with wildly diverse interests.
After months of debate and cajoling, amendment and agreement, the task force presents its final recommendations to the City Council on Thursday . No wonder Oveisi looks 40 pounds lighter than he did in April.
Oveisi, in leather jacket and baseball hat, moves through the crowd at Club De Ville and Mohawk, schmoozing without seeming disingenuous.
"I think Paul has done a fantastic job," James Moody, Mohawk owner, Transmission Entertainment partner and task force member, said in September, as the task force was firming up its suggestions. "He was the perfect choice for chair. He has done a great job as a mediator, he's bridged the gaps, he's been the therapist."
And there were all sorts of gaps. Task force member and planning commissioner Saundra Kirk advocated for a lower decibel threshold and was opposed to expanding the music districts. Venue owners such as Moody were worried about the expansion of condos downtown. Musicians were worried about making a living from club owners who were worried about keeping their doors open.
Live music in Austin means a lot of things to a lot of people: Blues on the Green, shows at Shady Grove, late nights at the Continental Club and Beerland, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The task force was designed to address all of them.
Mayor Will Wynn "appointed Paul as the chair not just because he was a member of the Austin Music Commission," said Wynn's chief of staff, Rich Bailey, referring to the permanent board of volunteers that advises the City Council on music development. "He was a venue owner with a good reputation in the music community, and he had a good broad level of experience on a lot of the issues that the task force has been looking at."
An Austin original
Oveisi was born and bred in Austin. "My dad taught economics and finance at UT and St. Edward's," he said. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and went on to law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"That opened my eyes as to how special Austin was," Oveisi said. "I lived here pretty much my whole life, took all this for granted." He landed a job as a civil litigator after law school but quickly found that it was not for him. Oveisi purchased Momo's, an indoor and outdoor venue on top of Katz's delicatessen on West Sixth Street, in early 2001.
Bars didn't interest him, but he became fascinated with the live music business. "I found something I could be passionate about," Oveisi said.
Then the dark times hit. Oveisi bought the Metro on Sixth Street in 2002, which he renamed the Six of Clubs and booked for a few months before shuttering it the same year thanks to a defective sprinkler system and ancient plumbing that would have cost more than $40,000 to repair. Also that year, he bought Steamboat from Danny Crooks. "That place bled money," he said.
Steamboat closed in 2003, about the time Oveisi's marriage ended. He was never home. And for what? Clubs that he couldn't keep open?
"It's funny, when you hit rock bottom, it can become a big source of power," Oveisi said. "Momo's was next on the list, and I just swore if we were gonna go down, we were gonna go down swinging."
He cut staff, bartended and hoped it would get better.
It did. Talent buyer David Cotton took over booking. Oveisi was instrumental in getting a couple of acts who played regular gigs at Momo's to pool their talents into the Band of Heathens. He managed the band for a brief time. Most of the music at Momo's is pop/rock, singer-songwriter fare. Dan Dyer (Oveisi's client), Seth Walker and Warren Hood are frequent acts.
In 2007, Austin Music Foundation co-founder Nikki Rowling called about the Austin Music Commission. About the same time, Oveisi was talking to Wynn when the mayor would occasionally come to Momo's.
Wynn "impressed me as a guy who puts his money where his mouth is," Oveisi said. "Going to shows, buying a beer, maybe buying a CD."
Present at the creation
The night of Nov. 5, 2007, the Austin music community seemed on the verge of flipping out.
Venue owners, musicians, neighborhood representatives and fans gathered at Momo's for a meeting called by the Austin Music Commission.
The previous month, the Austin Planning Commission proposed changes to the city's sound ordinances, including lowering the sound threshold from 85 decibels to 75 decibels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
"That was very frustrating to watch," Oveisi said. "It was a great illustration of the disconnect between what the city is trying to do and musicians who just have this anger and bitterness."
When the task force was created by the mayor and the City Council, largely in response to this meeting, Oveisi put his name into the hat in spite of some reservations. "I was a little skeptical at first," he says. "I wondered if this was just the city placating the media and the music community."
The task force was minted Feb. 28; fellow members include such stakeholders as C3 Presents principal Charles Attal (Austin City Limits Music Festival); musicians Brandon Aghamalian, Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma) and Bobby Garza (Maneja Beto); planning commissioners Saundra Kirk and David Sullivan; and Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer.
Other music task forces had come and gone, but this was clearly something different. "We started work in March, April and I'm seeing the mayor's chief of staff, (the city's creative industries development manager) Jim Butler at every meeting, every subcommittee meeting," Oveisi said. "I'd never seen this level of engagement and involvement before from the city."
Throughout the summer, the live music task force addressed four areas: sound control, entertainment districts, development and incentives for venues, and program assistance for local musicians.
Oveisi was at the head of the table for each one, sitting through countless hours of complaints and compliments.
Residents complain about the noise. Musicians complain about lack of infrastructure such as publishers and management. Venue owners wonder how the sound thing is going to affect them.
This is where Oveisi proved his mettle. He never raised his voice, and he treated everyone with respect.
For example, in July, Oveisi was slated to give an update on the task force's progress at the Year of Austin Music's monthly meeting. Musician Troy Dillinger was about halfway through his introduction when artist Dominique Vyborny's hand shot up.
"Who is here to talk about the Enchanted Forest?" she asked. The venue on West Oltorf Street was shut down for various code, noise and building violations.
A wave of hands shot up, at least half of the folks there.
This was not on the menu, but Oveisi let the crowd vent for a while.
In October, Oveisi spoke to an Austin Music Foundation-sponsored " music mixer," describing the task force's interest in creating a city-level music office, expanding the downtown live music district and changing the way sound is enforced. Some changes might take a decade, he said.
"But we don't have a decade!" someone yelled.
Oveisi's answer: "Having a real New Orleans- or Nashville-style infrastructure will take a decade or more to get up to speed."
For the first time, this seems possible.
Oveisi said he hopes anyone who cares about live music will attend the meeting.
"We need to pack City Hall," Oveisi said. "The idea is to present these recommendations as a whole music community. We need everyone who cares about this to show up. We need to make that presentation and be able to say 'behind me are our supporters.'"
Austin Live Music Task Force
Paul Oveisi will present the Live Music Task Force's recommendations to City Council at 2 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.
Read the task force's recommendations at www.ci.austin.tx.us/council/livemusictaskforce.htm .
The recommendations include:
* A city level ' Music Department' to function as a clearinghouse for all issues related to music.
* A redefinition of live music districts and venues to include a large, centrally located entertainment district that roughly mirrors the current central business district.
* City-qualified sound engineers at all music venues.
* Better communication between various stakeholders.