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Skyrocketing cost of living threatens Austin's status as live music capital of the world


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: For more than a decade, the Austin area has been the fastest growing large metro region in the country.

As Laura Barron-Lopez discovered on a recent trip, that explosion has brought sweeping changes to the Texas capital, including to its renowned music scene.

The story is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Bob Mann still considers Austin his home. It's where he was born and raised, where he followed his sister into music, learning guitar at the age of 10, a mix of rock and the blues.

Mann played in bands through high school, and, in 2005, music took him to New York City for more than a decade. But when he came back to his hometown, it was nearly unrecognizable.

Bob Mann, Musician: It was kind of a little bit of a shock, just, like, traveling to work and sitting on I-35 in traffic, and cursing all the high-rises that were being built everywhere and all the cranes.

I was working at the Hotel Van Zandt downtown Austin. Would consistently hear real estate folks and developers come in and just talking about buying up plots and tear-downs and this, that, and the other. And it was definitely kind of one of the moments where I was just like, what did you do to my town?

Laura Barron-Lopez: On top of that, Mann couldn't afford to buy a House in Austin. So he left, moving 40 minutes away to Elgin, where he opened up this bar, which regularly hosts musicians from all around the area, including his own band, Blue Jean Queen.

In leaving the city, Mann is far from alone. Austin is known as the live music capital of the world. But the rising cost of living is driving out local musicians, and that puts music scenes like this one at risk. In February, Sound Music Cities, a consulting firm that works with the music industry and local governments, released the results of its 2022 Greater Austin Music Census.

It found almost 40 percent of people in the music business here were struggling to afford housing. Between 2014 and 2022, there was a 12 percent drop in musicians living in Central Austin. And more than a third were considering leaving not just the city's core, but the entire region in the next three years.

Do you have friends that are local musicians that have stayed in Austin?

Bob Mann: Yes, absolutely, definitely.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And have -- what do they tell you about the way it is?

Bob Mann: They're looking for houses out here.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Do you think you would ever move back?

Bob Mann: I'd have to win the lottery.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Austin is home to more than 250 live music venues.

Every year, it hosts internationally renowned festivals, like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. Estimates have shown the music industry generates well over a billion dollars a year for Austin. But the city's flourishing music scene has helped attract another industry, tech.

In recent years, tech giants like Tesla, Apple, and Google have relocated or expanded in Austin. Erica Shamaly heads the city's music and entertainment division.

Erica Shamaly, Manager, Austin, Texas, Music and Entertainment Division: A lot of companies are drawn to Austin because the quality of life is really great. They want their employees to have some fun things to do. And, of course, our music industry and all of the experiences we have with our festivals and events is a great location for tech workers or any kind of worker that is more of a high earner.

And so, as more people move in, there's just the catch-22 that the prices go up. And so the very artists that created the experience of a place to -- where people want to be there, they want to enjoy the culture, those are the very folks getting priced out as more people come in.

Laura Barron-Lopez: The city has tried to help, doling out millions of dollars in assistance for the music industry, especially those impacted by the pandemic.

But musician Scott Strickland who's lived in Austin for a decade, says more can be done. He serves on the Austin Music Commission, which advises the City Council. He'd like to see support like free parking for musicians playing gigs. And, most importantly, he wants artists to have a voice in conversations about development.

Scott Strickland, Austin Music Commission: Since I have been here, this city's really just turned into this moneymaking thing. You know, how do we expand commercially in terms of real estate and just everything else well worry about later.

And that's been one of the biggest travesties that we have seen, in my opinion, in this city. The Death Star has been built already. We can't stop it from happening. All we can do is say, hey, if we're going to build this high-rise or whatever, if we're going to have this commercial space that's also residential, that's also a work-from-home space or whatever the case may be, can we put musicians in these -- in here somewhere, so that we can make some money?

And can we use diversity, equity and inclusion to make sure that artists of all genres are getting paid?

Laura Barron-Lopez: Not long after releasing his first album last year, Strickland himself faced eviction. He played at restaurants and other small gigs every week to make ends meet.

You could say music built Austin, right?

Scott Strickland: It is. Yes, it has, absolutely.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And so do you think that its fair that artists are scrapping by?

Scott Strickland: No, it's not. Absolutely, it's not. As musicians swing from vine to vine, what we're talking about is, while they're, like, swinging, let's give them opportunities while they're doing that.

Laura Barron-Lopez: When you were really struggling, did you ever think that you may need to leave Austin?

Scott Strickland: No. No. This is my city. I'm not going anywhere.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But for change to happen, Strickland says its important to hear from musicians who've left, people like Bob Mann, who wouldn't mind if some of Austin's music culture made it to Elgin, the small town where he's building a new home with his family.

Bob Mann: I would see stickers when I lived in Austin of, like, "Don't Dallas My Austin" kind of vibes, and so I could see that being a thing here with "Don't Austin My Elgin."


Bob Mann: But I just want to Austin it just a little bit, just...

Laura Barron-Lopez: Or the way the way Austin used to be.

Bob Mann: Yes. Yes, I would love to see Elgin kind of be an Austin of the 1970s, kind of a real cultural melting pot.

Laura Barron-Lopez: That sparks inspiration for all these artists.

Bob Mann: Exactly, yes, yes, that makes people feel welcome.

Laura Barron-Lopez: And he hopes his Lightnin' Bar can play a role in that transformation.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barron-Lopez in Austin.

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