SXSWorld November 2015


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2 2 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M eremy Murray, a partner in the downtown Austin bar and music venue The Blackheart, knew he had a problem when the venue drew noise complaints on nights when it wasn't even hosting bands. "For a while, it was really us against the neighborhood association, and there seemed to be an orchestrated attempt to disrupt what we were doing," he said. The Blackheart is in the Rainey Street district of Austin. Once a quiet neigh- borhood, it became an entertainment district with few residents left, then continued to be developed at blazing speed, with new residents moving into nearby high-rises. The Blackheart has a new condo building and a new hotel as neighbors, and Murray worries about future noise complaints from an apart- ment building being built across the street. This is a common story in many music cities: Once affordable territory for music venues is becoming heavily devel- oped, bringing skyrocketing rents and new residents who do not like the pre-existing noise in their new neighborhood. To weather noise complaints, venues must either reduce profitable outdoor perfor- mance hours or buy expensive soundproofing. Combined with rising rent, these costs are driving venues out of business. Too often, no one is replacing them when they go. In the face of these challenges, music scene players are getting organized, turning to advocacy groups such as Austin Music People, Music Canada and London, England's Music Venue Trust. These groups identify problems in the industry through surveys and cen- suses, mediate neighborhood disputes and work to convince their city governments that venues ought to be preserved because of their cultural and economic importance. The economic argument is the easier of the two. A strong music scene brings music tourism and encourages symbiotic nighttime spending by music fans at restaurants and bars. SXSW brought tens of thousands of people and $317 million to Austin last spring, according to the SXSW 2015 Economic Impact Report. Long-swayed by this eco- nomic argument, the City of Austin has a Music and Entertainment Division that helped Murray mediate his dispute with his neighbors (and he added that new neighborhood association members are more accommodating). The Blackheart is allowed a compromised decibel level within the city's noise ordinance. The cultural impact of venues is important as well, or at least it should be for any city concerned about its image as a creative community. "[Music venues] are places within towns and cities where people get to express themselves outside of the mainstream," said Mark Dav yd, founder of the London-based Music Venue Trust and co-owner of the 250-capacity Tunbridge Wells Forum. "They inspire fashion, photography, journalism and local activism, and host charity fundraisers, social gatherings, rehearsals and meetings … Those scenes need places to flourish." Amy Terrill, vice president of public affairs for Music Canada, said that advo- cacy works best when it blends these cultural arguments with economic ones. "A vibrant city center is often what attracts real estate developers to invest money in an area," she said. "It is also what often attracts people to want to live in an area. Therefore, [developers] should see the value in continued vibrancy and be interested in protecting the mixed uses in that neighborhood." Terrill said that dialogue between developers, city governments and the music community is the best way to ensure that mixed use continues, and venues can find a way to stay in business in their neighborhoods. When that fails, specific legal protections are needed, lest a dispute between a venue and the owners of a new real estate project devolve to a contest of money. In that scenario, the music venue always loses. One legal protection that is gaining support around the world is "the agent of change principle," which says that any new busi- ness in a neighborhood is responsible for mitigating the effects of the changes it brings. For example, if a developer chooses to build condos next to an established outdoor music venue, the developer, as the new presence in the neighborhood, is responsible for sound- proofing the new condos or paying for the pre-existing venue's soundproofing expenses. "It's not just about music venues or other cultural or sporting venues," Dav yd said. "It's actually about the right of future residents of cities to enjoy their homes in peace and quiet. Agent of change would mean that new developments have to meet the needs of their surroundings. Developers can do that by internally managing that need, or working with existing businesses to manage environmental noise ... I think we should be asking questions of any developer who thinks they shouldn't have to do that, frankly." Dav yd thinks that as long as they are protected and allowed to thrive, small and mid-sized music venues are still viable. "I would say that what we have seen is very broad ranging under- valuation, both financially and culturally, of how fantastic a great band in a great little venue is," he said. "That's what's caused people to lose interest. If we get the infrastructure right, the next great band is still waiting to break through from this circuit." T How Can Music Venues Survive Urban Real Estate Booms? by Rob PReliasco C a t f i s h a n d t h e B ot tle m e n a t t h e B la ck h e a r t d urin g SX S W 20 1 5 J M A R I A T O R R E S

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