After my ACL Festival post, I wanted to more formally introduce the book I'm currently writing. I've given it the provocative title seen above.
So let me start by telling you that I originally thought about writing a book proving to the naysayers of London, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and every other urban live music hotspot to prove to them why Austin’s live music scene is better.
But I don't think one person will ever be able to figure out precisely why one city’s live music scene trumps another. Not even me. Still, I won’t let that stop me from making the case for Austin. I’ll let someone else make the case for their city (good luck).
When you think about London, New York, L.A., Chicago or Minneapolis you think of a ton of things before you think of live music, but with Austin it’s different.
And when you think of Dublin, Memphis, Nashville, Seattle or Miami, you may think of music, but it’s probably not live music. It’s probably U2 or blues or country or grunge or Rick Ross.
Austin is unquestionably about live music.
This Austin I speak of has a foundation built by the likes of Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn, The Continental Club, Antone’s, Austin City Limits, both TV show and festival, South by Southwest and all of the hundreds of others who make up the bands, festivals, and venues that have made this city a live music mecca for decades.
And the city’s music portfolio, although glaringly missing of hip-hop stature, includes Grammy winners and critically acclaimed artists like Shawn Colvin, Los Lonely Boys, and Spoon, classic, nationally-known venues like Stubb’s and Emo’s, up-and-coming businesses and events like C3 Presents, which runs ACL Fest and Chicago's Lollapalooza, Frontgate Tickets, which is saving us from Ticketmaster with each event, and, the up-and-coming indie festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest, which takes place Nov. 7-8 this year in a Downtown Austin park.
I get upset when I hear people from other cities with established music scenes question Austin’s designation as the Live Music Capital of the World. They think it’s just more of that Texas cowboy swagger. And our last president sort of rubbed people the wrong way on that as you know. Regardless, my typical response is fairly simple: no other city’s live music scene is as vast, vaunted, vibrant and vital to its culture and economy as Austin’s.
Janis Joplin started her career here for cryin’ out loud! And Richard Florida, author of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, pointed out Austin's music scene as a reason for its ability to attract people from cities like Pittsburgh by fostering creativity and diversity (and not that outdated definition). Also, I've heard our two major festivals SXSW and ACL have a combined economic impact that now surpasses $150 million annually...take that recession!
How else do you explain how Sweet Leaf Tea’s business was catapulted, seemingly overnight, after the first ACL Festival. And how do you explain why both Austin Ventures, known for investing in dozens of high-tech startups, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation had their names emblazoned upon stages at this year’s festival.
That festival is our presidential election, our Oscars and each year’s lineup is viewed as the next big I.P.O. Those stage sponsorships are like Super Bowl ads here in Austin.
Bands and musicians rise and fall every day, but Austin is where much of it is chronicled. Either on the local stages that they start and finish on, SXSW where they get a label deal, the marquee venues they play on their way up and down the musical food chain, on the famous stage of the Austin City Limits TV show, or when they headline the festival of the same name.
Speaking of, did you know Pearl Jam played something like a two-and-a-half-hour set for the legendary program (and a crowd of 300 or so) the day before their headlining performance at the festival? It’s an hour-long broadcast folks. That's live music love for band and fan alike.
You can add Eddie Vedder and Co. to a long line of musical talents to take the KLRU stage, located on UT’s campus (for now), in a line of that runs as deep as the chords from B.B. King’s guitar and as vast as the influences of Gnarls Barkley.
Of course, some people don’t like all this urban growth and attention. People are moving here from L.A. and New York for Christ’s sake! Yep, there are those here in Austin who believe that our live music is attracting too many of the wrong kind of people. Specifically, Live Nation.
Turns out the music industry behemoth will be running the new 2,500-seat ACL venue that opens in Downtown Austin late next year. Maybe that explains why Jay-Z is playing here in Austin (UT's Frank Erwin Center) in two weeks after skipping the city for several years? My take: If we have to get Live Nation ticket prices to get Jay-Z talent on a Tuesday night, sign me up!
Can’t you see what all this points to? Let me beat you over the head for a couple more seconds just in case…
London and Glasgow are probably the best cities in Europe for live music, but their musical range is mostly limited to indie (i.e. Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand), premier electronic acts like The Chemical Brothers and mega arena acts that are never fully embraced in the U.S., i.e. Robbie Williams.
Of course, Austin can't compete with the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay, Muse, Blur, The Streets and Dizzie Rascal, but the cities (or our festival's) ability to get the attention of those acts has grown tenfold in the last five years alone.
In Los Angeles, people are too busy reading scripts, going to auditions and watching movies to make live music their city’s calling card. The Airborne Toxic Event is a really good band, but having to compete against the Lakers and USC Trojans can't be good for business.
People think they plan ACL Festival around the UT football schedule, but I'm starting to believe UT football doesn't want to go up against ACL Festival because they may lose some students in the process, probably on the food alone.
In Nashville, record labels and music publishers keep musicians busy writing songs and making studio records.
Garth Brooks trumps Willie Nelson in Nashville.
And New Yorkers are writing ads and articles like mad men or scouting the hottest stocks and fashion trends; so much for that Tuesday night show at CBGB.
What'd you say? CBGB closed. What kind of world are we living in???
This is what makes Austin unique. Both our economy and culture, more so than any other city in America, are dependent upon live music. Hole in the Wall, a classic venue near the UT campus nearly went out of business but is back in full effect. Clifford Antone passed away, but his club is still booking hot bands like The Dirty Projectors...they played here last night.
As Steve Wertheimer, the owner of Continental Club, told me the other day, “People here make sacrifices for live music. Whether it’s a few hours of sleep or money…”
These sacrifices earn Austin the highest of live music titles. It’s not about what’s happening Friday and Saturday – at least outside of festival weekends – as much as what’s accessible and available on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Don't get me wrong, we watch The Office and Weeds and plenty of Monday Night Football, but live music is a significant part of the weekly schedule for Austinites.
People sometimes complain about Austin missing out on mega acts like U2 because they're playing Houston or Dallas on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, but the truth of the matter is that they're playing those cities on those particular nights because they won't make enough money to pay for those massive stages and light shows if they roll through the Toyota Center or the American Airlines Center on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
I'll some all this up for you in a few key points:
Proof point #1: The talent.
Only 800,000 people call Austin home, compared to 8 million in New York and something like 4 million in LA, but we have outsized depth when it comes to musical talent. Every garage band isn’t getting a deal out of this city and even the most polished bands play 100-person venues for years.
Proof point #2: The competition.
The best up-and-coming bands from every city in America, even bands from the UK and Denmark, are begging to play South by Southwest Festival showcases in March where more than 1,000 bands play in around 100 venues. And guess who shows up for surprise performances at this past year’s festival? Metallica to Kanye West. And that's not Metallica in an arena, that's Metallica on stage at an outdoor 1,500-person venue (Stubb's) and Kanye at The Fader Fort, a temporary venue/stage that only exists for four days. How sick is that?
It’s no surprise Mr. West was heard rapping, “next crib loftin’, where’s that Austin...” during his SXSW performance, freestylin' with Common and Erykah Badu.
Proof point #3: The industry.
Fellow Chicagoan and, at the time, newly-elected President Barack Obama needed a major production crew for inauguration in D.C. and who’d his team call? Nope, not the Ghostbusters…Austin-based C3 Presents. Apparently there’s no break between booking and promoting shows at Stubb’s and Emo’s, two of Austin’s classic live music venues, and ACL Festival.
Proof point #4: The festival.
Austin’s city’s biggest park, Zilker, where The Rolling Stones played a few years ago, didn’t get a face-lift for 70 years and who foot the bill for an upgrade? C3. They even involved fans in the matter, including a small fee in the ticket price, which still cost substantially less than tickets for Coachella, Bonnaroo and other major three-day festivals.
Proof point #5: The buzz.
Check this, Memphis’ top rock’n’roll band, Lucero, had a gig at Troubador in Los Angeles earlier this year and who shared the bill? Austin’s own Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, one of 2009’s hottest bands, now headed to Europe for some tour dates next month.
Still guessing as to what all this means?
Proof point #6: The legacy.
Here’s a simple one: what is the longest running music series in American TV history? You guessed it, Austin City Limits.
Long story short, I'm of the belief that it is indisputable that Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World. Call me controversial, but I'm writing a book that reminds (or informs) everyone.
(All photo credits: Lauren Balli)