(photo by Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer)
Venues can’t open. Musicians can’t perform. How can everyone get through this crisis and find a better way forward?
by Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Mike Tyson gets credit for this saying, universally adopted over the years. Not that long ago, SXSW was about to happen, spring travel was being planned, oil prices and the stock market were booming, new 2020 tours and album releases were getting underway, the NCAA tournament and baseball’s opening day were just around the corner. Things seemed to be going just fine.
They weren’t. The pandemic has exposed the dirt swept under the rug, the cans kicked down the road. Income inequality, inadequate medical coverage, leadership and preparedness deficits, gaps in social safety nets, indifference for our artists… In terrifying terms, we’re now seeing the damage. Is this really the best we can hope for?
Like everyone else, I’m watching in horror as coronavirus deaths continue to rise. There are more than 200,000 dead worldwide, and a death toll in this country that has now well surpassed the 58,000 U.S. fatalities claimed in the entirety of the Vietnam War. There are 3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, one-third of those in the U.S., and due to testing debacles, most epidemiologists are saying that’s a number that could easily be 10 times higher. Health-care workers and hospitals are overwhelmed, those who care for us are often getting sick themselves as they lack the supplies needed to keep them safe.
I have the luxury of working from home. Others aren’t so lucky. The pandemic and the shutdown are really hitting the impoverished, those living paycheck to paycheck, often without health insurance. Our musicians, who exemplify what is treasured about our city, often fall in this category, as do many of the music makers who lift the spirits of fans worldwide.
Restaurants are trying take-out curb service; some retailers are doing the same when they can. But in a line of work where the size of the crowds are your measure of success, where do venue owners turn? There’s nowhere left for this to happen.
An unprecedented 30 million+ Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. Defining local businesses are starting to close across the nation, including Seattle’s Bop Street Records, Amoeba’s Sunset store in LA, and here in Austin, Threadgill’s and the original Magnolia Cafe. Boarded up and silent, how long can our favorite music venues survive? What would our city be without them?
We’ve heard a lot about flattening the curve. The rising death toll in the U.S. has slowed a bit because of the shutdown – people staying at home and social distancing. But it’s still rising. And staying at home is all we can do – there is no treatment ready for the virus, no cure. Because we have failed to test all but a small percentage of our population (Texas currently ranks 47th in testing among the 50 states), we’re lacking all but a basic knowledge of where things stand. Without knowing who is sick, who to quarantine, who to contact trace, how can we begin to get a better handle on this?
From everything I’m reading, medical experts predict a long road back. This article is a detailed, fact-based-–and deeply sobering–look at our challenges ahead.
All of this makes the federal response for this crisis difficult for me to comprehend. President Trump has pushed the responsibility to the states for testing and obtaining needed medical supplies, and has placed decisions on when to reopen their economies squarely in the hands of governors. Is this about anything other than ducking criticism? Lacking any guidance or real data other than their shrinking budgets, many governors are moving to reopen. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has just put in place a limited reopening of Texas retail, restaurants, and movie theaters, coinciding with the state’s biggest spike of COVID-19 cases since our previous peak on April 10. How is this going to work? With more interaction, the number of infected of this highly contagious virus seems almost certain to rise even higher. Lacking federal coordination, it’s not like a virus is going to stop at a state border. Even the most cautious states could fail to keep the pandemic in check.
Thankfully, in all this chaos, we still have music. Hundreds of at-home concerts have sprung up online. They can be joyous, weird, isolated, but these buffering delights are there for those with the available bandwidth. Surreal, fly on the wall things like Jeff Tweedy’s nightly hour (@stuffinourhouse), Nick Cave’s 24-hour Bad Seeds Teevee , and the recent four-hour Austin-centric Gourds tribute have kept us entertained. Many Austin artists have begun livestreaming regularly, bringing their absent sounds right into our homes.
2 months ago today. The last time I played onstage. https://t.co/1zP7dHFdM9
— stevewynn (@stevewynn) May 3, 2020
Despite being unable to tour, some artists are forging ahead with their plans to release new music. We’re already getting quarantine songs. Bob Dylan has sprung back into action. Joe Ely has a new album, Love In The Midst of Mayhem. X put out their first album with their original lineup in 35 years, a new song by the Rolling Stones just showed up, along with new albums with everyone from Car Seat Headrest to Lucinda Williams. This is helping to refuel our souls. Music is being made.
It’s just not being played, at least in front of paying audiences. The live music industry, the grease that turns the wheels of the music business, is shut down. Festival sites, stadiums, arenas, venues, bars and restaurants – all sit empty, silenced by a pandemic with no known expiration date.
Things began closing down on March 5, when Miami shuttered its annual Ultra Wave Festival. The next day, Austin’s Mayor Adler announced the South by Southwest cancelation. From there, the dominoes began to fall.
Huge promoters like Live Nation and AEG have canceled all their tours, and everyone else has followed suit. Support staffs for bands, off touring for the holidays and planning to pick up another tour in the spring, now find themselves unable to collect unemployment.
Even small venues depend on sizeable audiences to make the math work. If Texas venues were to open up tomorrow, how comfortable would we all be plunging back into crowds? How can our venues do social distancing? I think of the last live music show I attended, Kamasi Washington’s sold-out/oversold show at the Empire Control Room on March 8, with a certain amazement. Did that really just happen?
Shuttered, venues in Austin and around the country are looking for ways to stay afloat, and help their staff and regular performers. Crowdfunding, online streams, merchandise sales, many creative things (apparently, Hotel Vegas is offering a Frito Pie kit that comes with a roll of toilet paper) are being tried. But what happens long-term? Even a legendary spot like NYC’s Village Vanguard is in real jeopardy. Despite being in the same location since 1935, they do not own their building. Who’s ready at this point to plunge into a cramped and crowded basement?
And what about the festivals, the well-paying summer lifelines to thousands of musicians, staff members, and support teams – and destination points for fans worldwide?
California’s enormous desert fest Coachella has rescheduled from April to October, Tennessee’s Bonaroo has moved from June to September. And there’s Chicago’s Lollapalooza and our own Austin City Limits fest, both booked and managed by Austin’s C3 Presents. They’re still on the books for late July and October respectively, though lineups have not been announced for either event.
Barring an unexpected breakthrough treatment, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone taking their seat for college football, much less diving into the unsanitary-in-the-best-of-times crowds at summer and fall music festivals. Will the Zilker Park port-a-potty lines really be forming in October?
Q Prime’s Dennis Brennan told Rolling Stone, “I don’t know where [these dates] came from. I think there’s a degree of thinking we’ll figure it out by [then].” It would be nice if that happens. But it’s anyone guess. If live music remains dark throughout 2020, Pollstar estimates losses of $8.9 billion.
“Obviously things are going to be different for the foreseeable future.” – Charlie Jones, Four Leaf
C3 declined my request for an interview, but I spoke with Charlie Jones, who started ACL Fest and is a co-founder of C3. He left the company early this year to reconnect with more manageable events. His new venture is called Four Leaf. I asked him about the likelihood of these big festivals taking place, and he answered the way he answered virtually every question I put to him. “Nobody knows.”
“I’m in a position where we can plan for next year. I think it would be in all of our best interests in the events space to consider our planning for 2021. For events already scheduled for this year, we’re going to have to wait and take direction,” Jones explains. “Obviously things are going to be different for the foreseeable future.”
But what happens when there is no direction, or worse, conflicting information? The decision on the SXSW cancelation came down to the wire. Contrary statements were made by the city just days before. What we know and what we don’t is rapidly changing. Trump’s often bizarre daily briefings add to the confusion, even as his medical experts work to convey important information.
It’s happening on the state level, too. Texas was late to the party with shelter in place orders. I asked Brendan Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, how he was responding to queries from venues and rural dance halls around the state prior to Governor Abbot’s executive order.
“I pointed people to their city officials. Out of 250-plus counties in the state, there were vastly different decisions being made for different population densities. Some would have a county judge that would likely have an opinion on how they were going to allow people to convene. I don’t know how responsive those positions are in every county. That’s honestly a challenge when dealing with this vast state of ours. There will be different messages about what to do and what not to do until statewide action is taken.”
The Texas Music Office has been around for thirty years. Google ‘functions of the TMO’ and you find the office’s core missions: disseminating industry information through its database, acting as a liaison between the industry and government agencies, publicizing events, attracting music industry to the state, and fostering the economic development of Texas music. Much like the Texas Film Commission, the TMO serves as a chamber of commerce for Texas music, helping to find ways for the industry to thrive. Their home page trumpets the economic benefits music has brought to the state: 97,000 permanent jobs, $4.1 billion in annual earnings, and just over $9.6 billion in annual economic activity. They estimate ‘ripple effects’ to produce $390 million in tax revenue.
“We are a state made up of music venues of all sizes, from American Airlines Center down to Cheer Up Charlies on Red River. There are trade organizations that represent different types of business. There aren’t great organizations in our state that represent music venues.” – Brendon Anthony, Texas Music Office
That’s impressive, but 2020 has reset all calculations and forced the TMO to pivot. TMO is an adjunct of the governor’s office, which itself has several posts about how federal disaster aid is aiding Texas small businesses and restaurants, but no real mention of music industry relief. I asked Anthony why that was.
“I think that has a lot to do with the trade organizations. We are a state made up of music venues of all sizes, from American Airlines Center down to Cheer Up Charlies on Red River. There are trade organizations that represent different types of business. There aren’t great organizations in our state that represent music venues. There are small examples of them, entities like the Music Venue Alliance. Those tend to speak for venues located in one city. It’s hard to affect policy and get a read on the economic needs without a large-scale trade organization. We tried to speak for [venues], but we don’t represent them in a lobbying relationship.”
Here’s the irony of the TMO – while they serve as a megaphone for all that is valued about Texas music, as a government organization, they cannot lobby or even advocate for the industry itself. There’s a clear knowledge of music’s importance to the Texas economy, and to how it is suffering in the pandemic. Yet when it comes to relief funding, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.
“It’s not necessarily that they’re valued higher,” says Anthony, “or they’ve got more importance ascribed to them. But, when you get into allocation and those sorts of issues, it helps if you’ve got a clear voice for your needs at that table. You’re going to get hurt if you don’t. If you’re just sort of a thousand voices speaking at once, it’s very difficult to get your needs heard.”
He continues. “There was a bill that was put forward in front of the Texas Legislature this last session that was going to define a class of music venue in the state. And, while we didn’t advocate for it, I saw it as a good attempt to classify what a music venue is. That is the stage of this process we’re in. We haven’t even clearly classified in statute what a music venue really is. So the idea that they could band together and speak with one voice is just so far down the road for them.”
There are new national organizations popping up to remedy this, the Independent Promoter Alliance and the National Independent Venues Association. NIVA has secured a lobbying firm. “Music venues were the first to close and will be the last to open,” says Dayna Frank, NIVA board member and owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis. “It’s just brutal right now, and the future is predictable to no one.”
Whether these organizations will be on time to help for the next round of federal congressional stimulus money remains to be seen. The first rounds came quickly and were fairly bipartisan, but with reports of millions in ‘small business’ loans to the LA Lakers and Shake Shack (both returned due to public outrage), talk of state bankruptcy and hidden tax breaks surfacing, the brakes are now getting applied. Everything seems to be getting hopelessly partisan. A recent Gallup poll found 44% of Republicans would be ready to resume all normal activities now if allowed to do so. Only 4% of Democrats said they would.
There was a point made around including musicians and other members of the ‘gig economy’ in the recently passed Cares Act, but that too has had its problems. Small business loans are often coming with conditions: you have to spend the money in eight weeks, three-quarters of it on payroll, in order for the loan to be forgiven. This is not practical for closed down music venues. And there are obstacles for artists as well.
Brendan Anthony: “We have to classify out-of-work musicians in a couple of different classes. They’ve been furloughed from a job where they’re on salary, in which case they would be eligible for unemployment. There’s one class artists could use if they’ve got a full time touring band and crew. They could get those people off their books, and they would immediately go on unemployment. The 1099’s and self-employed, that’s a harder class to help. There weren’t a lot of provisions laid out in the Cares Act. There was a message delivered to Texas Workforce Commission. It was a little bit ambiguous. I think those people are eligible for it, but they have to supply a great deal of information to the TWC to unlock those funds. And it’s difficult for some of those people to come up with paperwork and data about their jobs. We all say you should always pay your taxes. You should always keep your books. You should run yourself like a small business. But how many people actually follow through with that? And now you’re seeing, when it really hits the fan, you don’t have that data. TWC will work with you to build it, but it will take time, and that’s time when you could be filing and waiting on your check to come. They’re doing a tremendous amount of work in Texas Workforce Commission to accommodate the massive numbers of e-mails and calls and applications that are coming in. It’s a system that’s struggling to adapt.”
Everyone’s trying to adapt, and there are a lot of organizations out there to help. The TMO has a good list of these for Texas, though not so easy to find on their curiously static website. (click on ‘News’ to get updates). KUT.org and KUTX.org are also good resources. The Austin Creative Arts Alliance is also aiding people to navigate the TWC. Nationally, there’s MusiCares, Sweet Relief , and many other dedicated organizations doing what they can to help. But will it be enough? Despite raising a record $14 million for their COVID-19 Musician’s Relief Fund, MusiCares announced on April 30 their funds were depleted and they were no longer taking applications until they could raise more money.
With all live music shut down, it’s not only the venue owners and workers who are suffering but also everyone who provides support; sound people, roadies, road managers, equipment renters, agents. And for the vast majority of artists, live music has become the only way they can make any money.
Why? Dating back to Napster’s introduction in 1999, through Apple’s iTunes store and on into the streaming era, digital music has steadily eroded sales of physical music. These days, releasing an album physically, on CD or vinyl, is a long-term investment at best. Albums have become like T-shirts and other merchandise to a lot of artists, there to make a little gas and food money while on the road. By and large, artists aren’t making profits off physical music sales, which these days account for only 20% of music purchases. And with record stores shut down and online services emphasizing essential items, it’s currently hard to buy physical music of any kind.
But streaming income makes up for that, right? Not necessarily.
Streaming has rescued the major labels, whose tough negotiating for their lucrative catalogs saved them from the precipice in the digital era. The labels are now flush with cash. Yet the majors have historically proven to be adept at keeping a bigger chunk of the artist’s share with each format change, and streaming has certainly been no exception.
Streaming giant Spotify was able to renegotiate with the labels in 2017 on their behalf, and for other streaming entities, calling it ‘margin relief’ designed to keep the streaming tech giants profitable. (Spotify, now 14 years old, says it only turned a profit in 2019.) They are now keeping more revenue, 2.5%, for themselves. The RIAA reported $5.4 billion in streaming income for 2018, so Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon. Google, Tidal, etc. kept an extra $135 million.
And the artists? If you’re Drake or Rihanna, you’re doing OK- add a wing to the mansion. Otherwise, it can be pretty bleak. KUTX staffer Art Levy wrote about (the lack of) streaming income a few weeks back. Digital Music News and others have taken payment rates reported by artists and calculated how many streams they would need to earn a minimum wage, Spotify’s $0.00437 cents per stream, placed in the lower middle-–Tidal and Apple Music were among the best. And at the bottom, by a large margin, YouTube, who for years hid behind non-disclosure agreements to keep from stating how little they were paying artists.
Songwriter’s publishing income is vital to their survival. Even a very successful songwriter like former Austinite Savan Kotchea, who’s written monster hits for Usher, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, told me in a 2017 interview, “ The money songwriters get for streaming compared to the master rights holders is criminally unbalanced. The government will need to get involved [in] creating new regulations.” In 2018, that’s what happened. Responding to the outrage, the Copyright Review Board, a panel of federal judges, voted to significantly raise the royalty streaming rate for songwriters. Yet Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, and Google have all been fighting the ruling on appeal ever since.
The result, especially for independent and developing artists, is a lack of checks in the mail.
Unprepared institutions and industry are failing both musicians and venues. So where can they all turn?
To start with, there’s us, their fans. Many artists and music venues have set up crowdfunding sites, and found a lot of clever ways to encourage support. Buy artist and venue t-shirts, their merch, and buy downloads of artist’s recordings direct from them or on fan-friendly sites like Bandcamp (who has twice donated their profits to musicians since the pandemic began). This puts money directly in their pockets. Donate to charities like MusiCares, the Austin Arts Alliance, HAAM, food banks, whatever you feel your dollars will help. Watch artist’s livestreams; let them know you’re out there, raise awareness, share their fundraising efforts and your love of their music on social media. If you stream music, don’t do it for free, subscribe to a company that pays their artists better than the norm. Find labels with artist-friendly arrangements, and support them. Look for ways to back initiatives demanding more equitable business practices.
Spotify has promised a tip jar feature for musicians. Warner Music and a few of the tech giants have made some donations. But imagine how much more they all could be doing, especially heavily banked successes like Amazon and Apple, to support artists and venues during this crisis. According to Graham Davies, CEO of the UK talent collective the Ivors Academy, “There is an estimated 20-30% of streaming royalties which are currently paid on a market share basis, because there is insufficient data on who was played.” In other words, the rich get richer. Ivors is trying to get the streamers to divert these millions to artist’s hardship funds.
In the meantime, what lies ahead? As Charlie Jones told me repeatedly, nobody knows. “We need to listen,” he told me, “be responsible, embrace the change, and hopefully come out of this with more compassion.”
If there’s one positive this terrible crisis has brought us, it’s the giant mirror we’re all staring into now. We’re seeing the flaws, the band-aids, the greed, the unjust systems.
But we’re also witnessing a wave of compassion, of fans stepping forward to donate to musicians and others in need, not to mention the efforts of selfless people putting themselves in harm’s way to help and heal the sick and vulnerable. Among most of us, there’s more of an understanding: we’re all in this together.
Any cursory glance at Texas history will tell you how vital music has always been to this state. So much so, that we have a government office that serves to boast about it and help it thrive. We’re all proud of the music of this state, and if our local and state governments want to make that a selling point or a tourist slogan, so much the better. But now’s the time to show they really mean it.
We should demand that elected officials do everything in their power to help the people who enrich all of our lives. The people that perform and present music are in real need. On a local, statewide and federal level, musician’s rights to live their lives with comfort, support, health care, and just regulations of their business practices – things expected with so many other occupations – should be paramount to everyone we vote into power.
Yes, it’s hard to make small business loans work for venues. Yes, getting unemployment for the self-employed is complicated. Look for flexible workarounds. Yes, classifying a music venue is a tricky business. So is a lot of lawmaking. Find a solution. Those that qualify as a music venue should get TABC or sales and property tax breaks as an incentive for supporting musicians, enabling them to more easily give musicians work. In turn, musicians should expect to be paid a minimum wage for performing. There are answers to these problems, but it takes dedicated public officials working hard on their behalf, now and in the future. Our music heritage is there for all to see. None of it happened by magic or accident. Music brings immeasurable value to our lives. Texas should be setting an example, enacting and supporting music-friendly legislation at every turn.
One day, treatment will arrive and this pandemic will end. We’ll be working, back with our friends, out in restaurants, theaters, arenas, stadiums, attending events, traveling. And musicians will be back on stage in front of large, appreciative audiences. Everyone on Earth is looking forward to that.
But getting back to normal? We can do a lot better than that.
by Jeff McCord
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the world, the crisis is hitting everyone hard, but especially those who were already struggling to make ends meet.
Here in Austin, the mayor has issued a ‘shelter in place’ order for Travis County, which means everything is closed, save for essentials – doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, and restaurants that have set up drive-through deliveries. For musicians and others living gig-to-gig, paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s virtually no work to be had. What happens if, on top of all that, you get sick?
Even in the best of times -which these are certainly not – musicians in crisis have reached out to the many support systems Austin offers. Reenie Collins is the Chief Executive Officer of the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM).
“I mean, it’s just really heartbreaking,” she says. “I can’t tell you the texts and emails and calls that we’ve gotten from people. They were already devastated by the cancelation of SXSW. Folks are just really, you know, they don’t have enough to eat. They don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, how they’re going to pay their utilities. That is not normally what HAAM does. We focus on health care and health care access and do the bigger picture items. But we just knew we had to react.”
In normal times, HAAM helps people get enrolled in the Affordable Health Care Act and helps to the tune of almost two million dollars in premium assistance. Of the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 working musicians in the area (taken from the city’s music census done a few years ago), HAAM has 2600 members.
“Musicians come to us all year long, and if we can’t get them enrolled, we help them find other resources. If you’re on insurance, you’re actually going to help have better health care access, but we work with specialty care doctors and primary medical care doctors, other charity organizations to get HAAM members and musicians help if they don’t have insurance coverage. We also have dental and vision and wellness and hearing and all kinds of services that we provide.”
“The other piece that is so critical right now, is that we’re house health navigators. Our navigators are available to talk to people in crisis in need on a real-time basis and help them figure out what they need to do to get whatever services they need.”
Yet even with all these services, business as usual won’t get the job done. Collins knows this.
“Right now, everybody’s talking about what are we going to do for musicians, what are we going to do for the music community? And there are lots of plans and lots of big talk going on. But there hasn’t been anything concrete yet because people are trying to get systems in place and figure out what they can do. What we decided to do was we actually took $20,000 immediately and put it into an emergency fund. I have a donor. I believe it’s going to be coming in shortly, that’s going to at least double that And I know that’s a drop in the bucket. But if we can get people 100 bucks of just help right now while other things are being figured out, that’s a lifeline.”
“We already have all the infrastructure in place that knows about, you know, musician’s eligibility, what their income level is. So we’re able to move pretty quickly. We are taking the funds for basic needs – HEB food cards and prescription medication and things like that – that are emergencies, so that people can at least get something in their hands.”
As HAAM expands their role, they’re partnering with other services out there. “That’s probably not going to be a long term role for us,” Collins explains, “but we’re working with MusiCares, the SIMS Foundation, Stand With Austin, the Austin Music Foundation to try to get Austin musicians some help. We’re working with anybody that we can to try to coordinate care, coordinate services and leverage all of our resources.”
“Our main concern is as this virus hits, musicians will be affected. And we know that HAAM will be right in the epicenter of that because we’re providing access to health care services. I think people are so scared about just basic needs survival that they’re not even thinking about, you know, am I sick?”
So what do you do if you’re worried you may have the virus?
“If you’ve got symptoms,” says Collins, “you need to call your doctor and talk to them. If you don’t have a doctor, we can help you find a clinic. I think people get overwhelmed and they hear that there is no testing going on. But that’s not really true. There’s not nearly enough. But for people who really have symptoms, we can help them find resources to do that.”
Collins encourages all musicians, HAAM members or not, to reach out for help.
Of course, HAAM itself has not been immune to all the challenges posed by this crisis. All their stepped-up activity comes at a time when they are working remotely (“We’re meeting with musicians online via, you know, webcams and things like that. Just trying to do what we need to do.”). They have had to cancel numerous fundraisers.
“HAAM needs your help. We have lost, just between now and May, we probably have lost $400 thousand dollars worth of donations that would have come in through our events that we had to cancel. But there are lots of ways to help. There’s a lot of stuff going online that streaming. There are all kinds of musicians that are setting up Venmo and tip jars and doing concerts from their homes. Just because you can’t go out, doesn’t mean you can’t support the music industry.”
“ I would just say be kind. Help each other. Musicians are doing stuff, but, you know, all of their sound and lighting people re challenged, all of our bartenders and venues. So I guess my big thing is we’re all going to be raising money. If you can, every little bit helps. What we can do is pull together, take this one day at a time and know that we can help and we can make a difference every day.”
By Art Levy
With the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, it’s as if someone has pulled a giant emergency brake on the U.S. music industry. Tours and live concerts through the early summer have been cancelled, drying up the main source of revenue for most musicians. Artists have gotten creative, live-streaming impromptu performances from their living rooms and passing around a virtual tip jar.
It’s a quirky invention born of necessity, as the crisis has laid bare the severe shortcomings of our current musical landscape. Over the past decade, streaming has come to completely dominate the industry and has changed compensation, ownership, even the very nature of songwriting and recording for musicians, as many trend towards shorter songs as a way to get more streams and placement on playlists. In 2019, the Recording Industry Association of America reported that streaming accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. music market, while physical and digital sales account for about 9 percent each.
But with “social distancing” and “self-isolation” entering our lexicon, does this mean we’ll all be home more, streaming more music? Maybe, but as has been frequently reported this decade, pay-per-stream business models like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube offer an absolute pittance to the vast majority of musicians. All of these platforms pay a varying amount per stream, but what they all seem to agree on is dividing pennies into comically small numbers. According to figures published in Mashable, Spotify pays from $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, split between rights holders (songwriters, publishers, etc.). To earn a minimum wage (federally defined as $7.25 per hour), a single artist would need almost 3.5 million streams. It would take 2 million streams on Apple Music and, incredibly, over 21.8 million streams on YouTube to reach this same threshold.
Digital artist-friendly platforms are few and far between; Bandcamp seems to be the exception to the rule. Each artist’s page includes options for their fans: you can stream, you can pay for a digital download, or you can buy physical merchandise, such as vinyl, CDs, tapes, T-shirts, and more. Crucially, there are actual dollar amounts in plain view, a not-so-subtle reminder that creative labor needs to be compensated. Bandcamp is also upfront with its fees, taking 15 percent from digital sales and 10 percent from physical sales. On Spotify, there are options to buy merch, but they’re not as obvious, with no dollar amounts advertised and seemingly no real way to incentivize the listener to open their wallets. Spotify’s merch links are also exclusively handled by Merch Bar, a third-party vendor that does not list on its website how much it takes per sale.
With artists’ touring revenue halted indefinitely, Bandcamp subsequently suspended its own profit share for 24 hours on Friday, encouraging fans to buy directly from artists. Meanwhile, it’s seemingly business as usual at the streaming giants, with little mention—on social media or in the apps themselves—of how a music fan can economically engage in the musical ecosystem. The streaming giants’ business model is based around passive listening, the culmination of music’s slow public devaluation over the past few decades. We’ve all been subtly trained to expect to receive a massive amount of music for free. Yet this pandemic calls for a more active and direct relationship between artists and fans. Paradoxically, it’s digital connection—the same disruptive force that severed music makers from controlling their work in the first place—that could be the way forward. Maybe digital tipping will become the norm now, or smaller, self-sustaining musical communities could provide more of a safety net for musicians. It’s still too early to tell, but when it comes to supporting our artists, music fans need to be just as creative.
photo by Julia Reihs/KUT
What Happens After a Pandemic and Economic Bust Wallop Austin?
By Jeff McCord
Last Thursday, I spoke with Veronica Briseño, the Director of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. At that time, there were no known cases of the COVID-19 in Austin, and our interview focused on how the city’s residents and business operators would move forward after the cancellation of SXSW, and how the local economy would fare after the loss of an estimated $350 million +. Last Thursday, the city was saying it was still safe to go out in crowds while exercising caution, and was only working to cancel gatherings of more than 2500 people.
Just days later, everything has changed. A national emergency has been declared, and even though testing is still not widely available in the US, the number of cases continues to escalate, including, as of this writing, ten presumptive cases in Austin. Nationwide, as the stock market continues to plunge, social distancing is being encouraged to prevent cases spiking and overwhelming our medical resources. Cancellation is a word seen attached to every sizable event (including every sporting and live televised event and all major tours), and students and employees are being sent home for an indefinite amount of time (including the entire KUTX staff). Businesses, (among them here in Austin, numerous clubs, the Circuit of the Americas, and Waterloo Records) are temporarily closing their doors. Schools have been closed until April 3rd. And the CDC has recommended that any gathering larger than ten people be postponed or cancelled.
Suddenly, it’s not just the entertainment industry, which relies upon high-profile events like SXSW, or the highly vulnerable ‘gig economy’ – musicians, stagehands, tour managers, equipment renters, bartenders, waiters, pedicab drivers – that are affected. The rug is slowly getting pulled out from under almost everyone. Which makes Briseño’s job even tougher.
“Our employees work very closely with the music and entertainment industry, but also with our small business community,” she told me on Thursday. “There was an immediate discussion of how can we help? We’re meeting every day to make sure we’re hitting the needs of the day. We got ourselves trained with the health department to reach out directly one on one with small businesses and talk about preventative measures that can be taken.”
I asked Briseño about Mayor Adler likening the SXSW cancellation to a tornado hitting our city, and if there would be disaster funds available for those most in need. “We’re looking at what funds could be available. I think there could be additional funds if there’s a federal declaration of a disaster. (A national emergency was declared on Friday). But we’re doing our homework right now to see what’s available.”
“We are talking about where we can point folks to in terms of rental assistance. It’s a tough conversation because affordable housing is already an issue for our city and we want to make sure that we are identifying as many tools as possible.”
“We’re going to continue to hear from people on how assistance can be provided. It’s a bit of a wait and see, but we realize that the impact is immediate, too. We’re trying to try to balance that, but we don’t want to develop a resolution too rashly either, knowing that there’s going to be additional impacts as we go through this year.”
Just days later, many of those impacts have already arrived. Both city government and its residents are scrambling at this point to figure out the next steps. In the meantime, Briseño has these suggestions.
“There’s the music and entertainment division and our small business program. We have a loan program through the small business program. And there’s our live music fund, which we’re excited about the first year that we will be administering it. That’s earmarking hotel occupancy tax for for live music opportunities. We’re working to develop those guidelines and there will be more to come on that as well. And then we have partnerships with a lot of our community organizations. And we have partnerships with organizations like People Fund (https://peoplefund.org) and Big Austin (https://www.bigaustin.org) that also provide resources in our community.”
All these are longer-term assistance programs. But these fast-moving times have shifted our thinking. What can do now to help ourselves and others?
KUTX has compiled a list of organizations set up to offer more immediate help: https://kutx.org/features/how-to-support-austin-music-when-you-cant-leave-the-house
And as things move rapidly in this pandemic, the city has website up a site to help everyone find the latest information. http://austintexas.gov/COVID19
Obviously, there is much that needs to be done to help those most in need. In the meantime, we can help by staying home as much as possible, and by ignoring the rampant misinformation out there. We all need to do our best to take care of each other.
Briseño knows this. “We realize this is unprecedented and it will be a bit of time before we fully understand the impact. We want to hear what folks are saying, what their concerns are, so that we can prepare to address them if we can.”
So do we. As events continue to evolve, how are musicians and fans in this rich music community faring? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out to us at [email protected]
(Note: Until recently, Jeff McCord was a part-time member of the SXSW programming team.)
In an age where virtually any piece of music can be played on your phone at the touch of a button, young people are buying more and more vinyl records. Why?
By Jeff McCord
Since the beginnings of recorded music, one consumer format has replaced another, each breathlessly promising a brighter future. There have always been holdouts – I have no doubt there were Edison Cylinder purists – but for the most part, music lovers have followed along in lockstep, gobbling up new technologies and trends, and never looking back.
Not any more.
Vinyl record albums were abandoned and left for dead by the record labels when CD popularity peaked in the late eighties. Yet, according to RIAA projections, 2019 vinyl sales will exceed the revenues of CDs for the first time in 33 years (once figures are in). And overwhelmingly, the buyers are under 30.
To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here? How is there nostalgia for something under-thirties have never known? Given vinyl’s evolution, there are no easy answers.
Disc records came along in the late 1800s. For a while, they coexisted with Edison cylinders (records were played on ‘gramophones’, to distinguish from Edison’s ‘phonographs’), but by the 1910s, discs had edged out the cylinders. Recordings were primitive, and the thick discs, initially made of shellac, grabbed noise like a magnet. The music could barely compete.
There were various sizes and speeds, but by the 1910s, the 10” 78rpm was the standard, with a limit of two minutes per side. The 12” 78, introduced in 1903, lasted a leisurely 3 ½ minutes. Initially, 78’s were sold in brown paper sleeves. The first ‘albums’ were sets of 78’s packaged with some sort of artwork.
Lots of other materials, from cardboard to plastic, were tried for discs, but it wasn’t until post- World War II that vinyl, with its durability and lower surface noise, came into common use.
After the Depression killed a false start, the 33 1/3rpm 12” long-play album finally came along for good in 1948. The 7” 45rpm debuted around the same time. It would be 1958 before the first stereo records were being sold, a format already in use on pre-recorded reel to reel tapes (yes, that was a thing, especially before the portable 8-tracks and cassettes came along).
And for decades, the vinyl album reigned. Everyone had a record collection. Record stores and stereo shops were everywhere. Equipment got more and more sophisticated. Cassettes and eight-tracks eventually became popular for cars, portable players and mixtapes (and the subject of inane music biz campaigns like ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’). But vinyl was the mother ship, the ultimate source material. Record prices, initially in the $3 to $4 range, rose higher and higher. By 1981, Tom Petty threw a tantrum, putting his foot down over plans by his label MCA to release his Hard Promises album at a new $9.98 list price. Times were good for the music business, if not for consumers.
They were about to get even better.
Early home computers, connected to nothing except an electric outlet, were little more than glorified typewriters. Yet they were turning data into 0’s and 1’s, and it wasn’t long before that included music. The first commercial compact discs appeared in 1983. At first, early CD players were bulky and expensive, but that would soon change. The format’s promise was enormous.
CDs seemed to solve all the limitations of vinyl we had come to accept over the years. They were lighter, easier to store and transport, not prone to warping, immune to surface noise. The discs had a much wider dynamic range than records – highs went higher, lows went lower – and because they were never touched by anything other than a laser during playback, they didn’t wear out. Vinyl records were limited to about 40 minutes of music. A CD doubled that.
Record companies and retailers saw dollar signs, and from the outset, CDs prices were 1/3 higher than LPs. It didn’t matter; everyone had to have them. Waterloo Records owner John Kunz describes this time as a real “ka-ching” moment for retailers. It was. As one of Waterloo’s early employees, I saw firsthand customers lining up to buy their favorite records over again.
Early CDs, with unreadable artwork shrunk over 50% from their album counterparts, and mastered directly from vinyl, were lacking. Still, CD sales shot up as vinyl sales dropped precipitously. Pressing plants began closing, turntable manufacturers were retooling or going out of business. Throughout the nineties, as CDs improved, most new releases weren’t being manufactured on vinyl at all. People were dumping their vinyl collections wholesale.
Musicians -who always seem left with a smaller piece of the pie of each new format – and vinyl lovers didn’t think so, but these were heady times for the music business. CD sales soared, and wouldn’t slow down until the year 2000. But by then, there were fins circling in the water, and storm clouds overhead.
CD burners, which made an exact digital copy of any CD, were popular and built into many computers, allowing fans to copy CDs for their friends. In the early days of the internet, “friends” grew exponentially. Napster, the peer to peer service launched in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, allowed millions to essentially swap their digital music files for free. Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre, along with some labels, sued over copyright infringement and shut this thievery down, but it didn’t matter. The cat was out of the bag. Numerous imitators sprung up faster than they could be found and stopped, and as internet speeds grew, and YouTube and Bit Torrents came online, the young and savvy grew up thinking that music was something you found for free online. Record and hi-fi stores slowly began to melt away.
It’s been that way for two decades now. Component stereos have gone into the attic or the trash heap. The music experience for many has come down to badly compressed music played through cheap earbuds or mono Bluetooth speakers. While a few innovative indie record stores have managed to hang on, music retail giants like Tower and Virgin shut down, and other big box stores stopped carrying CDs altogether. Since 2000, CD sales have plummeted 94%. And with no new format in place, the music industry went into a tailspin.
There have been attempts to create a digital revenue stream – Apple’s popular iTunes store (launched in 2003) and line of iPod’s was among the first. But it didn’t reverse the trend. Only in the late 2000s would the industry find another stable way to monetize music, through the advent of subscription streaming services (there are many, but the biggest, Spotify, came along in 2008). While not necessarily profitable themselves, even though only paying artists a tiny sliver of their revenue, the services’ income has managed to stabilize and even grow things business-wise.
Even with their drastic fall, CDs are still being sold, but younger music fans aren’t the ones buying them. Over the past decade, physical music sales are on an upswing. But it’s vinyl, a format left for dead in the nineties, that is leading the charge. And the buyers are predominantly under thirty.
When I first started to hear that vinyl was selling again, it made sense to me. I have a large collection [though much to my regret, I sold about half of it during the CD boom, records that would now take four times as much to buy back, even if I could find them]. But I’m not one of those who ditched my turntable and stereo. I really never stopped playing records, even when new ones were not being made. For me, it was aural muscle memory for a format I grew up with, and an association for when and where I bought my favorite albums.
Plus, I love the sound of vinyl. Battered by the ‘everything loud’ creed of modern digital mastering, the best-sounding records seem more authentic, musical and alive. I was an early adopter of the convenience of digital music and its vastly superior specs. But on a decent stereo, something seemed lost in translation.
When I was a kid, records were relatively inexpensive and easy to find at any local record store. Listening to these albums years later, I ‘m transported back to my initial excitement and discovery, to what made me so passionate about music in the first place.
But seeing the young demographics involved in the revival, it occurred to me that NONE of these reasons really explained what was going on. In a day and age where virtually everyone uses streaming services that can pull up almost any song on their phone, when two decades have gone by for many without a physical format or even a stereo, what is causing them to suddenly seek out vinyl?
Former Austinite Don Radcliffe, who owns the used record shop Ella Guru in Atlanta, has his theories. “I guess there’s some people that are doing it for the same reason that we did. You’ve got to put a little work in. You’ve got to spend money rather than just finding it for free and putting it on a hard drive, when basically all you have to do is press a button to make it go away. And some people enjoy the the the tactile part of it, the cover. Vinyl records don’t hold near as much music as a CD. So, in those 35 minutes or whatever, why did they pick those songs? Why are they sequenced that way? You know, the same dumb stuff that attracted us to it. And they read credits and they look at who produced it. What else did they produce? Or they discover some musicians on it. Jesus, this guy is awesome. What other bands was he in? The web starts getting spun a little bit and they’ve got to figure out where everything sort of fits.”
Spencer Smith, 30, who bartends and is a projectionist at the Alamo Drafthouse, has been a vinyl fan since age fifteen, when he first asked his parents for a record player. “At the time, I was listening the way most kids do, downloading from the internet, mostly illegally. I think something about the process felt kind of cheap to me. I could download a thousand records a day, but I would never really listen to them. You take a kid and put him in the middle of a candy shop. There’s no clue where to go first. Something about having the music physically and listening to every song in order really appealed to me.”
“I didn’t start collecting records until I was in college,” KUTX host Taylor Wallace, 29, confesses. “I’m from a small town and didn’t know anyone who did. My parents grew up in the CD era. This was around 2009-2010, right when it was getting popular. All my friends, and these guys I wanted to date, they all had record collections. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a thing.’”
John Kunz recalls it being about fifteen years ago when he first started seeing a vinyl sales uptick at Waterloo. Superstar artists with clout, perhaps disappointed in declining CD sales, began demanding limited runs of vinyl – because they could. Labels obliged. Stores generally had one shot at ordering them. But their scarcity added to their appeal.
Kunz remembers the advent of Record Store Day, started by a coalition of independent record stores in 2008, as the moment while vinyl sales really began to rise. “The record labels were giving every Circuit City, Borders, Best Buy and Wal-Mart exclusive bonus tracks. And we [independent record stores] were all here saying, you shouldn’t be messing with the core product. That’s really confusing to the customer. Give them the exclusive as a digital download. But we want an exclusive release on vinyl.” [It’s a tradition that continues to this day. Record Store Day 2020 is on April 18th.]
While Austin still mourns the loss of classic record stores like Inner Sanctum and Sound Exchange, it is fortunate to have some pre-2000 survivors – Waterloo and Antone’s Records – and numerous other excellent post-2000 vinyl shops across town, several of them also offering a wide assortment vintage hi-fi gear, including End Of An Ear, Sound Gallery, and Breakaway Records.
Breakaway, which is exclusively analog, is co-owned by Gabe Vaughn and Josh LaRue.
“It’s not a lot of people;” LaRue tells me. “Many young people are music fans but only a few go down the vinyl road. Some people get the nostalgia thing – they saw their parents play records or they saw it in a movie or something.”
“And for some people, it’s an identity. I remember being younger and wanting to be about something, you know, like I’m a collector.”
Not everyone who buys vinyl is a collector. Collecting most anything never makes a lot of practical sense. [If you want to know if you’re stricken with this malady, take this simple test. Read this recent New York Times article about the Archive of Contemporary Music’s collection of three million albums needing to find a new home. If your initial thought, like mine, was “I wish I had room for that”, you’re a collector.]
Other buyers seem to be, um, more casual. All three record store owners who spoke to me told me versions of the same story. When they asked certain young vinyl buyers how they were playing their records, it turns out – they weren’t. They owned no turntable at all.
“I have a conversation on a pretty regular basis where people are, you know, buying dollar records.,” explains LaRue. “Or even more expensive records, you know, like ten-dollar, 15 dollar used records. And I’ll ask about a turntable or what they’re doing right now. And they’re like, oh, I don’t have anything. So some kind of disconnect going on there. Maybe they’re listening to them at a friend’s house or maybe it’s easier to spend 20 bucks on used records than to spend hundreds of dollars on a turntable, or 400 dollars on a system. I get that. But I don’t understand what they’re doing with the record.”
“There are some kids that are buying them just to put the artwork on the wall,” says Kunz. “Others say I just want to support that artist.”
But these are odd exceptions. For the most part, young vinyl buyers are playing and enjoying their records. On what, though, varies widely.
It’s easy to see why. Turntable manufacturers have sprung back in action in the wake of the vinyl revival. But good precision gear, like the best of today’s vinyl pressings, can be expensive. One of the things fueling the vinyl revival was the emergence of low-cost, kitschy all-in-one record players made by companies like, er, let’s call them ‘Crosbys’. [To be fair, the same company also makes high-end turntables.] And at Waterloo, where they sell the portables, they are careful to describe them to customers as “the perfect record player for your eleven-year-old’s slumber party.” Nonetheless, some buyers aren’t getting the message.
Austin musician Scott Riegel, 26, who became a vinyl enthusiast at the age of 12, describes his beginnings. “My dad grew up in the ’70s, and had a pretty decent record collection for a guy his age. He bought me this cheap, all-in-one “Crosby’ player. So I started listening to stuff on that, and then I posted about it on a forum. They started roasting me for playing records on that cheap all-in-one turntable. So I dug my dad’s stereo setup out of the attic.”
Without such treasures hidden in the attic, though, the process gets tougher. New vinyl hopefuls go from “Hey, Siri, play the Beatles” to being told about all they need to make a physical record play. “It’s understandable,” says Kunz.”They start looking at a turntable and we ask them what they’re going to be pairing it with. They don’t know what a receiver is. An amplifier. When they say they’ll be hooking it up to their A V system, you say, does it have a phono input? And they don’t know what that is. Speakers? You got to have all this stuff.”
“There are people who just buy like a pretty lousy record player because they see it at Target. And there’s no way that sounds good,” says LaRue.
Yet despite the steep learning curve, many have pulled it off and are enjoying their vinyl on good gear. LaRue sees that happening. ”It’s hard for me to know what percentage, but there’s certainly a good number of people who are looking for quality pressings of records and buying real stereo equipment to hear it on. They’re aware of and paying attention to how good it can sound.”
LaRue describes vinyl’s audible aura. “There’s a certain human error vibe that’s very relatable. You know, it’s like a lot of hip hop. After a while, they started making the beats not totally perfect. They would still use a click track and drum machines and samples and all that, but they would make beats slightly more human-sounding. And I think people, even if you don’t notice it on a conscious level, [vinyl] feels a little more natural, it feels a little groovy.”
Yet vinyl’s distinct sound, a chief reason why long-time vinyl enthusiasts have put up with storing and lugging around record collections for decades, doesn’t come up as much among younger record buyers.
“I think people have a point when they say it,” says Spencer Smith, who estimates he owns two to three hundred vinyl albums. “But I question how true that is. People say there’s better quality or it sounds warmer. I’m inclined to say that since the streaming services are so good, it’s a hard argument to make.”
It’s true that new bands and releases, in this day and age of recordings being mastered for compressed mp3’s, streaming and earbuds, don’t really shine on vinyl. Yet this seems to be primarily what’s selling at Waterloo. Kunz estimates 75 to 85% of his new music is being sold on vinyl. “When they were doing all the digital mastering to put vinyl on CD, they were using an analog master person. The reverse was true going back the other direction. It was someone that didn’t know what they were doing, and the mastering was fucking everything all up.”
LaRue hears it, too. “Now that most people listen to super-compressed digital files on earbuds, they try to make recordings sound good for that format, which is hard. A lot of music that’s recorded digitally, straight into Garageband, can sound really great, except that it’s a different type of music and a different type of recording. It’s very different from the 60s and 70s, you know? There are so few pressing plants anymore. They have so much demand. They’re getting digital files like that are just getting emailed to them. They’re doing stuff as fast as they can. And the quality control has dropped.”
“I think a lot of the appeal for me and for some young people getting into records for the first time is the stuff that was, you know, recorded and pressed in the 60s, 70s, even through a lot of the 80s, when the goal was to make it sound good on a record on a turntable. Even like early hip hop and dance, it was about deejays and clubs like with sound systems and turntables, everything was geared towards that.”
Which might explain why this era is now selling again. Don Radcliffe loves getting rare records in his store, but the 60’s and 70’s hit recordings are his go-to records for young buyers. Nestled among the new releases in Waterloo’s top vinyl sellers is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, an album that looks exactly like it did when it was released with an $8.98 list price in 1977. It sells for $24.99. Waterloo keeps a six month supply on hand.
There’s a lot of mystery around the vinyl revival, but it does seem to be bridging generations. Parents and grandparents are gifting their kids their favorite albums, and discovery is starting all over again.
John Kunz imagines a father surprising his son or daughter, telling them “In the back of my closet, I’ve got all the Led Zeppelin records. All the Supremes records or whatever, they are owned by grandma. And suddenly grandma is not this little old lady that doesn’t know shit. She’s the coolest person on the planet. Music is doing exactly what it should do. It’s bringing people together.”
Years without physical product, with fans essentially renting music from streaming services, seems to have left listeners hungry for something more tangible. They like streaming for musical discovery, but it’s not enough.
“I like owning the album,” says Taylor Wallace, “Especially when it’s about local bands, because that’s money in their pocket. And I like shopping. It gives me another reason to go out and buy something.”
In a world of multiple entertainment options, ownership seems to be adding value back for music fans. “I think that people pay more attention,” says LaRue. “They are literally invested in it. People like going to the store and buying something that they’re into. It’s not just food and clothing. This is something they really like. ”
Hanging out in record stores used to be the path to finding new music. For some, at least, that seems to be true again. But it’s not just the buying. It’s the process itself.
Scott Riegel finds it transporting: “A nice Zen day off for me is putting on a record, hanging out with a cup of coffee. You’re listening to it and appreciating the subtleties of the sound.”
“I think the physical motions of taking a record out of a jacket, putting in on, you know, the whole process, because it’s harder,” says La Rue, “makes somebody much more focused on the music. For me, it still does. My family, everyone has Spotify and all that. And but we play records all the time. My kids pay more attention, you know, just because they pick a record out, they go to the shelf. There’s a lot more to it. It’s a deliberate physical act that takes multiple steps to hear the music.”
Whether it’s the process of obtaining or playing vinyl, one thing is clear – there is no single answer to what is driving young people to buy and play a format that began a century ago. It’s puzzling for a lot of reasons. But discovering music, bridging generations, rediscovering the value of the album, listening more intently – all are big positives for music fans, artists and the industry. And for whatever reason it is happening, everyone seems happy that it is.
I was at a party over the holidays where my friend Andy was playing records. I started discussing the vinyl revival with him and asked if he had any explanation as to why young people were turning to a format that effectively ended before they were born. Without saying a word, he walked over to his records, pulled out his copy of ZZ Top’s 1973 album Tres Hombres and opened it up. And there it was, staring me in the face. An eye-popping 24”x12” gatefold photo, a technicolor burst of cheesy tex-mex gluttony. We both just stood there grinning. Maybe it really is as simple as that.