Austin’s Fragmented Music Industry Limits Local Labels’ Reach
By Ali Killian
For Reporting Texas
The lack of a corporate music industry culture in Austin may limit the national success of local musicians, industry professionals say.
Because the city’s music businesses are disconnected, they don’t benefit from the synergy found in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, the major music hubs, said Mary Jurey, general manager of Playing in Traffic Records, an Austin-based label. That makes it harder for local labels to work together and network with companies that have national and global ties, limiting the reach of artists they represent, she said.
Jurey believes two factors are at play: The major labels — Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group — do not have Austin branches of their New York, Los Angeles or Nashville headquarters. And the businesses that are here, such as the 124 labels listed on the Texas Music Office’s directory, know little about one another.
“In the music industry, [it’s] about who you know,” she said.
Jurey said label executives in Los Angeles, where she lived until 2010, can walk into a bar, run into someone producing a commercial in need of music, and verbally secure a deal for one of their artists. That doesn’t happen as often in Austin, she said.
Most of the major entertainment businesses, such as companies that license music rights for broadcasting on television, are rooted on the East and West coasts. There’s also no core area in Austin where the majority of music businesses reside, in contrast to Nashville’s Music Row.
Austin networking events, such as South By Southwest, occur just a few weeks each year.
Don Pitts, the ATX Music Office program manager, grew up in Nashville. He agrees that Austin does not have enough of some types of music businesses. While a sizable number of music professionals live and work in the city, “no one knows they’re here, because the market is very fragmented,” he said.
The Music Office, part of the city’s economic development department, launched Austin’s first music industry census and survey last November. The results, which will tally the businesses in each sector of Austin’s music industry and identify their critical needs, are expected to be released this spring, according to the office’s website.
Pitts said that information will help the music office better focus its efforts. “We do need more labels. We need more publishers. We need more licensing companies,” he said. “[The survey will] give us more data to back up those statements, that we need more industry infrastructure. And then we can go toward the policymakers.”
The disconnected local industry also makes it tough for businesses that support local artists, such as labels, to promote them outside of Austin, Jurey said. National and global recognition helps artists build a fan base and secure paychecks.
But Tommy Blank, the guitarist for Austin rock band Quiet Company, said touring is a must for nearly all bands. Even with a strong online presence and efforts by their label, Modern Outsider, to push songs to terrestrial radio, Quiet Company needs to tour outside of Texas to extend its reach, he said.
“It’s the same as if you met someone on a dating service,” Blank said. “You’d be satisfied just having a chat relationship with them, but you’d eventually want to see them in person. The recorded medium is just one small aspect [of music]. There’s the performance art medium, as well. The performance art medium is something you can’t digitize and replicate for free. It’s something [the band] is going to have to do.”
As for the labels, Jurey and other Austin independent label executives continue to rely on their connections in L.A., New York and Nashville to burst out of the Austin bubble.
Some Austin independent labels have connections to the major labels, such as distribution deals or contacts with former co-workers.
Jurey said Playing in Traffic, which represents the San Angelo band Los Lonely Boys, uses its employees’ connections in Los Angeles and New York to help artists break out of Austin. So does Modern Outsider, according to Erin Adams, who co-founded the label with her husband, Chip.
Adams said she worked in L.A. and New York before moving to Austin.
“It was in those places that I met a lot of the people who we work with today with Modern Outsider,” Adams wrote in an email. “I feel like Austin lacks a variety of different facets, but it is growing every day.”
Pat Cassidy, president of Austin label The Noise Company, said most label services, such as distribution, will be outsourced to the industry hubs anyway. Austin labels with connections on those cities can fare well despite the lack of networking here, he said.
Alternative Distributor Alliance, an arm of New York-based Warner Music Group, distributes The Noise Company’s records, Cassidy said. Playing in Traffic and Modern Outsider also have major-label distribution deals, but with Sony subsidiaries, according to Jurey and Adams. The Noise Company is a partner of Playing in Traffic, according to the latter’s website.
“To a point, it doesn’t really matter,” Cassidy said. “What sells records? Fans. And what attracts fans? Music. You can make great music anywhere, and you can utilize people outside of Austin who are better-connected to market that music.”
And Austin’s lack of music businesses makes way for a thriving live-performance culture. All three executives agreed the current local industry caters to artists.
Musicians feel it, too.
“I think that the state, and especially the City of Austin, have done a really good job of making live music performance a priority,” Tommy Blank, the Quiet Company guitarist, said. “That’s an awesome thing that has created a really supportive community. I just hope that they can continue that.”
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