Piñata Protest performs at Botánica Music Festival.
Piñata Protest performs at Botánica Music Festival. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

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.

Jim Chesnut is a freelance music writer, former Nashville recording artist and songwriter, certified public manager, and an active live music performer from San Antonio.