[The views expressed here are my own, and no one else's. I'm the only Joah you know.]
Last December, during our Austin Music Commission meeting, we came to a unanimous decision, and then re-affirmed that decision this past week, that Red River should be designated a Live Music Historic District.
Red River is the heart of Austin’s live music scene today, and, with Mohawk and Stubb’s, represents some of the best our city has to offer in terms of well-established venues for touring musicians. When SXSW rolls around, when out-of-towners come to visit, when friends ask me where to go on a weeknight, I usually point them to Red River.
Of course, there are several key venues in Austin that aren’t on Red River including ACL Live at the Moody Theatre on Second Street, Continental Club on South Congress Avenue, Broken Spoke and Saxon Pub on South Lamar, The Parish on E. Sixth Street, among others. Still, I truly believe that what happens on Red River Street in the coming years with the Waller Creek Development project and its ability to weigh future (residential and day-time) ambitions with present-day (live music and nightlife) uses will be a sign of things to come in our city, good or bad.
But protecting Red River Street and supporting the continued prominence of venues like Mohawk and Stubb’s is only one part of the solution for Austin’s music future. I say solution because we do have problems, and several of them.
Unfortunately, however, not all of these problems can be addressed through my role on the Music Commission. This blog is intended to share my POV on the top 3 things that I’ve observed as things that need to happen to make sure Austin’s live music scene is protected and prosperous for many years to come.
Before I go there, though, please allow me give you a little more context on why I may be qualified to speak on the matter. Sorry, it’s not because I’m a life-long Austinite or because I’m over 40 years old. I’m a 29-year-old who calls both Killeen, Texas, and Greenville, South Carolina, my hometown.
Where to start? Well, I’ve been an Austin music person since before Austin Music People existed. Actually, I think I’ve been an Austin music person even before I was an Austin resident. In high school, while trying to escape the boredom of Killeen, I would take my newly-secured driver’s license and drive to Austin. So, no, I didn’t learn of places like Antone’s, Broken Spoke, Emo’s and Stubb’s from my parents or neighbors, but instead from venturing down I-35 on my own at 17 years old with a fake ID and later while getting my edumacation on at UT.
In the three-plus-years since I’ve been back in Austin, after a post-college stint in D.C., I’ve made it a major priority to further immerse myself into Austin’s live music community. Austin is my first love, and this city’s live music scene is something like a pair of big brown eyes that keeps me hooked. Hell, it may even be sexier than that, but I’ll keep this post PG. So along with being an avid concert- and festival-goer, a friend to countless musicians and DJs and a regular at Waterloo Records, I make a point to do more than the usual fan.
In late 2010, I was appointed by recently re-elected Mayor Pro Temp Sheryl Cole to the Austin Music Commission, and have since been appointed vice chair. Along those lines, I was honored to be the keynote speaker – after Mayor Lee Leffingwell – at this past year’s Austin Music Memorial event honoring the likes of Sims Ellison, whose namesake gives us the SIMS Foundation.
Also, over the past few years, I’ve been writing this book about Austin’s live music scene called Indisputable that is just about done. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on it, and can’t seem to call it quits because the live music scene here is so active that by the time I finish editing a chapter, I need to re-write another one, get new photos, etc. Plus, I know a lot of dirt on a lot of people in the live music community that I debate with myself on whether or not the casual Austin music fan would like to know. I’m only half kidding so watch out people!
I share these credentials because I’m going to say something that may come across to some as critical, cynical, contrite or all three: Austin’s live music scene is in dire need of a reality check.
It’s not just a lack of true business sense with some of the venues being operated in Austin, but a lack of entrepreneurial zeal in a lot of the musicians I see and, even, some piss-poor event planning with a number of live music events in the city. Let’s not name names here, but let’s be clear that these issues don’t just happen in other cities. They happen in the Live Music Capital of the World, too; you can be sure of that.
That being said, here are the top 3 things that need to happen to make sure Austin’s live music scene is protected and prosperous for many years to come:
1. Get out of the city.
Austinites like to pride themselves on the fact that the city is far better, especially when it comes to creative output and tourism benefits, than Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. Well, DUH. And New York City is a bit more interesting than Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse. Please, tell us something we don’t know.
What Austinites – especially music fans and bands – should do is draw the lines further out and think about what needs to happen to be confident about our “Live Music Capital” designation against stronger candidates like Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle. Is it the venues? The types of artists/bands? The fans? Regardless, the answer gets 10x better the more we get outside our little Texas bubble. This is one of the reasons why SXSW is a deceptive festival at times. It gives people the impression that they went to San Francisco or Brooklyn or London without having actually gone anywhere.
More out-of-state exploration will bring back stronger business concepts for things like venues and studios, more innovative musical genres/sub-genres and greater perspective for our artists on what type of hustle and grit it takes to “make it” which is something 9 out of 10 Austin musicians say they don’t need, but desperately desire.
2. Do-It-Yourself needs to become Do-It-Right
Because sometimes DIY mentality is the very thing that kills your creativity by reducing your ability to create! Why? Because you don’t have the time or money to tour or record or write new material; you’re too busy subsidizing your life with a job you couldn’t imagine yourself having in 10 years.
You may think you’re staying true to yourself as a musician or whatever, but what you’re really doing is staying true to that part of you that never has been and never will be. Listen deep down and find that voice screaming for success, willing to fight for some shine and able to push through all the bullshit about “not selling out”. Listen to that voice and say, “shut the f*ck up, I’m going to win this time.” Do you think there are tech entrepreneurs, fashion designers, filmmakers or dancers saying they’re going to “keep it real” and do everything themselves? Hell to the no. They are out there trying to build a team of like-minded people willing and able to push their creativity forward. What about you Mr. or Ms. Austin musician?
Sometimes you have to do it the right way with the traditional parts of the business such as a manager, a booking agent, a publicist, hell, even a label. Not all the time, but sometimes. And if you think you’re going to sell out by doing so, then think about this: you can DIY all the way to the top and, chances are, all you did was leave a lot of money on the table because you were ignoring people well-trained to maximize your talent on your behalf. Why the hell do you think band’s like Spoon have Ben Dickey or people like Tom Windish make a living? Is it because they aren’t needed? Don’t think so.
If you want to be rubbing two nickels together when you’re 40-years-old after 10 or so years of relative Austin-only success then so be it. Just know going in that it’s all on you, your career, your talent, your attitude, your team members, your livelihood, your failure or success. It should only be DIY until you are smart enough to realize you can’t do it all yourself. The sooner you have that realization, the more time you’ll have to do what’s best instead of what seems most appropriate to say to your friends over beers on some back patio at an East Sixth bar.
3. Camaraderie leads to commercialism.
Why don’t many bands out of Austin “break”? Easy, the camaraderie is at an all-time low. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine are musicians that don’t listen to music. I mean they say they do, they go see their friends’ bands play, but they don’t really listen. It’s just a series of “oh yeah…they’re alright” statements one after the other. These people genuinely don’t want someone else to succeed!
Why? Because of fear. Fear that someone else will actually get rewarded for putting in the work and dedication that you’re not willing to put in yourself. No, I’m not a musician. Does that mean I can’t ever “get it”? Maybe. But I’ve had hundreds, literally hundreds, of conversations with friends who are Austin musicians. Not all of them are giving it their all. Most of them are uber talented, uber dedicated to their crafts, but only mildly concerning themselves with the single most important thing to making them successful: understanding people.
Unlike other creative industries, musicians don’t seem to get the people part of the business the way people in film or tech or art do. Yeah, we all know it’s all about who you know. No, you’re wrong. It’s about who knows you. And it’s not enough for them to know you from that band that one time at that one venue. Or from that friend who’s a friend of a friend who said you were good. That isn’t enough.
You have to touch people, connect with people, keep in contact with people. You have to do this constantly, consistently and comfortably. I know that may be hard for some of these creative types who aren’t exactly consistent, and damn sure aren’t pros at a) being comfortable with others or b) making others feel comfortable, but it’s a requirement.
As you can see, it’s not all about the venues. It’s not all about the business. It’s about people. At the root of this scene here in Austin are three types of people: Austin music fans, Austin musicians and people who want to be in one of those two groups.
It’s simple math, really: if you are a fan, you get to know more musicians and convince non-fan, non-musicians to become fans. If you are a musician, you get good fans to do what I just said fans should be doing.
There is no DIY in this city. There are just people trying to do it with others, and people convincing themselves they don’t need anyone after all. Austin’s live music scene needs to root out that second bunch because they’re killing this city one musician, one band, one venue, and one fan at a time.