The evolution of Austin music

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The Cactus Cafe is a 35-year-old venue on campus that has hosted many local bands over the years. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

A mob of people stumble from bar to bar, their faces illuminated by neon lights. DJs blare their newest playlist, testing it on the crowds. Bands turn up their amps, drawing from the crowd’s energy and hoping to someday make it big.

This is a surface level view of the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but few know the history behind the phrase. 

Now, with the slogan prompting more music tourism and concerts than ever before, and with the next season of music festivals about to start, a new era of music in Austin is beginning.

Festivals, including South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, feature mostly national and corporate acts — not local musicians. This means the money from the festivals go to local business but not local musicians.

“The title Live Music Capital of the World is a catalyst to tourism and a hindrance to music and musicians,” said Freddie Krc, president of the Austin branch of the American Federation of Musicians.

This pattern is seen in other aspects of the Austin music scene as well. Matt Munoz, booking agent at the Cactus Cafe, said larger venues, such as Stubbs and the Frank Erwin
Center, tend to host nationally known artists, leaving local bands to perform in smaller spaces that often pay less. 

John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records, feared the title Live Music Capital of the World would increase commercialism in the city when the decision was first made, but he has seen the slogan attract people who embrace music. 

“Having a slogan like that is really a linchpin for someone to take that first step,” Kunz said. “Someone hearing the hype about Austin might say, ‘Oh, maybe we should go check out this live music or buy this new record.’” 

The slogan was proposed by The Austin Music Commission, a branch of the governor’s office established in 1988 to give a voice to Austin musicians, but there is speculation as to who used the phrase first. Donald McLeese, a music writer for the Austin American-Statesman, said he facetiously used the phrase several times in his articles in the early ’90s before it was adopted by the city. But others claim to have coined the slogan before him. 

Nancy Coplin, the first chair of the Austin Music Commission, said the commission was in favor of the slogan and conducted research that proved Austin had more live music per capita than anywhere else in the nation. They presented the slogan to the then-Mayor Pro Tem Max Nofziger, who then pushed for its acceptance by Austin City Council. 

“[Nofziger] was sitting beside me,” former city councilman Ronney Reynolds said. “I was in place one. He was in place two. When he heard them say they wanted to use ‘The Live Music Capital of Texas,’ he said, ‘No, we’re the Live Music Capital of the World.’” 

Music by the numbers: 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 720 working musicians in the greater Austin area in 2013, but the report did not include musicians who are self-employed. The city predicts the number of working musicians to actually be 7,957.

The number of musicians in the market makes getting gigs — especially well-paying ones — difficult. 

“The excessive supply of talent drives the demand down and makes it harder and more competitive to actually make a name for yourself,” said Jimmy Stewart, founder of do512 — a site dedicated to advertising different entertainment events around the city.

Krc, local president of the American Federation of Musicians, said a lack of proper compensation is an issue nationwide but especially in Austin. He said bands often perform without payment, an increasing trend as more musicians compete for limited stage time. Others pay to play, a controversial policy where bands pay a fee to be considered for a festival slot for which they may not be compensated. 

The U.S. Department of Labor found that Austin musicians make on average $20.94 per hour, a sum lower than most other musically driven cities, such as Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle. This value does not include venues where bands pay for tips or for free. 

Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, said musician’s wages have changed very little in the past few decades. 

The music industry annually brings in about $1.6 billion to Austin’s economy.  ACL and SXSW alone produce about $190 million and $300 million, respectively. AngelouEconomics reports that this impact is growing at a rate of 5-10 percent per year. 

How new bands broke out:

New bands usually start out in the bar and club scene where owners often hire musicians who play upbeat music.

“For the first few years that we were here, we were writing songs that were geared towards getting people to dance,” said James Mason, member of local band The Roosevelts. “Bluesy rock kind of stuff that made people want to raise a beer rather than sit and listen to some poignant lyrics.”

There are a few big record companies based in Austin. This keeps the music scene more local than those of other similar cities, such as Los Angeles or Nashville. This lack of national labels requires Austin musicians to travel and tour to find success nationally. These tours are often on the band’s own dime.

Most musicians agree Austin is one of the best places to be for performers. The number of musicians working in Austin increases competition for gigs, but it also pushes musicians to improve and encourages collaboration. 

“I think the thing that appealed to me about Austin, even before I moved there, was that it had this reputation of cultivating artists,” local musician Emily Bell said. “In different areas, it’s not really like that. Austin seemed like so much of a community.”