Earlier today, I had coffee with former Austin mayor Will
Wynn to talk about Austin’s live music scene for my upcoming book Indisputable.
I wanted to get some political perspective on the role live music plays in the
city Austin is today and the city it will be in the future.
I’m not a journalist so I try to make these interviews as informal and painless for my subjects as possible. And I’m not on some midnight deadline either so that helps create a casual writing environment. Ninety-five percent of these interviews, whether it’s with Raphael Saadiq after his crowd-pleasing ACL Festival performance, Bloodshot Records co-founder Nan Warshaw, indie music mega-agent Tom Windish or my friends Black Joe Lewis and Austin City Limits executive producer Terry Lickona, are unrecorded.
That being said, I almost always get what I’m after. A great, bite-sized quote or two that fills up a chapter enough for me to get away with a magazine-length write-up rather than a book-length one. Case in point…
“Live music is our franchise and we have to protect it. [In Chicago] you can go to a Cubs game twice a year for $250 bucks for a family of four, but you can go to a show every month for that here,” Will pointed out. “I’m always excited about Austin’s live music scene – because we have more venues today than we did in 2000 even though people tend to focus on the ones we lost, but I’m always fearful of the threats.”
This is part of the reason why Will made a point to place a
lot of energy and focus on supporting the live music business in Austin,
including championing the efforts of the Live Music Task Force (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/council/livemusictaskforce.htm).
That task force, as you may recall, brought together leaders in all sectors of Austin’s live music industry, from Charles Attal of C3 and Paul Oveisi of Momo’s to Rose Reyes of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau to Don Pitts who recently became music program director for the City of Austin, to discuss ways in which the city could better support its namesake as “the Live Music Capitol of the World.”
A lot of people take Austin’s live music scene for granted.
Hundreds of thousands have no idea what the “Creative Class” is. Tens of thousands
go to fewer than two shows a year and thousands frequent the bars on West Sixth
but have never stepped inside Momo’s. Every single one of us benefits though.
One of my favorite authors and premiere urban thinker Richard Florida wrote about Austin in his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Austin ranks highly in his book because of what he calls the “3 Ts” which are technology, talent and tolerance. Everyone knows Austin is home to Dell and tons of tech-sector jobs. Those same people know about the University of Texas, many from its successful research and athletic programs. Still, Florida says that tolerance is best represented by Austin’s live music scene.
“What is the first thing you think about when you hear
Austin? Most people don’t answer Dell, Trilogy or any other high-tech company.
Many of them mention Austin City Limits….or perhaps South-by-Southwest Film and
Music Festival. Alongside efforts to develop technology and tolerance, the
region has also made considerable investments in its lifestyle and music
scene—right down to the clubs and bars of Sixth Street. The city’s downtown
running trail features a bronze sculpture of a famous regional figure—the late
guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. When one high-tech company, Vignette, expanded
into a new facility in downtown Austin, a part of its deal was to establish a
$1 million fund to support the local music scene.”
Florida goes on to say that “a key aspect of the region’s development strategy is to preserve its unique cultural assets…”
I’m writing this for two reasons: 1) To say that the key to preserving
Austin’s unique cultural assets (namely the live music scene) is to take it
personally and 2) To explain why that whole “buy local” mantra will mean more
to Austin over the next decade than it will anywhere else in America.
On point #1 let me start by saying that seeing shows is fun. Will told me that the cities that are the most fun to live in are the ones most likely to succeed. Well, we all know that we love Austin because it’s a fun ass city. Last time I checked, shows are less than theatre tickets in New York and Lakers games in LA and you’re more likely to be close to the action and meet the talent. I’ve become friends with so many musicians just by going to shows at places like Club DeVille.
Supporting live music in the form of seeing shows at new and
old places like Mohawk and Antone’s, attending festivals like ACL Festival and
South by Southwest and buying CDs by working musicians like Tje Austin and Dan
Dyer goes a long way to keeping the fun in Austin because music, I
whole-heartedly believe, is the most fun-oriented form of popular entertainment
in the world. People love sports, but sporting events are often confrontational
and expensive. Hate me for saying this, but part of the reason why people tailgate
and get drunk at football games because the football game itself is not enough
fun on its own.
By taking Austin’s live music scene (and by extension it’s fun quotient) personally, you become an integral part in the city’s development strategy while the city tries to live up to its billing as the “best city in America for the next decade.” It doesn’t mean you have to become a spokesperson for the Convention & Visitors Bureau or spend every disposable dollar on concerts, but it does mean you can realize something very fundamental to Austin: people like this city because it’s fun, and live music is the single-biggest reason why this city is fun in the first place.
Once you’ve agreed to that, you can better understand what
it means to “buy local” in Austin. The facts behind the “buy local” movement are
simple: buying local is better for the environment because it involves less
transportation, locally-owned businesses are more likely to donate to local
charities like the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians or LIVESTRONG than
national chains and $25 more dollars out of every $100 spent will stay in the
community. It doesn’t mean you have to shop for shoes at Sneak Attack instead
of The Domain simply because I’m a local business owner and Neiman Marcus is a
chain, but it should mean you know why a South Congress store like Hovercraft
closing its doors is more troubling than a store like Forever 21 at the
Highland Mall closing.
This all bears itself out in the live music industry in Austin better than any other. Think about it: who paid to put grass in Zilker Park? Live Nation? AEG? Nope, it was ACL Festival promoter C3 Presents. Who supports important nonprofits like the SIMS Foundation, which helps artists with addiction and mental health services, local business and community leaders who care about live music. What brings more tourism dollars to Austin than any other event? South by Southwest.
The buy local movement is usually built to support retail
businesses like the one I own, but I fully believe that the only thing that
will really protect retail businesses in Austin in a sustainable way is a live
music scene that keeps this city fun. If this city becomes less fun to live in
– like what has happened to Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cincinnati over
the years – people won’t care to spend money to look good or listen to new
music because they’ll be too busy stressing about how boring their lives are.
Once that happens, no number of tech jobs or UT degrees being handed out will
keep people here…especially when real estate prices are climbing.
If you’re going to pay New York, Miami or Chicago rent, you might as well live in those cities if Austin is no longer as much or more fun in comparison, right? That’s why the next decade is so extremely important in Austin.
It’s about doing our part to keep legendary places like
Continental open just as much as it’s about seeing talented artists like The
Soldier Thread or Eagle Eye Williamson every now and again. It’s about
continuing to earn the city’s designation as “the Live Music Capitol of the
World” in an organic way instead of supporting a dozen mega venues with
corporate sponsors like L.A. so that we can continue offering loads of weekday fun
to both residents and tourists so that retail businesses, bars and restaurants
continue to benefit and Austin continues to provide decent day jobs and tolerance
(financially and socially) to the people willing to toil away as musicians (and
other artists) in the name of creativity.
Last year, Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics even though they brought everyone from Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey to Mayor Richard Daley and President Obama to the table to show a united front. The Live Music Task Force that took place during Will Wynn’s tenure as mayor of Austin is an important step in our city’s bid to be the best in America for the next decade, but no amount of power in the boardroom makes it a sure thing. This is going to have to be a team effort with all of us fans playing an important, if not starring, role.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a word about a threat that I perceive to Austin’s ability to be a fun city. Austin’s real estate prices are rising and the city accounts for half the metro area’s total population (1.6 million). This is compared to a city like Atlanta where the city has only 10 or 15 percent of the metro area’s population; people are used to living far from downtown, which partially explains why their live music scene is tiny compared to Austin’s. Part of the reason why Austin’s live music scene is so strong is because we’re all very close together…the creative juices are flowing rather rapidly, often times sexually. But what happens if these hookups, both musically and sexually (I suspect), never happen?
People who want to make music (or anything creative) for a living are being forced to live further and further away from downtown, which greatly impacts their ability to synergize with other musicians and share creative capital. It may be too late to change the trend of the real estate market, but over the next decade – as population in Austin grows and traffic worsens – we’ll need a team effort to support a major push for public transportation and not this latent poo-poo platter being served up to us by Capitol Metro. If the musicians and artists (and eventually the most-avid fans) can’t afford to live near downtown, we should at least make it affordable for everyone to get there. The threat is that we finish this decade as America’s best city and start a new one as one of its worst with half a million more people in the city and half as many musicians (8,000) as we have today.