Austin Mic Exchange is one of Austin’s best known open mic hip hop gatherings. Here young, mostly male rap artists hit the stage armed only with bravado and a microphone. And while not a lot of women are taking the mic, you’ll almost always find one petite young lady named Leah Manners in the crowd. Known to some as Miss Manners, host of KOOP Radio’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” she’s also a co-founder of Austin Mic Exchange, and one of the masterminds behind the weekly event.
Looking at last week’s event, the picture is pretty typical, according to the census: mostly men onstage, with a lot of women working behind the scenes. Commissioned by the City of Austin, the census sampled a year’s worth of live music. Out of more than 2,000 musicians who responded, only 20 percent were women. Manners says she’s not surprised.
“Honestly, I think it’s astonishingly high compared to general mainstream artists,” she says. “Here in Austin they at least get some credit for being artists. The problem is they’re not getting enough credit. But I feel like that’s a societal problem even more so than an Austin problem.”
On the business side, however, things are a bit different, says Nikki Rowling, president and founder of Titan Music Group.
“On the business side it’s almost half and half. It’s 55 percent male and 45 percent female,” says Rowling, who was lead author on the survey. “So, that really strong gender majority male is about musicians, it’s not about the industry, which is interesting.”
While the gender disparities have raised eyebrows, she says there’s another concern looming larger: Since 2001, rent prices in Austin have increased by 50 percent.
And it’s not just musicians who are having trouble living in the city. It’s also venues. Holy Mountain on 7th Street is closing in October because of rising rent, and Red 7, next door, will pack up at the end of this month – though its owner Transmission Entertainment has partnered to move the club to Red Eyed Fly and rename it Sidewinder.
“So there are a number of layers to what eventually trickles down to become musician rent affordability,” says Rowling.
The study found that more than 20 percent of Austin musicians are living under the federal poverty line, and fewer venues have a cover charge. Rowling says artists have started moving out of the city, but it hasn’t reached a tipping point. The goal, she says, should be to retain artists, and not have to recruit them. And the census includes several ideas on how to manage that.
“One of those suggestions is the creation of a commercial music hub, which is a physical location that would create all kinds of opportunity and really affordable co-working space,” she says.
The Austin Mic Exchange would appreciate some more collaboration. Organizers say rent affordability problems have a direct impact on music diversity – not just because of musicians moving out. As the price of living in the “Live Music Capital of the World” skyrockets, audiences may move out too.