Whether you missed the meeting or have a general curiosity, the Las Raices Recap brings you the details of the monthly San Antonio Sound Garden forums. Join us every first Tuesday of the month at 723 N Alamo, 7 pm, to take part in the creation of a sustainable local music economy.
This month’s Las Raices meeting came in the incarnation of “Amped Up,” a musical empowerment event jointly hosted by San Antonio Sound Garden and Centro San Antonio. The evening was conceived to connect musicians, thinkers, and local leaders to the potential they may achieve through partnership – specifically, a San Antonio defined in every dictionary by its musical identity.
Local folk-rock act RANCH\HOUSE held the stage at the opening of the gates, their upbeat energy effusing into the growing crowd as a mindful ambiance of the cause that brought them. Among the those present were representatives from San Antonio’s City Council, Department for Culture and Creative Development, and business associations.
Edwin Stephens was in charge of proceedings, and after a heartfelt welcome invited Councilman Cris Medina to give a brief opening statement. Cris, who plays a bit of guitar himself, told the audience that he “sees more live music vibes across town,” and that more musicians and supporters must lend their voices to the conversation so the city may provide adequate resources. He ended by asserting that while Austin may hold the title of music capitol, he was confident that San Antonio more than rivals its northern neighbor in music capital.
Graham Henderson: “The Mastering of a Music City”
Following Medina was the centerpiece of the evening, a keynote speech from Graham Henderson. Graham is a lawyer by trade and background, having at one time his own entertainment law boutique. Since 2004, he has been the President of Music Canada, the reborn incarnation of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.
In an effort to revitalize Ontario’s stagnating musical ecosystem, Music Canada commissioned a report in 2012 from an Austin-based music consulting firm; starting with Austin as a template, the report identified key components of the city’s success and which could be adapted to Toronto’s unique circumstances. What resulted was a tailored “roadmap” for success. When the news spread through IFPI to member cities around the world, there was suddenly an overwhelming demand for individualized studies.
In response, Music Canada used their 2012 findings and additional studies to compile a list of strategies and recommendations flexible enough to accommodate most cities regardless of their cultural geopolitical idiosyncrasies. This universal report, “The Mastering of a Music City,” took two years to complete. The focus of Graham’s presentation was the application of these findings in San Antonio, and how we can use our existing and potential assets to grow our local music economy.
The Benefits of a Vibrant Music Economy
This idea of a “Music City,” according to Graham, is a city that recognizes the value of its musical ecosystem, and works with the local music community to grow a vibrant, sustainable music economy. “Austin branded themselves as a music city at a time when they most certainly were not,” Graham said, referring to the city’s self-proclamation of ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ in 1991. Clearly, that fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy was successful; today, Austin’s music scene creates a $1.8 billion national economic footprint per year. The “Music City” holotype sent a clear message to townships around the world: music can build kingdoms.
Therein lies the catalyst that can turn a local music community into a champion of its own opportunity: making the city an offer it can’t refuse. In absence of a serendipitous explosion alike that which overcame Austin (which may not necessarily be the best way it comes about), we must gain multi-jurisdictional support from its private, public, and non-profit elements by showing all they stand to gain from an investment in their own local music capital.
A bigger musical presence can revitalize the neglected parts of our inner city as demand for new venues seeks out low-cost solutions. This will be especially effective if the city coordinates development into “music blocks.” More opportunities will open to residents for hometown tourism and family entertainment. According to Graham, studies also show that people feel safer in centers of live music. Especially relevant to our city is the activation of public spaces; until recent history, San Antonio has been plagued with under-utilized parks and plazas. As more renovations are planned and funded, it is important to included musical purposes into their design.
A music economy’s impact reaches far beyond bands and venues. Music tourism brings increased spending to local food and beverage businesses, as well as the hospitality industry. More live music demands its own logistics of equipment suppliers, production labor, and media assets. As these ancillary businesses grow, so does the demand for labor (and perhaps a much-needed increase in the value of labor), which in turn opens the door for labor spending back into the local economy. Beyond attracting general investment, a vibrant music scene is also a factor in drawing tech industries to a city. As these activities form an emergent sector, they generate a wellspring of local tax revenue that hadn’t existed before.
As musical opportunities proliferate, they create new spaces to gather, share ideas, and spend time with each other. They bring people together, creating bridges between culture, language, and incomes. As music grows in value as part of a city’s identity, that value ripples into that city’s institutions, and re-ignites support for neglected orchestra programs and music education for at-risk youth. On this last point, Graham was very passionate. “If you’re not investing in music education,” he said, “you cannot call yourself a music city.”
What We Need to Grow Our Music Economy
Once we’ve established why we want to grow San Antonio’s music capital, we must develop strategies and assess our resources. Graham believes we already possess the most necessary ingredients: a strong musical culture and a willing community of artists and audiences. What we lack are elements of infrastructure. Fortunately, the time is ripe to fix that; rarely have there been so many receptive ears in the city leadership, including Councilman Medina and Representative Diego Bernal, who have expressed enthusiasm to support such a push.
1. Board of Economic Development Cooperation
An early necessity will be support from the Economic Development Department, which will be won by presenting not only the vision of a San Antonio that thrives upon its music economy, but our resolve in achieving it. Once secured, however, the department’s support will be instrumental in creating the fertile ground for the growth of a music economy via financial incentives such as tax breaks and low-interest loans.
2. A City Music Office
The establishment of a music office creates an internal base within local government from which music-positive action and advocacy gain a foothold. It is a municipal body, and therefore must be provided for in the city charter or otherwise incorporated into an established municipal department. Many cities such as Chicago, Seattle, and Austin have this institution in some form, and there is one that serves the state of Texas as well.
As a direct point of contact with city hall, a Music Office is the liaison between the music community and regulatory institutions. It has the primary function is to push the implementation of a music strategy developed in conjunction with a volunteer-run music advisory board. Other possible functions of a Music Office are the development and support of public networking and education programs, as well as special grant and loan programs for musical initiatives.
3. Music-Friendly Policies
Another onus upon city government is the creation of music-friendly policies while eradicating bylaws that strangle music. San Antonio nailed a big one when it lifted the ban on downtown busking in March, but there is still much to do, and more lies unknown. Public transportation remains a quagmire that threatens to bog down access to music hubs, and scattered development has left venues near residential enclaves, such as King William, at the mercy of harsh noise ordinances.
Graham’s study also identifies gentrification, a hot-button issue in San Antonio, as an issue of policy threatening the sustainability of a musical city. Upscale development that preys upon the low-return-high-value properties typically occupied creatives has the empirical result of driving out those creative elements and even the physical destruction of cultural landmarks and live music venues that created the area’s value in the first place. Moreover, when gentrification drives the cost-of-living out of their affordable range, local musicians are often driven into one of three situations: they are forced to move away from the creative center; they must devote more time and energies into non-creative employment; or they choose homelessness in the hopes of remaining creative in the creative center. The invariable result is the musician’s crippled creative state, thus destroying a city’s music capital.
The text of the Music Canada report (pp 37-41) does allude to the possibility of averting this all-but-inevitable problem through policy-based solutions such as historical designation for individual properties or the creation of “cultural districts” that prescribe development within their confines. At a time when San Antonio’s urban core is bombarded by developmental interest and its administration pressured with decisions, the problem of land development must be addressed before irreversible damage is done.
4. Music Tourism
Creating a culture of music tourism is an essential part of the plan. It’s also an intimidating one, as it is practically non-existent in San Antonio. Branding our city’s musical character may come easily from our strong cultural identity, but it won’t be useful unless we have the institutions to back it up. The image and the substance must be developed carefully and concurrently; festivals such as Fiesta, Maverick, and the recently created Mission Pachanga may provide the foundation of this substance, but these must be conserved as they grow, lest they lose their unique identity and, ergo, their power.
Graham added that we will need to leverage downtown San Antonio’s music history for economic and cultural gains. “You need to know your own story,” he urged, pointing to Robert Johnson’s historic first recording at the Gunther Hotel in 1936 and Conjunto legends like Flaco Jimenez and Valerio Longoria who called this city home.
5. A Music Advisory Board
Graham’s model calls for two-sided link between the city and the music community. Whereas the Music Office is a predominantly facilitative body – the muscle of the music strategy – the Music Advisory Board would be the generative body – the direct voice of the local musicians and music professionals. This board could be organized as a panel of representatives or an open convention.
The board’s primary functions are to arrive at a consensus within the community of their needs, ideas, and opinions, and relay those through the Music Office to private and public sector leadership. The Music Advisory Board can also perform the function of an information-gathering agent, conducting studies relevant to community concerns or to identify unknown issues, and bring that research to reinforce legislative efforts.
Active participation, both in advocating policies and monitoring their implementation, is crucial to ensuring the music economy adequately serves the community. Just as crucial will be provisions for transparency between all points of decision-making and communication, lest members of the public lose confidence in the process and stop participating.
What Centro San Antonio Can Do
Centro San Antonio, the co-organizer of this event, is a private-sector non-profit composed of member downtown businesses that has evolved to recognize the economic value of a well-served public. Have you seen the folks in yellow shirts keeping downtown streets clean? They aren’t city employees, it turns out. As a business development association, it has an influence over urban landscape of San Antonio. That sphere includes leading neighborhood revitalization, organizing celebrations and festival events, guiding business development, activating public spaces, and, purportedly, protecting venues. It also acts as a channel of communication to local audiences and can deliver the message and image of our music to the public.
To illustrate the possibilities of such a relationship, Graham used Toronto’s Downtown Yonge BIA, a similar organization, as a case study. One of the oldest thoroughfares in downtown Toronto, Yonge Street had fallen into dilapidation, abandoned by both the creative and consumer elements. Beginning with forming a vision of what residents wanted to see the street become, the BIA spent 15 years making that vision a reality; now Yonge Street is completely transformed, with condominiums and upscale shopping where once stood empty store-fronts.
Then last year, the business coalition added new territory to its mission: music. Realizing the power that a local culture can bring to a local economy – and that the health of said culture is in their best interests – the DYBIA adopted an official music strategy. The plan included local music in the parks, music history tours, and music incubation programs, all of which have since been implemented. Most importantly, the music strategy places the BIA in the role of advocate for the music sector to secure local and federal funding.
By their very presence and involvement at a Las Raices event, Centro and city hall show a willingness to become open resources for the local music community. Now is the time to start developing San Antonio’s own music strategy and push for its adoption with Centro San Antonio, the Economic Development Department, and City Council.
In closing, Graham touched upon the importance of maintaining community activism, regardless of institutional progress: keep supporting music spaces and places; celebrate San Antonio’s musical heritage and build upon our unique identity; advocate for the affordable housing necessary to retain artists; and most importantly, keep on making music.
Panel Discussions and Breakout Sessions
After Graham’s presentation, a panel assembled on stage to discuss a handful of selected issues. The panelists were: Troy Peters, Music Director of YOSA; Faith Radle, band manager and Maverick Festival organizer; Blayne Tucker, attorney and Maverick Festival founder; Juan Tejeda, professor, cultural activist, and founder of Tejano Conjunto Festival; Adam Tutor, jazz activist and SASG organizer; and Libby Day, director of SATX Music and formerly of do210.
The bulk of the panel discussion was dominated by issues of economic status quo. Creating sustainable income for musicians was a big one; no one buys records anymore, the panel agreed, so remaining avenues of income must be amplified, or new avenues must be explored.
Improving the perceived value of live music within the city would bolster performance income, both by raising the local standard of venue payouts and audiences’ willingness to pay covers. “People need to pay for their tickets, plain and simple,” one panelist declared, to which came the rejoinder, “only two people should have free tickets waiting at the door – mom and dad.”
Faith put forward that San Antonio musicians need to reverse what she described as a culture of national isolation. Playing shows in San Antonio would never equate to livelihood in her opinion, and only by touring the country could local artists achieve subsistence, adding that “no one is going to come to your shows every night at the same place.” If I may be so bold as to append my personal experience, it points to the contrary; admittedly, that same experience lends some weight to the essence of Faith’s point, as my inability to imagine how I would handle the disappearance of my bread-and-butter favorites can be rightly blamed on a paucity of prior referents.
Troy reminded us not to let tunnel vision overtake the mission, and that considerations must be made every step of the way for non-commercial music elements. Symphony, ballet, and opera falter nationwide and here no different; not only are these arts treasures of heritage and culture, but a common foundation for music past, present, and future. Music education also belongs in this vein, to which Graham retook the stage and interjected, “it’s happening everywhere: music education is [becoming] only for affluent children.” That point is inarguable, especially in a state that is no stranger to cutting fine arts funding.
Other subjects were briefly up for consideration, such as what incentives the city might provide to grow local music and how non-musicians might contribute to the mission. There were fewer answers here, as the discussion consistently reverted to the issues above.
After the panel hit their time limit, it was the audience’s turn to lead the conversation. During this “breakout session,” a common activity at Las Raices forums, attendees break up into manageable groups and brainstorm, devoting time to each of the forum’s topics. Participants propose ideas, pose questions, point out unknowns, and put forwards solutions, often drawing from personal experience and city-scape knowledge. In the ensuing discussions, a number of good thoughts were submitted. A few highlights among them:
- Reaching out to isolated cells of music culture so they may be included in the conversation.
- Tailoring music policy to the demographics of micro-economies in San Antonio, such as areas that receive convention tourism as opposed to areas that receive cultural tourism.
- Studying bands of national popularity that retained and contributed to their local identity, and applying those lessons to improve national recognition of San Antonio’s musical identity.
- Prioritizing which platforms best expose local musicians to new listeners.
- Incentivizing the booking of local talent at high-end venues and events like the Tobin Center, or as openers for big-ticket national acts.
- Exposing tourism elements to local music culture.
In addition to the brainstorming sessions, KRTU host Jeanette Muniz led a small workshop for the musicians present on preparing their bands for local radio airtime.
Official activities concluded as Odie Wallace took the stage, but voices continued against the backdrop of music as attendees took the time to network and expound upon their own insights. The evening’s significance was the introduction of much-needed framework for the future, but the specifics of that future are yet to be decided, and the conversation is far from over. Now that the semblance of a path has been revealed, community voices are needed more than ever to determine where the edges should be cut, or whether it is even the right path at all.
All photographs courtesy of San Antonio Sound Garden and Centro San Antonio. Check back at the beginning of each month for the latest Las Raices updates and recaps.