By Michael Corcoran
The live music venues. That’s the key component to the whole thing. Musicians need audiences and whatever money they can get. But running a live music club in Austin doesn’t make financial sense. Everybody wants to be on the guest list and hosting bands is expensive, with the extra equipment and personnel it takes for sound, security, load-in, etc. The acts don’t make much money because there’s just not much to divvy up.
When the clubs aren’t healthy, the scene loses vitality. All those festivals that come through town are a good excuse to people-watch and get drunk and to have something to talk about later. And they bring in tons of cashola. But the strength of the local music scene is in the acts who live here because there are a lot of places to play.
In Nashville, many bars and restaurants that host live music have a line on the credit card receipt where you can leave a tip for the musicians. But in Austin, where live music is a quality of life issue, the singers and players have to fend for themselves.
As Austin is becoming more like Dallas and Houston, which both had to wait for their own Uchis (“eat our sushi, Dallas!”), the one thing that distinguishes the Texas capital as a model of good living is the live music scene. No city in Texas comes close to the talent level and the audience astuteness. You hear boosters from Houston and Big D tout their better scenes and you wonder if next they’re going to try and convince you that being murdered is better than dying in your sleep. Compared to Austin, those are ghost towns, aside from a few pockets like the Kessler Theater in Dallas.
I was in Dallas this past weekend and had a terrific time being shown the new Oak Cliff by Mr. Dallas Himself, Robert Wilonsky of the Morning News. The transformation is even more impressive than our Eastside Sixth. We ended up at the Belmont Hotel, which is like the San Jose with a spectacular city view from a DC-9 at night. God, the women were gorgeous and bold, and Marc Solomon’s band and was playing and Tommy Stinson of the Replacements was sitting in. He used to be in a band with Solomon called Perfect, so Tommy got up and did a few old and new songs. And I realized from the reaction of the crowd that maybe three people out of 100 had even heard of Tommy Stinson. If a Replacement joined an Austin band onstage there’d be people in the audience who’d been asleep 15 minutes earlier, when they got a phone call to get their ass down to the club. Finally, after the word got around that Stinson was with Guns N’ Roses, the gig that brought him to Dallas, there was a little more of a roar, but, really, no clue. Music is just background up there.
It reminded me of when I lived in Dallas and made the trip to Austin to hear Oasis again in front of a crowd that wasn’t just looking around, trying to get laid. Will give Dallas and Houston major props for their rich musical history. Austin’s heyday didn’t start until kids from Houston and Dallas started moving here in the ’60s to keep from getting their asses kicked for having hair like girls. But, as corny as it sounds, music is a way of life in Austin. There’s more respect for people putting their hearts and souls into songs. But not from the city. Austin bows to the beat of real estate and, as we’ve said earlier, a live music venue is, financially, the dumbest use of downtown spaces. The only true motivation for opening a live music venue is because you have a passion for the music and the other people who love it.
I grew up in Honolulu, which had as weak a live original music scene as Seguin (which can at least boast Ricky Broussard). But I got my first crazy exposure to live rock bands there in the clubs of Waikiki in the ’70s. Disco was king and the clubs were all getting rid of live music and piping in “The Hustle.” So what the city did was come up with a special “cabaret license,” which allowed a club to stay open and serve alcohol until 4 a.m. if it hosted live music at least past midnight. Closing time everywhere else was 2 a.m. So bands had places to play, even if it was just at gay bars that wanted an excuse to pump Donna Summer til 4.
If Honolulu can do something that helps bands, why can’t the live music capital of Travis County? There’s been talk of giving tax breaks to live music venues. Please, pass that, wherever it stands! When a great club closes, it’s much bigger news than a high tech company moving to North Carolina for better incentives. Yet Austin clubs get no sweetheart deals. They get the TABC and parking tickets.
This beautiful thing we’ve got going on in Austin could go away. The city of Austin has to be more proactive in helping the clubs that book bands when they could be making more money with jello shots and techno and the San Antonio Spurs on a dozen big TVs.
Sometimes city money goes to the wrong people. I’m not in favor of musicians- or those claiming to be- getting special treatment when it comes to affordable housing or all that. But we know which clubs are keeping the Austin music scene thriving. Elected officials should start thinking about those clubs as the cultural treasures they are and do whatever it takes to keep them strong. South By Southwest became an international sensation living in the house of cards that’s the live music clubs. There’s a lot riding on those boxes of sound.
Angus WynneJune 5, 2013
Corky, along with Marc Solomon, the singer you mention here–the gorgeous Amy Curnow of Charming Gardeners–is a friend of Tommy Stinson, who decided only the day before to join them for a set at the Belmont. The band ran a Facebook announcement for their friends, but that was about the extent of the publicity and probably why he didn’t hit the Austin mark of a lightning storm of cellphone cameras you lament. Tommy had also played an entire solo set and more to an enthusiastic crowd before you and Robert showed up. The Belmont isn’t a full-time club, either, so its comparison to more serious music venues isn’t really a fair one.
Dallas has a very healthy club scene and I’m not sure that a cursory look at one casual patio party tells the tale. Come back any time and do some real exploring and I think you’ll find plenty of music–and scenes–that you’ll like. I certainly agree that they’re cultural treasures no matter where they are.
Get Out MoreJune 6, 2013
Huh. That 4 AM rule sounds pretty good for Austin, as good as the tax rule and you’re not playing favorites with Taxes.
Pat CosJune 6, 2013
Right on, Corky! I wish we could get every member of the city council, the county commissioners, the police chief–every mover and shaker in this town who can actually do something to give the music scene a boost–to read this and act. Your point that “music is a way of life in Austin” says it all. I’ve been here since 1977 when I moved from Corpus Christi, a musical wasteland except for conjunto and Selena’s legacy, to go to UT. For all these years, Austin music has been central to my life–I can’t imagine what I would have done without it. So thanks for speaking out on behalf of all the talented folks who call Austin home. I hope there are people out there listening.
Guy SchwartzJune 11, 2013
You are well on the mark, Michael, but I disagree with a few small points (large for me, but, small regarding the point and purpose of your essay).
Houston has more musicians AND more venues serving up live music. Most of them (outside the loop) pay more money, too! Unfortunately, you are TOO correct about the astuteness of the Austin audiences, and the high calibre of the average Austin musician playing in the clubs. I love playing there with my Austin Friends, for the Austin audiences, even when the gig doesn’t pay enough for the gas from Houston. Thanks for all you have done for the music for decades now.
NOLAmotionJune 11, 2013
“Ask New Orleans, which is in the midst of a karaoke craze”?? Karaoke has been here since the 80s and never rose to the level of a “craze.” The ratio of hours of live music to karaoke in NOLA is increasingly tipping in favor of the former. Music blooms all year in Louisiana; and musicians, tired of starving in less-interesting locales, flock to the planet’s most fertile wellspring, estuary and magnet for talented, culturally and artistically profound music. Our live music scene is growing, spilling out onto the streets, and taking place at all hours and in more places than you ever imagined.
Per ratio of population, the number of musicians and venues, and subsequent number of hours of live music performances, make New Orleans the actual Live Music Capital of the World, but our tourism folks missed the chance to own that phrase; and since y’all claim it, it’s up to y’all to prove it. We’re only now beginning to see a little political muscle in our music scene, though, and taxed live music for decades, ending the practice a few years into this century. So, we understand your plea for help and support. But please, don’t drag us into this with such a poorly researched and downright absurd statement.
Your lack of diplomacy and accuracy aside, I feel safe declaring that NOLA loves Austin and vice-versa. We’re here to help if we can. But you’re plea needs tweaking. Good luck!
gordoOctober 7, 2014
you have several things going against you-location,location,location.Austin has a big time pedigree. So that fact alone is enough to put it in the -out of reach- category financially.For most.Try a venue in a nearby suburb.Even better try a location that’s multi-functional.An old Drive In theatre makes an excellent venue.You can still show movies,have garage sales,paint ball wars,then throw up a bandstand and do outdoor shows or at some point get a big tent second hand and rent it out for revivals .you can still have shows in the rain.
Michele 'Mike' MurphyOctober 7, 2014
Trying to resuscitate a corpse, maybe.
joe finkJune 2, 2015
Dear People: When i was a young man we had dance halls, and also nightclubs in Spain…
Take your girl dancing or see a favorite band from 6pm till midnight…Then go home get changed, dress up and take your girl to a nightclub where you stayed out all night till the break of dawnn around 6am and also watch the sun come up together…