Austin is an enigma. The phrase alone is a mouthful. On one hand it’s the “live music capital of the world” but, aside from Bob Schneider sets, big shows or certain wild nights on the east side, its also a city where many great acts play to a small, at times even apathetic, crowd of 5 to 10 people. The disparity between the great number of musicians and fewer number of audiences creates a few anomalies around the city: first of all, artists struggle for funds and exposure because the “live capital” lacks a seriously devoted listening base in what is an already overly saturated musician base. To augment the musician’s plight, the support of commercial infrastructure and major labels in Austin is also slow on the start.
ATX could use more music lovers and less musicians. A larger, more interested audience pool would allow the great number of performers to thrive. However, ideally that distinction shouldn’t have to be made. Music lovers should be picking up instruments and, more importantly, musicians should become audience members too, scouring the city learning from other bands, listening for new sounds, styles and influences and developing their own ear and their own objective relationship to music and performance, in order to improve their own act.
The redeeming quality, Ady Hernandez of Austin based band DaHeBeGeBees reminds us, is that “the lack of industry presence allows musicians to work freely, openly and honestly, out from under the thumb of executives and contracts.” So while musicians lack investment they gain artistic freedom. Plus, the few bar goers who are music lovers can enjoy amazing talent, Grammy award winning artists and players who’ve worked with huge household names, for a cheap price, intimately, in the front row of a bar, without much of a crowd to fight through.
Danny Crooks, former owner of Steamboat bar and venue in Austin, at one time was his own industry force in the music scene. Whereas bars today might offer a band only a night or two to perform or a month long residency at best, Crooks offered bands what he calls “performance school” where bands were taken under his wing, developed and given a full year long residency where they could successfully build a following while perfecting their art and performance. “Some years I would lose twenty thousand dollars to the beginning stages of the bands’ residencies, when no one would show up”, Crooks reminisces proudly, “but it didn’t matter because I believed in the bands we had and I knew they’d get good enough make it back”. While Crooks has since retired he proved that Austin doesn’t need Sony records to move downtown in order to provide significant infrastructure and industry support for local musicians.
In the mean time, groups like HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians) which provides health care, addiction support, counseling and family services for musicians; AMF (Austin Music Foundation) which mentors artists through every step of the industry process; and AMP (Austin Music People) which fights for the musician’s voice on city counsel meetings together work to fill the void of corporate industry in Austin’s music scene. Major players like the Vallejo brothers, Patrick Davis, Donnell Robinson, Tar’ell Sahid, Loris Lowe and Scott Ward, to name a few, humbly and passionately serve their city’s musicians, all too aware of the improbability of fame here and yet never hesitant to fight and dream for it. Austin proves to be virtually empty of corporate support and yet wins its sustainability by pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.
As with most things that are left untouched and untampered, two schools of thought arise: one is to capitalize, the other is to preserve. While many folks yearn for major record labels to capitalize on the growing scene, an incredible artist community, family, exists here that probably would not be possible or preserved if it were inside a capitalist environment. Words cannot fully detail the incredible network Austin musicians have created. From buskers all the way up to Grammy award winners, musicians here are more loving, open, supportive and free of ego than any music city yet to be seen. On almost any night you can meet a highly acclaimed artist who’s played all over the world with superstars and yet they’ll buy you a beer and tell you to come jam with them, at their home studio, sometime. A family, a brotherhood, a union exists here in Austin, and perhaps specifically because of the absence of industry. My guess, my hope, is that Austin will begin to put major acts on the map using its own muscle, without the assistance of and strings attached to corporate entities and in turn will earn the dignity and allure of a pure, self made city.
Special thanks to John “Jelly” Ellington, Lauren Santorio, Kayla Hazelwood, Andy Brown, Ozzie, Jessica Kellner, Chris Fadely, Nick Casillo and Rachel Erickson for bringing us into your homes with open arms. Much love to you all.