Clubs by Michael Corcoran, Musicians by Chris Riemenschneider, Additional writing by Don McLeese
Published in Austin American-Statesman October 17, 1996
Sometimes it’s still like it was Friday night at Liberty Lunch. About 500 people have paid $7 to see two local bands and as the couples break off into little dance circles during 8 1/2 Souvenirs, then push up front to yell the words to all the old songs by Shoulders, owner Mark Pratz beams.“Five hundred people and they’re all adults — I’m in heaven!” he said. Bar sales would be brisk. Liberty Lunch would make money on a show it didn’t have to gamble on, for a change.
In recent months, though, the venerable and beloved Lunch has been having more of the other kind of night. This is the one where a slew of local bands play to crowds barely large enough to span the front of the stage, or even worse, when the same barren stretch greets a national act with a tour bus chugging in the alley and a clump of surly English roadies to pay.
On those nights when Pratz sits lonely by the cash register, he thinks about ways to get new Austinites to his club. He thinks about all the competition in town, with the high ticket shows at the Austin Music Hall, the Backyard and Southpark Meadows, and he wonders how he could afford to stay in business if his rent increases 33 percent again when his lease is up in a few years. He daydreams about opening a 3,500-capacity venue so he could offer more of the recognizable acts that draw the entertainment dollars from North and West Austin. Then he splits up the door and sends his local bands home with enough money for a late night lament at Taco Cabana.
Such is the plight, the blues in the night, of the fading tradition known as Austin music. It’s like your mother is Billie Holiday and your father is John Coltrane, but they’re both dead and they didn’t leave you anything. The Austin club scene has long been the lifeblood of local music, but as rents go up and the priorities of music fans shift, the carefree Austin shuffle has slowed to a dirge that muffles the economic boom’s echo.
“The people who grew up on Liberty Lunch and Antone’s have gotten married and settled down. And nobody’s taken their place,” said Louis Meyers, who books Antone’s and used to book the Lunch. “People aren’t moving to Austin for the music scene. They’re coming here for jobs.”
Meanwhile, those who do still live the club life have more choices than ever before. “We’re proud of our clubs here,” said Mike Mordecai,who books several nightspots, including La Zona Rosa, “but the truth may be that we have too many.”
Too many clubs? In Austin? That’s a little like the pope complaining about too many Catholics in Rome. But then, there’s only one pope and he never had to depend on Storyville to pay the electric bill.
Among those who don’t know how to pronounce “Roky” and who think Liberty Lunch is slang for a free meal, Austin is state politics, the Longhorns and the killer B’s — Barton Springs, barbecue and bock beer. For the world at large, however, music is Austin’s claim to fame. It’s the sound that makes the town.
But as the metropolis sprouts with more people, who have more money in their pockets, the local original music scene has been bypassed as if the new prosperity was zooming by on an overhead freeway. With higher-paying jobs pushing rents through the skylights and displacing the lower income bohemian types who thrive on local bands (and vice versa), musicians are either moving away or working harder than ever to live at the subsistence level. The new stock insult advice to musicians in Austin is “Don’t quit your two day jobs.”
One might think that a surging Austin economy would benefit the music scene. The flaw in the trickle down theory is that most of the upwardly mobile newcomers seem more interested in karaoke bars, meet markets, strip joints or ‘Net surfing than immersing themselves in the nightlife that is uniquely Austin’s. But then, with a few exceptions — from Christopher Cross and Eric Johnson to the alternative mainstreaming of the Butthole Surfers — local acts have generally been ignored by the masses.It’s just that the snubs were easier (and cheaper) to live with before the mainstream moved to town.
Jess Blackburn, a spokesperson for IBM, which recently transferred nearly 700 people to the area from Boca Raton, Fla., said his company does tout the Austin music scene as an incentive for moving to the area, just as it does area restaurants, theater and lakes.
How big of a factor (music) plays in their decision to move here is questionable because it usually just comes down to economic reasons,” Blackburn said. He added that the IBM Club — sort of a social sign-up group at the company — frequently organizes trips to concerts. He conceded, though, they’re usually for touring shows at the Erwin Center or Southpark Meadows.
“I’m sure a lot of the younger, single employees who have relocated here — maybe a lot of the programmers — might go to places like (Antone’s) on their nights off,” he said.
Phil Brewer, executive director of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, said his organization also promotes Austin music to visitors and newcomers and he believes many of the residents up there are aware of its unique qualities. He just didn’t know how often Round Rock residents make the trek to downtown Austin for music. “It’s really not that long of a drive, but if you have to drive it in rush hour every day, then it is,” Brewer said.
Haven of creativity
Since the early ’70s, when Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker made Austin an outlaw outpost, the city has been a haven of creativity and civility in the middle of Texas, hospitable to cosmic cowboys, bluesbusters and punk rockers alike. Its musical dynamic has flourished through a confluence of conducive circumstances: cheap rents, supportive audiences, a healthy club circuit and an ever-expanding pool of talent. Austin has been seen as that special place that pumps with a backbeat heart and bends for the sake of the song.
Every March, Austin hosts South by Southwest, a musical Utopia attracting a growing number of annual conventioneers, who witness magical sets, stoked by a population of Austinites who know their music like they know their migas. Meanwhile, dozens of Austin-based touring acts serve as musical ambassadors across the globe, giving Austin an almost mythical reputation as the city where “real music,” the kind played for the sheer passion of it, reigns supreme. Where other cities have statues of generals and statesmen, Austin has Stevie Ray.
Little wonder, then, that musicians and fans from all over the country, and the world, have long considered Austin the promised land. At this pivotal period of Austin’s development, the question is whether that promise can grow as the city does, or whether the Austin boom spells its doom as a music mecca.
As the rents in Austin have skyrocketed almost 80 percent since 1988, so has the cost of living the musician’s life. Restaurant jobs are always available, but most offer night work, when musicians need to play gigs. While an estimated 137,000 new jobs have been created in Austin over the past five years, according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, a majority of them have been high-tech, and many of them have been taken by the more than 60,000 people who have moved into the city limits during that time.
The capital city may be enjoying prosperity as a vortex of the high-tech industry, after years of tax incentives and other seductions, but little of the fruits have reached the deli tray of a music scene that was previously one of the city’s major draws. For musicians, the cost of equipment, rehearsal space, sound technicians, recording and rent have all risen, while the money that most can make on the local club circuit is bottoming out.
“I certainly haven’t noticed any club paying more,” said Mandon Maloney, a member of the hard rock outfit Wookie, which has usually played three or four shows a month for about three years. “You’re lucky to even get a free beer these days.”
It’s not that the clubs are necessarily enriching themselves at the musicians’ expense. According to recent bar receipts tabulated by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the swanky jazz hotspot Cedar Street is the only live music venue in the Top 10. Other success stories are the Continental Club, which has been selling upwards of $60,000 in alcohol per month partly because of wildly successful happy hour shows that appeal to the early-rising, straight-job crowd and Pearl’s Oyster Bar, one of the few live music venues north of Koenig Lane. Meanwhile, such noted nightclubs as Antone’s, the Back Room, the Hole in the Wall, Steamboat, Emo’s and the Electric Lounge don’t even crack Austin’s top 50.
Live music venues are generally still charging ’80’s prices because “one thing we learned off the bat is that you don’t raise your beer prices in Austin,” said Jay Hughey, co-owner of the Electric Lounge. Eric Hartman of Emo’s said some of his customers are still grumbling over the $2 cover charge he implemented about 18 months ago. “It cost $18 to see Beck at the Music Hall and everyone went, but a lot of people don’t want to pay $2 to see a band that they don’t hear on the radio or see on MTV.”
Mike Crowley, manager for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Monte Warden and Dale Watson, said that many of the veteran musicians who have long been Austin standard-bearers are getting hit hard by the changes. “It’s like you’re old furniture and everybody wants to look over you to see who’s coming to town next,” Crowley said.
While competition keeps cover charges low and spreads a finite number of live music fans across dozens of venues all over town, rising costs put the squeeze on clubs’ precarious profit margins. “This is the worst shape I’ve seen the local music scene in since I started in the club business in the ’70s,” Steamboat owner Danny Crooks said. “Steamboat grosses $40,000 a month. It always has. But beer prices keep going up. Shiner Bock just raised their price to $17.50 a case, and it was only $7 a case a few years ago. Advertising costs go up. The cost of doing business keeps going up.” Crooks said that whatever the club takes in is eaten up by expenses.
Another escalating cost is the money paid to touring acts. Said Cactus Cafe manager Griff Luneburg, “We used to have our own niche, singer-songwriters, but now you’ve got clubs like Stubb’s, La Zona Rosa and Saxon Pub booking some of the same acts. Usually, the acts go to the highest bidder, which drives costs up all the way around. It used to be that you could fill your club three or four nights a week with local talent, but these days you live and die by the roadshow.”
Meanwhile, many club owners report that their customers are spending less money at the bar. “Storyville always packs the place,” Meyers said, “but where their average bar business was about $6,000 a year ago, it’s dropped down to about $4,000 a night.”
Another big concern among longtime clubowners, is the recent 3,000-capacity additions of the Austin Music Hall and the Backyard, both owned and operated by Direct Events. These venues typically host touring headliners who draw huge audiences (and their entertainment budgets) away from clubs that book local or lesser-known national acts.
“What’s happened is that because of its growth Austin has become an `A’ market, and we’re getting more national acts through than ever before,” said Tim Neece, who manages the Music Hall and the Backyard. But after a near-disastrous summer season at Southpark Meadows, where only the H.O.R.D.E. festival and Jimmy Buffett topped 18,000 ticketholders, the big name caravan is expected to approach cautiously next year.
“Austin has gotten closer to the threshold of what it can support,” Neece said. Such underattended shows as Hootie and the Blowfish, Def Leppard and Sting not only caused Houston-based Pace Concerts (which books Southpark) to lose tons of money, but they sucked away dollars that might’ve been disposed at the doors and bars of Austin clubs.
“The problem is the concert business is hurting all over the country, and the agents and the managers are all looking at Austin now as a major market opening up,” Crowley said. “(Austin artists) have to compete with Jimmy Buffett and Neil Diamond now, and not each other.”
Luneberg said the influx of more touring shows has hurt the club scene, but he also attributes the current club slump to what he terms “a vicious cycle.”
“Some local bands play too often,” he said. “It’s out of necessity, because they’ve gotta pay the rent, but the more you play, the less you make.”
Meyers agrees. “The local acts that do draw spend most of their time on the road,” he said. As for the ones who can make a living on the hometown circuit: “It’s the same as it always was: 10 percent of the bands make 90 percent of the money.”
Clubs have to fill their stages with someone every night, which means that they either book the same bands over and over or hand their mikes to green groups who should be woodshedding instead of showcasing. Either scenario makes for a lackluster scene.
“People aren’t going to the clubs like they used to, and that’s partly because the music’s getting stale,” Crooks said. “There’s nothing new out there that’s grabbin’ me.”
Ironically, in a town renowned for its support of original artistry, some musicians have been paying their bills by forming Neil Diamond or Jimmy Buffett cover bands or working up Beatles tunes to play at deb parties. Even Superego frontman Paul Minor, organizer of the Hole in the Wall’s weekly Rock ‘n’ Roll Free-for-All, a cutting edge showcase of new, original talent in town, makes most of his money in a longtime cover band called the Argyles. The group plays everything from “Pretty Woman” to “Girl From Ipanema” at everywhere from country clubs to Christmas parties for the president of the State Bar of Texas.
“I make more money (in the Argyles) than I do at my full-time state job,” said Minor, who also works 40 hours a week at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He said that all this side activity is just part of the dues you have to pay for the privilege of playing original music in Austin.
“Anybody who doesn’t have a fulltime job shouldn’t be in a band,“ he continued.
“I work hard,” said Guy Forsyth, who makes a fulltime living at his music, fronting both the Asylum Street Spankers and his own blues band. “I’ve poured concrete, I’ve been a stuntman, I’ve done a lot of hard jobs, but none is as hard as being a musician. Of course, I enjoy it, so that makes it easier, and I’ve been lucky enough to have two bands that people seem to like to hear. But I worked hard to try to put on a good show and have people come out and hear those bands.”
Signs say ‘Keep Away’
Austin’s rising costs and diminishing returns aren’t just hurting musicians who live here, they’re stifling the scene by keeping away musicians who have considered moving to Austin or who had a brief foray here, but left after seeing how expensive and low-paying this music community can be.
Venerable country-folk singer Lucinda Williams, for instance, was an Austin resident through the late ’80s and early ’90s before moving to Nashville about two years ago to work on a still-uncompleted album. Just this year, she thought about moving back permanently and began looking for a house in Austin. Her acting manager (and bass player) Dr. John Ciambotti said when she added up the math and the hassles, though, Williams figured it would just be easier and more economical to stay in Nashville.
Mary Cutrufello, until recently Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s guitarist and a solo artist who just released her debut CD, lived in Austin for about a year before moving back to Houston two years ago. While she said many other reasons factored into her choice to leave Austin, money was one of them.
“I don’t work in just Austin or Houston; I work the triangle between here, there and Dallas, so I could live anywhere, it’s the same distance to work,” Cutrufello said. “But it’s impossible to make a living at it and live in Austin. I guess some people can do it, but there aren’t many. The problem is, there’s too many trying to do it, and too many not trying hard enough.”
Another group Austin lost to cost is Ed Hall, whose bassist Larry Strub cited high rents in Austin for his decision to take a teaching job in Taiwan. While musicians in Austin have always had to work straight jobs until they joined the select few who can make it on music alone, these days the “select few” is even fewer. Even local musicians with major-label deals punch the clock: A member of Fastball manages a bagel shop, one of Sixteen Deluxe’s founders works at Wheatsville Co-op and top local producer John Croslin clerks at Half Price Books.
Wookie’s Maloney has a job at Emerald Point Marina on Lake Travis, and the rest of his bandmates have fulltime jobs — at a state agency and a nursery to name two. While he said they are among the lucky to not have suffered dramatic rent increases, just keeping up with the cost of living in Austin — which has become the highest in the state, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association — is difficult enough.
“We’re all working 40 hours a week and still having a hard time,” he said. “It’s hard just to find time to practice, when we can all get together.”
The ideal way for bands to practice as much as possible and to cultivate the all-for-one camaraderie is to live together in a big house, which is what three of the four members of AMANSET (American Analog Set) have been doing since this summer, when they moved from Arlington into a three-bedroom house near Burnet Road and Koenig. It was supposed to be the place where they created music, a haven for spur-of-the-moment songwriting and inspired jams. AMANSET bassist Lee Gillespie worked and savedfor several months to afford the rent and to finally move down to Austin to join the rest of the band.
“I was really excited,” Gillespie said. “The house was something we really wanted. We really thought it was the perfect place for the band to play and move ahead, you know, in Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World. … We kind of got let down hard.”
After the band had practiced a couple of times, the neighbors complained. Looking for a more soundproof spot, they moved all their equipment from the living room to singer Andrew Kenny’s bedroom, where things became so crowded the only way to get from one side to another was to crawl over the bed. The neighbors complained again, this time prompting the landlord to threaten eviction.
Sure, no one wants to go to bed hearing the sounds of someone tuning a Les Paul at 2,000 watts down the street. But when bands like Ed Hall or Agony Column were happily blaring music at home seven or eight years ago, they were known — often glorified — as the loudest bands in town. These days, American Analog Set is known as the quietest in town, a band that (like Bedhead or Low) thrives on stillness. They don’t even play live very often because the bar noise drowns them out.
“It’s definitely a sign of the times,” said Josh Robertson of Trance Syndicate, the Austin-based label that has released albums by AMANSET and Ed Hall. “(AMANSET) had a hard time finding a house, a hard time paying for it. And now, they can’t even play music in it — their music.”
Gillespie has had trouble even finding a job since moving to town. He got so desperate, he said, he signed on at 7-Eleven, only to lose the job after a week and a half because he had to leave town for a couple of days because of a personal emergency. You can be sure that no touring musicians have jobs at 7-Eleven.
“I obviously wasn’t too upset about losing a job at 7-Eleven, but now I’m so in debt, I’m panicking,” Gillespie said, noting Blockbuster Video has since turned him down, too. An estimated 40 percent of Austin’s workers are underemployed (stuck in jobs considered below their education level), according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and you can be sure that many are musicians.
Ken Miller, a supervisor at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where dozens of musicians are working now or have in the past, said the school has a dilemma when it hires a musician who may have to take a day off for band practice or a week or two off to tour.
“They bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm in, and that’s especially vital when you’re working with kids with special needs,” Miller said. “But no employer wants their employees to have to take a lot of time off, and we certainly don’t, because anything that upsets the routine can upset the children. … We’re usually real supportive when someone’s band has some big show coming up, or we really root them on when their record comes out. But that usually means they’re not working for us anymore.”
Not Worth It Anymore
Robert Harrison, singer for the once commercially promising pop group Cotton Mather, has adapted a practical attitude after pushing his band for almost 10 years: He’s more or less given up on regularly performing live. “For us, its like this big debacle to get on stage, and it’s just not worth it anymore,” Harrison said. “We go out, and we see the same 30 faces we saw at the last show, the same 30 faces we always play to, and we’re happy they’re there, of course, but it loses its charm.”
Harrison, whose job at Ginny’s Copies helps feed his vintage guitar habit, can see the current slump in a positive light, however. “Good musicians don’t run when things get tough. Musicians are at their best when they’re being challenged. Maybe it will force some of us to be more resourceful.”
Amid the current disparity between Austin’s economic boom and the financial hardships facing the local music scene, some clubowners also are pondering how best to face the future.
“Eddie Wilson did it the right way with his Threadgill’s World Headquarters (a restaurant soon to open on Barton Springs Road),” said Liberty Lunch’s Pratz. “First he went out and lined up the investors, then he started building. That’s the way you’ve gotta do it today: Get the money first, because you can’t assume that it’ll come later.”
Luneberg sees the future of Austin music heading north. If Austin’s new citizens with good jobs aren’t coming to see local music, bring the music to them. “If I was going to open a new club,” he said, as the sounds of touted Trish Murphy rang out through a near-empty Cactus on a recent Wednesday night, “I’d open it out by the Arboretum.”
Top-selling bars for July 1996
Topless bars fill four slots on the TABC’s July rankings of the Top 10 selling bars in Austin. After Cedar Street (No. 4), the highest-ranking club that hosts live original music is Tejano Ranch at No. 35.
2.|Chuy’s Hula Hut^$210,127
6.|Joy of Austin^$147,203
7.|The Oasis Cantina^$145,283
10.|Oil Can Harry’s^$130,135
Live original music clubs:
53.|Pearl’s Oyster Bar^$58,888
69.|The Back Room^$51,095)
94.|Hole In the Wall^$42,059
117.|La Zona Rosa^$35,164