By Taylor West
The doors of the 40 Watt Club open at 9 p.m and people trickle into the dimly lit venue to buy their first drinks of the night. The opening band takes the stage, the audience grows and two acts later the headliner, Reptar, walks on stage and looks out over a screaming, intoxicated full house.
It’s a typical Saturday night in Athens.
Athens is home to many music venues from the Georgia Theatre to the Caledonia Lounge and the Melting Point to the dozens of bars and restaurants that play live music multiple nights a week, and has produced countless bands, ranging from unknown groups to R.E.M., the B-52s and Widespread Panic.
There is no question Athens has a deeply engrained and widely known music culture that is an important part of the town’s identity. The New York Times even said the Classic City “might as well be known as Live Music Central” because of the “waves of fresh local acts and a growing number of live music sites” since the 1980s.
But what may go unnoticed is the strong presence of the music industry in the economy.
There are 52 total establishments for arts, entertainment and recreation in the Athens-Clarke County metropolitan statistical area in 2011 with a reported annual payroll of $13,209,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Athens outnumbers other comparable towns with downtown music scenes. For example, Lawrence, Kan., in the same category, has four fewer establishments and takes in $6,588,000 less annually.
David Barbe, director of the music business certificate program at the University of Georgia, said the music’s affect on the economy in Athens is bigger than most people realize.
“It is a huge part of Athens’ economy. A normal, Friday night, packed rock band show there will be 1,000 people drinking $5 Bud Lights at the Georgia Theatre… so you know that beer sales downtown, in my opinion, are quite healthy,” Barbe said. “You see what I’m getting at.”
Jeff Humphreys, the director of the Selig Center in the Terry College of Business, said there are two ways to monitor the economy of the music scene — production, or money made from music produced in Athens, and performance.
“A performance impact would consist of attracting visitors to Athens,” he said. “The big economic impacts from performance are either putting heads in beds… plus there may be some day trip visitors that don’t actually spend the night but they may drive over from Atlanta and go to a restaurant and the venue.”
Barbe said with a band like the Drive-By Truckers, who played a three-night stand at the 40 Watt a few weeks ago, it’s believed 50 percent of the attendees to the concerts are from out of town.
“It’s fair to say that these 300 people are going to spend, between a hotel room for three days and food and beer and records and gasoline, it’s fair to say that these people spend $700 while they are here,” he said.
Drive-By Truckers, though they have a larger following than many bands playing in Athens, is just one of many groups that comes to town every year. Additionally, outside of downtown groups such as the Cleveland Orchestra attract hundreds of a different crowd when they play venues Hugh Hodgson Hall.
Though Hannah Smith, director for marketing and communications for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she is “not aware of a specific study that has done an economic study that is tied back to the music scene,” the bureau does compile tourist information.
Smith in a subsequent email wrote that of people who signed in at the Athens Welcome Center and those who requested information online, 5 percent self-identified as having a primary interest in music.
“Destination marketers are most successful when they are able to promote what is most distinctive about their destination, experiences travelers can’t get closer to home,” Smith wrote despite the low percentage. “For Athens, that distinctive factor is the continuing vibrancy of our live music scene. Music is integral to our tourism product and definitely contributes to the local economy by bringing in tourists from around the globe.”
And Barbe said the music industry in Athens has been growing “exponentially” for the last 30 years.
“When I came here in 1981 there were about maybe 15 or 20 cool local original bands, now there are hundreds. There was no music business infrastructure at that time because for 15 or 20 local bands and a couple of bars you don’t need that,” he said. “[Now] with hundreds and hundreds of bands we’ve got record labels and artist managers and booking agents and concert promoters and t-shirt makers and all kinds of things.”
Click here for Barbe’s explanation of relationships between different facets of the music industry: Structure of the Music Industry
Athens is now home to the annual Athens Music and Arts Festival, which, for the last 15 years, AthFest has used to “showcase the best in regionally and nationally recognized Athens-based talent,” according to the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department website. This year, around 200 bands and artist will put on shows for the festival in local venues and on three outdoor stages.
Jeff Montgomery, an ACC public information officer and co-owner of athensmusic.net, said the music scene’s influence has grown with its numbers and the government is taking notice.
“Certainly I would say that it does affect policy,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene. This office has always had a strong music tie. It’s not always official, but it’s a big interest we have, it’s a big tourist component to things, it’s a big economic boost for downtown.”
And the economic salience of the music industry in Athens, Montgomery said, is evidenced by the low closure rates of true music venues in Athens.
Montgomery said ACC pays attention to the arts in general as well — among other things, there is a public art component that is part of any capital program through our SPLOST program, which is the sales tax program, meaning a percentage of every project that’s done though SPLOST 2011, has to have a public art component to that.
“I would say there is a policy component to that,” he said. “In terms of when it comes down to laws or other things like that, sure that’s always considered when there are laws or ordinances that have the potential to affect the creative community; they tend to make their voices known. And then it is weighed against other factors, like public safety.”
Montgomery said on top of being a political consideration, the Athens government stands behind the music scene through little things.
“If you were to call City Hall, and you get put on hold, all our hold music is Athens bands. Also, the government access television that our office runs, Athens music is what plays in the background of that when we are on our bulletin board system,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene.”