Mar 30, 2022 - News

How rising rents are forcing out Austin musicians

Illustration of a pencil writing sheet music with dollar and cents symbols
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Another local musician is headed out of Austin as housing prices continue to climb.

Driving the news: This weekend it was Ryan Greenblatt, drummer with the bands Roxy Roca and The Bourgeois Mystics, who packed up the home he shares with his wife and baby to head back to his native Houston.

  • The $2,600-a-month rent they shelled out for a place a stone's throw from Magnolia Cafe was no longer enough.
  • And so Greenblatt, 35, stuffed his record collection, his kid's belongings and his odds and ends into boxes.
Ryan Greenblatt packing his belongings.
Ryan Greenblatt puts away records ahead of his move. Photo: Asher Price/Axios

The backbeat: After college in New Orleans, Greenblatt landed in Austin to start a music career because it was cheaper than NYC or LA.

  • Between gigs, he worked for years at food trailers and other odd jobs, and earning up to $2,000 a month as a musician was sufficient as a single person, he said.

His bands were just hitting their stride when the pandemic hit.

  • The Bourgeois Mystics were slated to headline a festival in Joshua Tree, and Roxy Roca was booked for a string of spring 2020 crawfish festivals — when suddenly all the gigs on the books evaporated.

What they're saying: "I was in denial and was sure this would wrap up quickly," Greenblatt said.

  • But as the pandemic wore on, his bands barely managed to survive, with key musicians departing for country ensembles that resumed live performances more quickly.

In mid-February, Greenblatt and his wife received notice they needed to move out the next month — on the very day he was due to play a revived SXSW.

"It's my Super Bowl week," he said — managing to convince the owners to give him two more weeks.

Between the lines: "Unlike many other places, Austin has a safety net for artists," Greenblatt said. "But if we keep on this trajectory, it's not going to matter — artists will get priced out."

The long view: "Revenue from gigs is stagnant," A. Michael Uhlmann, who handles promotion for Austin clubs and bands, tells Axios. "A band that got booked for roughly $250 20 years ago in the club circuit is still paid $250 these days. Inflation was never adapted to musician's pay."

  • "In the past you were able to rent a house for $500 and split it with your bandmates or other folks. Austin had a very creative and connected community, and that to a certain degree got lost," Uhlmann adds.

By the numbers: Last summer, the Austin City Council elected to dedicate $4 million of federal COVID relief money to support the music industry.

  • $1.5 million was distributed by the end of last year.
  • The funds help "ensure workers in this vital sector can afford immediate needs like rent and groceries," Veronica Briseño, chief economic recovery officer for the city of Austin, said in January, after opening up $2,000 grants for professional musicians, independent promoters and music industry workers facing the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, but: "Austin is talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, there's this money to help out clubs and artists, but in expected bureaucratic fashion, they haven't doled out that much money," Greenblatt said.

What's next: Greenblatt says he plans to travel regularly to Austin for rehearsals and gigs.

  • Late Monday night, as a final act, he mowed the lawn, determined to leave his rental in tip-top shape.

The bottom line: "A cornerstone of the city's marketing is the live music," Greenblatt said. "But it feels like the city uses us but doesn't take care of us."

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