I’ve occasionally written in this column about the years I played music in Austin and my fondness for the people with whom I played. At our peak we were playing probably three or four nights a week and loving it. And why not? We were working in the city that was even then known everywhere as “the live music capital of the world.” We made enough to pay the bills (or most of them at least) and were, snide remarks aside, professionals.
Our trombone player was the last piece of the puzzle to click into place. Dave had moved to Austin from Los Angeles where his father was a renowned jazz educator, and when he was younger Dave had played trombone with touring acts and had a lot of professional experience under his belt. He was a little older than the rest of us and we were so impressed with his resume that we called him the Coach.
One thing that took Coach by surprise — and something for which none of the rest of us had any frame of reference — was how little you got paid then to play music in Austin. As Groucho Marx may have put it, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a guitar player, and there was always someone who’d take the gig for less money than you would. It was, to put it mildly, a buyers market.
It’s true that some musicians make a fortune in the business. We hear a lot about those who in one night can make what would be a great annual salary, but it’s equally true that most don’t come anywhere close to that level of remuneration.
According to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor the median pay for musicians in the United States is $25.14 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.33 and the top 10 percent earned more than $68.13 an hour. In 2016, there were more than 172,000 jobs for musicians in the U.S. To no great surprise, New York, L.A., Chicago and Nashville had more musicians than any other cities.
As it did when I was there, Austin still has a lot of musicians. From what I can gather it’s still a great place to hear live music and a hard place to make a living playing it. In 2015, a survey by the city’s Music Office showed that despite its reputation, almost 70 percent of musicians in town reported that they made less than $10,000 a year from music. And today, other forces beyond just the number of players there are making it much harder for musicians to live in Austin.
Texas Monthly recently commented that “while there’s a lot of prosperity in Austin, the musicians who give the city its identity aren’t seeing it.” Making it worse for them is the soaring cost of living there: Fewer and fewer can find an affordable place to live. The situation is so tough that I’ve heard it said that the rising prices could eventually cost the city its famous label.
As the cost of living in Austin continues to rise and more people who want to be part of the scene are forced to live further from it, any affordable city in the vicinity that can also develop its own music scene will be in a position to benefit.
Can you think of anywhere affordable to live that’s within a reasonable drive of Austin, and that could, with a little more public interest and city support, have the capability to sustain and grow its own art and music scene as well?