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.