Over the past two decades, music has been a major boon to Georgia’s economy as Atlanta has grown into a major U.S. music hub. Between 2001 and 2018, direct employment at recording studios, performance rehearsal spaces, music venues, music festivals and other music-related businesses in Fulton County — which includes Atlanta — grew at six times the rate of the rest of the economy. More than 10,500 new jobs were created within the music sector during this time frame, earning $265 million in an industry generating $1.67 billion.
This data comes from a new study commissioned last year by Fulton County to quantify the local music industry’s economic impact, the results of which have now been released. The study was conducted in partnership with nonprofit organization Georgia Music Partners and Sound Diplomacy, and while the many sectors of the industry now look drastically different due to the coronavirus pandemic — particularly the live music sector — those involved in the report say the recommendations have been adjusted with the current crisis in mind.
“We’re focusing on stuff that doesn’t cost any money [and] implementing cost-neutral recommendations first,” says Sound Diplomacy founder and CEO Shain Shapiro. “Most of that is around refining or reforming various incentive programs and policies related to the music ecosystem.”
Some of these proposed initiatives include creating a music advisory board that would join county, city and industry leaders to address various issues including those related to music education, policy and strategic planning. There is also a recommendation for the formal registration of home studios throughout the county, which Shapiro says would “register the value of them and have them in the system [to] make sure they are treated the same way as any other studio. And they abide by the requirements set.” Shapiro says this will help protect them from potential ordinances such as the one struck down in 2017 by Atlanta City Council which, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting, sought to “impose tougher restrictions on newly built music recording studios,” including private-owned home studios. “There’s a history across Atlanta of issues related to home studios,” Shapiro says. “We feel that recognizing their economic value is the equitable thing to do because often there’s racial undertones to what’s registered and what’s unregistered, and that’s bullshit. We can’t think that way. All music is equal and all music is of value.”
The study is also recommending amending the state’s music tax incentives program — something Mala Sharma, who heads the legislative and government affairs arm of the nonprofit, volunteer-based organization Georgia Music Partners, says local leaders have long known needs to be done. Critics of the tax incentive have argued the current spending thresholds are too high to support small-scale creatives and criticized the incentive for being non transferable.
“We know and have known for some time that it needs some fixes [and] to be tweaked a little,” she says. “What we’re hearing from the industry is that for them to be able to invest in the state in a meaningful way on these projects and productions, they need to actually be able to use that credit. Most of these entities are not Georgia-based businesses. The fact that this credit is not transferable or refundable, from a business investment side, it does not make sense for them.”
There’s also hope the study will help garner support for a new Grammy Museum that in August was approved to be built in Atlanta. “When the powers that be talk to people about why they should support this effort, we can point to this study,” says Fulton County chairman Robb Pitts.
As of Monday, Georgia had experienced 332,311 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 7,429 deaths. In Fulton County, there have been 29,170 cases and 592 deaths. Gov. Brian Kemp allowed sporting and live performance venues to reopen with restrictions in July, but so far concerts have been limited and only a few venues currently plan to begin hosting shows again this fall. City Winery Atlanta hosted a concert earlier this month, its first since closing in March. The Live Nation venue Tabernacle recently teased plans to announce new shows “soon” on social media (Nathaniel Rateliff is scheduled to perform there Nov. 12, according the promoter’s website). Rival Entertainment, the company that operates Atlanta venues Center Stage, the Loft and Vinyl, will host the Big Night Out outdoor concert series in Centennial Olympic Park from Oct. 23-25. The series boasts Big Boi and The Marcus King Band amongst its headliners.
Pitts and Sharma say they’re not worried COVID-19 will impact Atlanta’s standing as a music hub, nor their hope that the local government will throw its support behind the industry. “This industry means so much to the state of Georgia and Fulton County that it is on the front burner,” Pitts says. Recently, the state’s Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced the creation of the Senate Study Committee on Music Workforce Development to examine ways to promote and grow the industry.
Billy Johnson, COO of rehearsal space Crossover Entertainment Group, says any future bailout initiatives will need to include financial support to workers within live entertainment. Crossover opened in the 1980s and one of the company’s first clients was LaFace Records. New to Atlanta at the time, L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds held label showcases for artists such as OutKast, P!nk and TLC in the space before returning to rehearse for tours. In the decades since the business opened, Crossover has had to do a lot of pivoting to keep up with the industry, including adding equipment rentals to its services and accepting clients within the film & TV industry.
This year, Johnson has rebranded his company as Crossover Live and turned the 20,000-square-foot space into a hub for livestreaming. “I spent a little money, which was nerve-racking, on lighting and set design to really create a nice visual for people to come in and stream. It’s working well,” he says. Recently, when 6lack performed on top of a building in downtown Atlanta, Johnson’s team was on set to assist with audio and backline. “We ran cable all the way to the top of the building and put additional antennas there for [6lack’s] in-ear monitors. He went up on top of the roof and the band that you heard was playing down below [inside the building]. He was listening in his in-ear monitors. We didn’t have to make the move up there and he [still] had a live band,” Johnson says.
Still, even though the recording studio and livestreaming is bringing in business, Crossover has still suffered. “What sustains us is the rental business on tour. I’ve got a million dollars worth of gear sitting back there locked up tight.” he says. “I can only generate so much revenue out of the building.” Johnson says he was only able to keep employees — six of whom were full-time — for about two months once the pandemic started. They’ve since been furloughed, although he brings them back to work when needed.
While the live entertainment industry continues to suffer, Shapiro says other areas of the music industry are doing just fine. “The live sector is in crisis and that’s a huge problem, but the whole music industry is not in crisis. Coincidentally, the part of it that’s doing very well, there’s a high concentration of that in Fulton County,” he says, noting the majority of Atlanta’s music business is based around recording studios. “It’s very significant. There’s more in Fulton County per capita than in New York or Seattle.”
Shapiro stresses that the Sound Diplomacy study is only meant to be the beginning. Now, it’s up to local leaders to take the data and act on it.