Austin Music Matters

david-brown.jpgLast year, David Brown left his business reporting gig on Marketplace to join local PBS station KUT, and Austinites have since been the beneficiaries of his excellent reporting on a wide range of Texas music issues. His most recent segment on Texas Music Matters is a two-part comparison between Austin and Nashville as musical hubs, focusing primarily on the business aspects of the two music cities rather than an “us vs. them” litany of artists or clubs.

The story ponts out that Austin’s music industry is dwarfed by Nashville, a city with record labels, musician representation, and a musical economy that is 10 times larger than ours. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since a big part of Austin’s reputation has evolved as an independent alternative to corporate music … from places like Nashville. But there’s a problem; club closures have been an ongoing issue, and the TMM segment provides anecdotal reports that the remaining venues are struggling with declining attendance.

I’ve felt for several years that the Live Music Capital moniker rings hollow in a city that is quick to trade on its musical reputation while showing little awareness towards the elements that help create it. The neglect isn’t intentional, but rather the natural outgrowth of being all growed up into a big city – larger than Nashville – with a burgeoning “new” economy. Like a Big Chill millionaire who still votes Democratic, Austin means well, but this town has become the new establishment in this high-tech era, and that is increasingly incongruous with the heart of its outsider music industry.

The growing pains have produced some curious, but obvious symptoms. In 20 years, SxSW has gone from a brash showcase for unsigned talent to a label-oriented confab with a golf tournament. Austin City Limits used to be the only place you might see Townes Van Zandt, now it’s yet another outlet for Franz Ferdinand and Coldplay. Important music venues like the Armadillo and Liberty Lunch have either become neon funhouse versions of their grittier life or given way to high-rise file cabinets for young professionals, while many others have simply closed their doors.

So, what to do? I suppose the worst thing would be to read the previous paragraphs as a manifesto for clinging to past glory, which becomes rosier and less attainable with each passing property tax assessment. Live music in Austin is largely a victim of success, both for the industry and the city, which obscures the problem and makes it harder to find solutions. David Brown pins some hope on digital distribution for boosting Austin’s music profile, although this might simply enable artists to bypass music hubs altogether and still reach an audience with fans and labels. But any transitional period offers opportunities, and Brown suggests that Austin is at a crossroads:

Austin’s business leaders, civic officials, non-profit groups have a choice. They can ignore these developments, or they choose to participate in defining what the next-generation music city might be. Chances are, it’ll be a place where musicians go to hone their craft, where audiences flock for a live music experience that’s impossible to download, and as a city known for more than just appreciating their musicians, but nurturing them too.

The primary hurdle to these goals is money, as in the cost of living for musicians, the cost of rent for music clubs, and the dollars people are willing to pay for live music. Digitized music might lower the cost of production and distribution, but it doesn’t do much to lower rent payments. And unless it entices more people through the door, it doesn’t help the clubs either. Along our current trajectory, perhaps the best we can hope for is a transition from the Live Music Capital to the Virtual Music Capital of the World. We’ll see how many people want that tagline on their bumpersticker.

The Austin vs. Nashville piece can be found, along with all previous broadcasts, at the TMM archives.

2 Comments so far

  1. omit (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 11:53 am

    Just listened to the first episode with the Antone’s guy complaining that young people aren’t coming out to see music. I disagree.

    1) Antone’s ticket prices are usually super high ($25 and up) and prevent frequent visits. 2) Red River clubs are seeing a ton of young people show up for shows. The Emo’s free week had a line that was like SXSW for the show I went to, and it was all young people. 3) Antone’s caters to an older demographic by the nature of the bands it books.

  2. wae (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 12:58 pm

    My most recent experience at Stubb’s (Alpha Rev) was similarly packed, and most of the conversations I overheard waiting in line were of the “what’s your major” variety. So is the “attendance issue” just a case of changing musical tastes and differential impact on venues?

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