Big ideas at the Music Cities Think Tank

by Elizabeth Cawein

Two weeks ago I had the honor of attending (and presenting at) Sound Music Cities’ Music Cities Think Tank in Austin, Texas, happening alongside the SXSW music festival and conference. Cities from Toronto to Fort Collins to Washington, D.C., were in the house to learn, share best practices and build community at this two-day gathering.

The sessions ranged from issues in the for-profit music space (musician revenue development, the role of non-commercial radio and local streaming solutions) to those in the government/nonprofit sector like municipal export initiatives, cross-sector collaboration and the language of effective public policy.

And as if often the case, some of my biggest light bulb moments came between the sessions or through one-on-one conversations. Here are three things I’ve been chewing on since the Music Cities Think Tank:

Follow the money

I’m always interested to learn about how cities fund their arts and culture work. In some cases it’s a single person, like a music officer, and in many others it’s an entire office of folks or even a small team that executes a grantmaking strategy that supports a network of smaller organizations. Two models in the house for Music Cities Think Tank that I’m obsessed with right now come from Seattle and San AntonioIn Seattle, a 5 percent “admissions” tax (on any admission cost for any entertainment venue) provides support for arts and culture work. In San Antonio, Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue goes back into the community through multi-year grants made to nonprofit San Antonio-based arts and cultural organizations.

Incentivize good behavior

And here’s something else I learned from San Antonio: why penalize bad behavior when you can incentivize good behavior? Their grant structure allows organizations who meet a particular set of criteria – which might include a baseline for payment to musicians, say – to unlock higher amounts of grant funding. This was a bit of revelatory moment for me, as I’ve been thinking for a while about what it would take to, essentially, legislate payment for musicians. Labor laws, maybe? If your musicians aren’t being paid, your public performance isn’t legal? (I’m no attorney, can you tell?)

The thing is, I can imagine a thousand different ways that a punitive approach to this problem could blow up in a city music officer’s face. Instead, when there’s a reward for good behavior I’ve got cash motivation to do the right thing – and, given that the grant details are likely public record, I also know that my community is aware of whether or not I’m meeting those standards of conduct.

In a conversation with a friend last week, a comparison was made to a Memphis nonprofit called Project Green Fork, which certifies restaurants that operate more sustainably (based on a specific set of six steps). What if there were a similar “music friendly” stamp of approval? No need to punish those who are doing it poorly – let’s just call out those who are doing it right and paying musicians a living wage.

It’s about the working middle class

(And speaking of a living wage.) To be fair, this idea isn’t new to me. It’s a belief that really drove the work of the Memphis Music Foundation, where I started my career in music and nonprofit: our mission was simply to empower musicians to make more money from their music, to be able to earn a living in our city as full-time working musicians. It wasn’t (and isn’t and shouldn’t be) about a hit-making strategy. It’s about creating an ecosystem that supports a music middle class and gives musicians opportunities to make a living. But I thought that one of the folks from Austin-based patronage organization Black Fret said it best: “When your middle class musicians are thriving, your city is thriving.” Incidentally, the work they’re doing in this area is fascinating and innovative. Read more about their program here.

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