Jennifer Houlihan

Photo Credit: Shannon Butler | Daily Texan Staff

Live music, drinks and friends aren't typically associated with voter registration. But United We Jam, Austin Music People’s second annual event, aims to give Austin’s music industry a political voice. 

Thirty venues on the 600-900 blocks of Red River Street, encompassing the area known as the Red River Cultural District, will host the two-night music event. Starting at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, each venue will host local bands. Venues such as Stubb’s, Mohawk and Empire Control Room & Garage will charge a maximum $5 cover fee to shows including Mother Falcon, Residual Kid and Mrs. Glass. While bands perform, Austin Music People’s team will roam the streets, registering audiences to vote in this year’s local elections. 

Since 2011, Austin Music People has advocated for the “brands, bands and fans” that make Austin the live music capital of the world. The organization pays attention to policies and changes occurring in the city while surveying the impact they will have on the music industry.

“Anything that touches music touches us in one way or another, so it’s our job to kind of be a watchdog over laws and ordinances and make sure they’re music friendly,” said Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People. 

Austin Music People and the club owners in the Red River Cultural District created United We Jam last year to promote local bands and increase voter registration. 

“It was an experiment, and what we wanted to do was have a music event that wasn’t a festival,” Houlihan said. “We didn’t want wristbands. We didn’t want street closures. We just wanted local clubs and bands to get business without big out-of-town sponsors.”

Despite having only 12 participating venues last year, Austin Music People felt that the event was a success. The team registered 150 voters and received thousands of signatures on a petition that officially declared the area a cultural district. 

“We’ve made voting the main focus to involve Austin in the political process and awareness of issues that effect the musicians around town,” said Denis O’Donnell, owner of the White Horse club.

The event requires each participating venue to find and pay its own local talent. In addition, all proceeds from the cover fees go directly to Austin Music People to support the research of civic issues. 

“We wanted to do something with locals because we all remember when things were cheap,” Houlihan said. “And now, locals can’t go anymore. They can’t have any fun, so we thought, ‘Let’s do something as inexpensive as we can make it.’”

After this year’s elections, there will be almost an entirely new set of council members. James Taylor, general manager at the Holy Mountain, believes this year’s team will have greater success in registering voters who will help elect a council that is more awar of Austin’s culture. 

“To have an organization like Austin Music People and someone like Houlihan, who can advocate for the interest of the music community at City Hall, is going to be a huge asset going into this next election cycle,” Taylor said. 

O’Donnell said United We Jam is different from the typical music festivals that take place in Austin. He said it helps to create a voice for business owners in the district.

“It shows a strong unity of our industry when all these clubs join together for one cause,” O’Donnell said. “It puts benefit and focus on our voice to our council members.”

Houlihan said Austin Music People plans to make United We Jam an Austin staple. 

“We’d love for it [to] be citywide in five years,” Houlihan said. “We started with a few. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, but we got some traction, and it’s very exciting.”

Pablo Gigante, who moved to Austin from Missouri to work as a musician, sings on South Congress Avenue on Wednesday. The Austin Music Commission is researching busking-friendly laws to clarify the differences between panhandling and performing on the streets. 

Photo Credit: Andrea Kurth | Daily Texan Staff

It is not uncommon to hear singing, drumming and guitar strumming echoing through the streets of the busy entertainment district in downtown Austin. But according to a group of advocates and city officials, performers are sometimes mistaken for panhandlers.

The Austin Music Commission, an advisory committee focused on matters that may affect musicians and the music industry, passed a resolution tasking a group of three commission members with researching laws friendly to street performers. Ultimately, the group hopes the city will clarify ordinances regarding panhandling and street performing.

“The challenge is that there are a number of ordinances that are in place that were put into the mix with good intentions but that accidentally conflict with one another,” said Jennifer Houlihan, executive director at Austin Music People, a civic engagement group that supports the local music economy. “That makes it challenging for the musicians to understand what they’re allowed and not allowed to do.”

Houlihan said current laws, which prohibit sitting or lying on the sidewalks as well as verbal or non-verbal solicitation of money, are unclear when it comes to public performing.

“If you put out a note there that says ‘tips welcome’ or ‘tips appreciated,’ the police could ask you to take the note out or just stop playing altogether,” Houlihan said. “That’s not because anyone is doing anything wrong or anyone’s trying to be difficult. It’s because the laws are conflicting.”

Houlihan said the ideal solution would be a set of ordinances that make it easy for both police and musicians to follow the rules.

“This should support the efforts that the police are making for public safety with the existing loitering and panhandling laws without unfairly penalizing people who are legitimate artists who happen to be on the street,” Houlihan said.

APD Cpl. Chris Carlisle, who works downtown as a patrol supervisor, said the department fully supports street performers.

“We are more than passionate about their need to work, and we do everything we can to not cite them,” Carlisle said. “We haven’t issued a citation to a musician for soliciting in over six years.”

According to Carlisle, problems arise when musicians block the flow of pedestrian traffic.

“If musicians have their cases or drums set up on the sidewalk, then it forces the public to walk closer to the street, and because the streets aren’t closed, that puts them closer to the cars,” Carlisle said.

Linsey Lindberg, a busker who heads the Austin Busker Project, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting street performers, said she believes the current regulations discourage artists from performing.

“You go out to busk and you never know if the police officer on the corner is going to say, ‘Hey, that’s really cool what you’re doing,’ or if they’re going to tell you that you have to leave or give you a ticket,” Lindberg said.

Lindberg said while some city leaders, such as city councilman Mike Martinez, have publicly supported street performing, Austin lags behind other cities in terms of creating an artist friendly environment.

“We say that we’re the music capital of the world and that we support our artists, but what we’re really doing is making it impossible and pretending there’s no problem,” Lindberg said. “We have to get over the desire not to get our hands dirty in order to make Austin a better place to live.”

The average hip-hop show has anywhere from two to three opening acts, likely composed of rappers with experience, selected to open because of their skills or popularity. Recently in Austin, though, a surge of shows have had anywhere from 10-15 rappers playing brief 10 minute sets. These artists get booked not because of talent, but because they paid the promoter hundreds of dollars to perform.

This practice, called pay-to-play, has become more widespread in the hip-hop community. Typically, the artist pays the promoter a flat fee for a guaranteed performance, usually priced in the hundreds. One website, Rocksx.com, offers registered members a guaranteed unofficial South By Southwest showcase opening slot for a flat $1,500 rate. In other pay-to-play scenarios, an artist is responsible for selling a certain amount of tickets for the show or reimbursing the promoters from their own pockets. 

Members of Austin’s music community have been fighting back against this practice, which they view as exploitative. Leading the group is Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, an advocacy organization that supports local musicians and other members of the local music scene. In early February, Houlihan and other supporters went to city hall to discuss the issue with the Austin Music Commission, a group of industry professionals who advise city council on music development issues. Their goal was to get the commission to issue a public statement that the practice was not endorsed or encouraged by the Austin music community.

“We never went in planning to ask for an ordinance or regulation changes,” Houlihan said. “We wanted to create a ‘buyer-beware’ situation so that when people go to a situation like that they really think carefully before they do it.”

Houlihan has been confronting this issue for about a year now but admitted that it was difficult at first due to the lack of artists involved who were willing to speak out against it.

“Nobody wanted to blow the whistle,” Houlihan said. “People were saying ‘I don’t want to be blacklisted. I don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, or I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.’”

The reason Houlihan believes that hip-hop artists are involved in pay-to-play shows is because rock bands often require training to learn an instrument. 

“A lot of these kids taking advantage of pay-to-play are coming straight from their bedroom,” Houlihan said. “All you need is your voice and your mind, so, if hip-hop is calling you, it’s easier to start doing that.”

Houlihan said there are about four venues that come up often in stories regarding pay-to-play, including Red-Eyed Fly & Infest, the latter of which shut down at the end of January. At times, venues may not even know whether a show is pay-to-play.

“Sometimes the promoter does his whole thing and essentially rents the club for the night, so the manager may not even know that there’s pay-to-play show going on in the club,” Houlihan said.

Advocates against pay-to-play stress that there are other ways for young artists to get experience playing shows without setting themselves back hundreds of dollars. Austin rapper Adam Protextor, who goes by the stage name of P-tek, opposes pay-to-play because he said the artists don’t gain anything from participating in it.

“The only person who benefits is the promoter, who pockets the money,” Protextor said. “It all boils down to money.” 

Artists who have participated in pay-to-play shows in the past are speaking out. Donovan Keith, a member of Austin funk band Soul Track Mind, explained that his band booked a pay-to-play show early in its career in order to get an opportunity to play an unnamed “big venue” in town. Keith said the practice can actually harm a band’s career. 

“Someone in the crowd might be a huge local music promoter, and, if he sees you associated with this, or if you play a 15-minute set of garbage, that impression will stick with them for a long time and prevent you from getting future work,” Keith said. 

Because there can be no legal or regulatory ramifications taken against this practice, most bands involved agree that the best way to combat pay-to-play is education.

“We just want to make sure that people are informed and make good choices,” Houlihan said. “We can’t get rid of it completely in Austin, but we can work to keep it to a dull roar.”