How Do You Build the Next Austin, Texas?

If music tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry, why aren’t there more music cities like Austin? And Nashville, New Orleans, Athens, and Portland?

Why are cities crowding musicians and cramping scenes, instead of fostering their organic growth?

Those are challenging questions for city planners, especially those struggling to foster artistry against the crowding effects of gentrification and high-priced living.  Artists live cheaply; cities are typically expensive.  Artists need lots of flexibility and support; cities often have rigid rules and tough love.

Artists thrive in artistic communities; cities often lack that critical communal ingredient.

But if Austin has proven anything to the world, it’s that thriving music scenes promote massive amounts of growth, attract desirable denizens and companies, and combat the pernicious forces of poverty, crime, and urban blight.  It’s worth billions of dollars to the city that properly taps its musical vein, and has the power to transform mundane urbanscapes into cultural meccas.

Indeed, Austin has been a wild success story for more than a decade, and the fruits are hard to miss: the arrival of major employers, the construction of a richer skyline, the arrival of fabulous citizens.  Against those obvious successes, city planners and officials are starting to view this opportunity very seriously.  In several months, a number of industry executives, city officials, and economic wizards from around the world will descend upon Toronto to discuss one simple thing: how to build the next musical city, or at least amplify the scenes that already exist.

Hosted by Music Canada and Canadian Music Week (CMW), a DMN partner, the ‘Mastering of a Music City’ symposium will dominate the calendar on May 7th, where leaders will share research and ideas at the Sheraton Centre in downtown’s Queen Street (more details on the event here).

Already, some stunning statistics are emerging, thanks to early research coordinated through CMW and its partners.  Austin, for example, derives half of its entire revenue-base from music-related activities, whether festivals, gigs, or music-focused businesses.  Half a world away in Melbourne, Australia, music accounts for more than 116,000 jobs.  Memphis, Tennessee draws more than $3 billion annually from a rich musical history that includes landmarks like Graceland, Beale Street, and Sun Studio.

In Toronto itself, the Canadian recording industry alone drives $400 million in annual revenues, according to studies conducted. “Ultimately the goal is to create a more sustainable music community where artists and professionals can enjoy successful careers,” said Graham Henderson, president and chief executive of Music Canada.  “We want to see a world without musical borders.”

The idea makes worlds of sense to a music industry that has witnessed large-scale downturns in recording sales, but wild increases in live music and festival attendance.  Music experiences are what people want, and musical cities are one way to deliver that magic.  “Just imagine a world where you can go from country to country and find music cities in every one,” envisioned Frances Moore, chief executive of the IFPI, a global industry trade group.  “That would be good for artists, good for record companies, good for city leaders and good for the wider public that just wants to enjoy great music.”

The problem is that building a musical city is an deeply organic process, it’s tough to say ‘presto!’ and pop out a billion-dollar scene.  Music needs to run through the blood of a town, though cities can play a huge developmental role.  “Austin assumed the self-proclaimed title of Live Music Capital of The World in 1991,” said Don Pitts, Music Program Manager for the City of Austin, as part of a recently-published study commissioned by the IFPI and Music Canada.  “Live music is available for consumption at any time, any day of the week.”

That same study isolated a number of core characteristics common to thriving music cities.  Austin seemed to score ’11’ on every count:

  • Lots of Artists and musicians;
  • A thriving music scene;
  • Access to spaces and places;
  • A receptive and engaged audience; and
  • Record labels and other music-related businesses

“From the airport, to grocery stores, to City Council meetings, music is embraced in Austin on an unparalleled level,” Pitts noted.  “An astonishing 250 or so places present live music here, and every style is represented.”

That means ‘building Austin’ is also about building and fostering an entirely new culture.  Or better yet, bringing out that a unique musical culture and history that already exists.


Images: Austin City Hall (Gino; CC by 2.0);  Beale Street (Rdikeman, CC); Williamsburg (The All-Nite Images; CC by 2.0);  Austin Metrorail (Public Domain).

5 Responses

  1. Armadillo Steamboat and the Liberty Lunch Black Cats

    Step 1: Have the CEO of the local PBS station hand over all rights to Austin City Limits music festival to C3, including all merch, after 30 years of hard work building an international brand.
    Step 2: Have the largest student population in the country at a top 10 school with cheap tuition.
    Step 3: Woo IBM, Motorola, and other tech to your area with insane tax breaks.
    Step 4: Take credit for every musician from Oak Cliff to Ft. Worth to west of Nashville to east of Silver Lake.
    Step 5: Breakfast tacos.
    Step 6: Topless freshmen at Barton Springs.
    Step 7: Have a street of bars where bands play nothing but covers for no pay, but still make the truthful claim that it is l”live” music. Call it something incredibly creative like… “6th Street”.
    Step 8: Have a festival where bands pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles for the chance to play through a shitty PA for 45 minutes, even though Hanson is the only act to have actually been signed at said festival.
    Step 9: Truly believe your own bullshit.



    Clearly you are clueless on this one.

    For perspective, Uncle Sam brought me to San Antonio in June 1966. I spent two years at Ft. Sam working in the hospital. I played all over Texas in a folk duo, and after my discharge in 1968 I grew a band that opened the first NYE shows (a three-night run) in 1970 at Armadillo World Headquarters, the concert venue that put Austin on the international live music touring map. Prior to AWHQ major tours went through San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas/Ft. Worth, almost always skipping Austin. The population was too small to matter, and there wasn’t a breakthrough venue that would mean anything anywhere else. Charlie Daniels once said he couldn’t get a gig in Texas until he played the Armadillo, and then he was handed keys to the state.

    Nov 1 1976 I became general manager of that venue, after having built a recording studio deep within it. (See Phil Woods Live! and More Live .) I left Austin in 1983 to move to the northeastern California Sierra Nevada. In 2002 I began returning biannually, in June and December, to handle sound and music for a daughter’s enterprise, Go Dance. As of late 2007 I have averaged half my time back in Austin working in one or another aspect of the music business. One of my jobs is as music production manager for the festival embedded in the annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, which just enjoyed its 40th anniversary.

    I am typing right now from the coveted 78704 neighborhood in the home of a dear friend who has hosted me here for the last few years, less than half a mile from where AWHQ once stood, before the wrecking ball of development destroyed that venue, a harbinger of things to come.

    Austin didn’t do anything to become what it is. Nobody planned this grand music scene, now being strangled by the growth you seem to be encouraging. What made Austin’s art scene, including the music bit, was the cheapest metro living in the USA. In the Bouldin Creek neighborhood rents in the 1970’s ran $150/month for a house big enough to be shared by three to five folks. One’s share of the rent, thirty to fifty bucks a month, in houses big enough to offer space for a band to practice, was easily manageable, even at the poverty level earnings enjoyed by most artists, including musicians. Traffic was negligible, parking was ubiquitous, food was ungodly cheap.

    Audiences for musical events were the most intensely appreciative I have ever seen. Once AWHQ began bringing headliners through town those bands wanted to play here again, and again, onwardly. Ask Van Morrison. There was palpable excitement at shows all over town, and the focus was on the stage and the music. People paid attention to the music. They didn’t blabber loudly all night while sticking their “devices” up in everyone’s face to get the all-important selfie.

    Rents in this neighborhood now run at least $3500/month, if you can find something that cheap, and no landlord is going to rent to a handful of artists. Traffic is among the worst in the nation, and there is almost nowhere to park. Fuel and food are quite expensive. (We can ignore the presently low cost of gas. It will not last.)

    Meanwhile, musician’s wages relative to cost of living here have plummeted over the years. During the late 1970’s I paid $75/musician for a 45 min. opening set at AWHQ. A few years ago I was riding with one of the best keyboard players in the world to his Monday night house band gig at Antone’s, where he would play for three hours with other pickers of the same stellar quality. I asked him what he would get paid for that. $75 .

    You do the arithmetic…

    Touted as a musical Mecca, Austin became a magnet for every starry-eyed picker in the land. Wanting in on the action without having to pay performers, too many places began to offer live music on dead terms. Eight years ago I was walking toward the front door of Kerbey Lane Cafe on S. Lamar for a Sunday brunch with pals. As we passed a group of folks just leaving the restaurant I overheard a woman say to her male companion, “I swear to God you can’t even go out for breakfast in this goddamn town without some singer-songwriter acting like you owe them money”. She is not alone in that feeling. How sweet is that? Too much of a mediocre thing is not the jewel in a city’s crown.

    Today musicians play all over town, mostly for tips, and those who can build a name big enough to get to Europe, Japan, etc., make their living touring away from “Festival City”, soon to become “The National Parking Lot”. People for the most part no longer care about the music. It’s all about being seen in the scene in one’s fancy clothes. The scene at large no longer cares about the local music. Development is steadily and now rapidly destroying venues. An iconic venue recently experienced a lease increase of greater than 500% for a short-term renewal.

    The city administration in the 1980’s embodied an “if we don’t build it they won’t come” philosophy. As a result transportation infrastructure is about like the whip and buggy days relative to what might have been, had any foresight been invoked. The invasion of tech and high paying jobs has skewed the cost of living enough to begin driving artists to other cities. There is nowhere to live, nowhere to park, no way to eat when playing for tips in “the Live Music Capitol of the World”. Redd Volkaert calls Austin “the Free Music Capitol of the World”.

    For the last twenty-five years city admin has embraced the big festivals, subsidizing events with money Austin residents paid in taxes. Meanwhile, property taxes are driving what once were middle-class folks to move elsewhere. The Austin music scene, and with it the rest of the arts creating anything beyond expensive work affordable by those with fat paychecks, would be on life support, except there is no such thing here.

    If you are enamored with the polish on this turd, understand the stink just under its surface. Poke even lightly and you’ll need to go wash your finger.

    Still, throughout the city, musicians and their supporters, including keen business supporters like Kevin Wommack and his team at Playing in Traffic Records and Loophole Management, Jenny Finlay, and others, work their butts off helping musicians try to build real careers. A handful of venue operators have found ways to survive, though significant challenges loom for all of them. Even where the venue operator owns the property, taxes threaten survival. Artists here support each other more powerfully than I have seen elsewhere, and that camaraderie in now the real strength of the music scene in Austin.

    You don’t build a scene like this. If conditions are right, a scene will develop, and you then might do well to take a long term view, and figure out how to nurture it such that it will endure. Development and “progress” are now crushing Austin, Texas. From within that scene, the big picture is not lovely.

    Onward, through the Fog! (Oat Willie’s mayoral campaign slogan)

    Hank Alrich

  3. Bret Branon

    Dear Other Cities,
    You do Not want to build an Austin Music scene. Please build it better than we have. You guys should book Jennifer Houlihan from Austin Music People to come take y’all to school.

    A. Start by reading our Austin Music Census from last year if you want some background about how awesome it is to do music in this town.

    B. Don’t let your knucklehead Mayor waste all of his time trying to kick Uber/Lyft out of town.

    C. Tacos is a solid step in the right direction though.


    p.s. 3 billion in Memphis? Dude yer high. Have you driven through that shithole of a cliffside truckstop lately? 116,000 music jobs? Bro only like 700k live there. Every seventh person? Really? Stop.
    p.s.s. I thought we were sister cities now or somesuch with Toronto too, or something. Not even a Christmas card.

  4. Roots Music Report

    Texas radio stations play Texas artists. Nearly every other state ignores their local talent.
    The State of Texas has a Texas Music Office run by the state. Most states do not.
    These are two of the major reasons Austin and Texas has such a vibrant music scene.


      I think you have that exactly backwards. Because Austin became a scene the state came up with the Music Office. Some Texas radio stations play Texas artists, but like elsewhere, consolidation of broadcast venues under the Clear Channel flag means most major major market stations play the same material that is being spun elsewhere in the nation. It’s not all KGSR, Sun Radio, KNON, etc. There is definitely a country radio scene and associated regional touring circuit.

      As for vibrancy, that all depends on one’s perspective. The scene is musically vibrant, less so economically for the majority of professional musicians calling Austin their home.