Austin live music advocates start new push for a ‘Musicians’ Living Wage’


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The live music capital of the world doesn’t know how to pay the people who give it that title, and now a group of industry professionals is starting a movement to change that.

Called the Musicians’ Living Wage, advocates hope to accomplish what years of attempts have not — securing enough pay for artists to live off their art. It’s going to require solutions the movement’s supporters don’t have yet.

“We’re continuing a conversation that’s been going on for decades, really,” said Brandon DeMaris, owner of concert and event production company DeMaris Entertainment and one of the lead voices in the upstart movement.

Wednesday night, DeMaris and others pushing the idea of a living wage are meeting at the North Door in central Austin to discuss the first steps. “We want to start by listening and learning from those who have already done some of the work on this issue,” DeMaris said. The panel includes economic development leaders in the city, music industry professionals and, of course, musicians.

“There’s a lot of great musicians, there’s a lot of talent, there are ample opportunities, but in regards to being compensated well for your talent, that’s a little more challenging,” said SaulPaul, a singer, rapper, and songwriter based in Austin.

SaulPaul is one of the artists on Wednesday’s panel, and he met with KXAN Tuesday to explain what he hopes comes from a Musicians’ Living Wage movement. Originally from Houston, SaulPaul came to Austin for college. He’s moved away a couple times, to Los Angeles and Atlanta, but found his way back both times because “Austin’s better,” he said.

“No matter where I’m at, whether I’m in France, whether I’m in New York City, or Hollywood, Atlanta, backwoods Kentucky,” he said, “when I say I’m from Austin, people’s eyes light up, and they’re like, ‘The live music capital.'”

But increasingly, he’s seeing two types of musicians — superstars and starving artists. “Those seem to be the two extremes. What I noticed was there’s no middle class.”

The city noticed it, too, in 2015. A report titled the Austin Music Census found one-third of the almost-1,900 musicians surveyed were making less than $15,000 a year from their music, and three-fourths were earning less than the average income in the area. The high cost of living, the report found, is driving musicians farther outside the city core, and in some cases out of Austin completely.

The living wage push aims to combat a problem that musicians say isn’t getting better on its own. “This is about valuing music and valuing the experience of going out and seeing music,” DeMaris said.

One of the main goals of the endeavor, he said, will be to fight “inadequate industry standards” for what musicians should be paid per gig. Whatever that number ends up being, he wants it to be the bar in Austin that musicians know they can rely on and that the people who hire them know they’re expected to pay.

That standard, advocates hope, will also help create more opportunity to fight the “perceived scarcity” of gigs, Debbie Stanley, also of DeMaris Entertainment, said.

“When individuals start realizing that they can afford to bring a musician to their dinner party and companies realize that they can afford to have a Friday series of music in their office in the summer,” Stanley said, “then we start to expand opportunity.”

“You could play conferences, you could play festivals, you could play schools, you could create your own private shows,” SaulPaul said. He works to create opportunities himself and said musicians need to take a more active role in finding ways to monetize their music, like sponsorships and licensing.

Understand your worth as an artist, he advises, “and then do the work to figure out how to get compensated for it.”

“Especially as an artist, we like to be different,” he said. “We like to be distinct. That’s why we behave different, walk different, talk different, dress different. And I just think when it comes to our business, we also have to think different.”

DeMaris and Stanley want people in Austin to think about it differently, too. “We want everyone who is a fan of music, who appreciates music and respects what musicians do,” Stanley said, “to speak up.”On KXAN News Today at 6:30 and 7:30, Chris Davis explains what the solutions might look like.

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