Anyone who has visited Austin's South By Southwest music festival more than once over the last decade has noticed a huge evolution in Austin's music scene. Most of Austin's longtime music lovers repeat the same cry year after year -- that this one is always worse than the last.
This week's Observer cover story touches on that subject matter. It comes to us by way of longtime staff writer John Nova Lomax, over at our sister paper, the Houston Press, who contends that gentrification is destroying Austin's weirdness as well as its music scene.
He's got a point: The organic beginnings of SXSW have now been replaced with corporate sponsors that stretch as far as the eye can see.
We here at DC9 have long thought that the city would eventually reach a point of backlash, and the cover story sparked yet another conversation on the subject.
What follows is a round-table discussion held between music editor Pete Freedman, web editor Nick Rallo, and Yours Truly. Feel free to chime in with your own comments, too.
Daniel: To start off this discussion, what do you guys think of the Austin music scene in general? I think there's a lot of irony in that they consider themselves the Live Music Capital of the World, but there don't seem to be very many notable bands making any kind of a splash these days.
Nick: I'm not sure. There's a lot of music blog feedback for a range of Austin bands like The Sword and Brazos, and it's hard to look on any music-related site these days and not see Okkervil's new album. I think the scene brings people in. At a recent show, Joe Pug said he'd moved to Austin. That said, I'm not sure Austin is the "live music capital of the world." They certainly are the SXSW capital of the world.
Daniel: That's true. There are a handful acts coming out of Austin. Black Angels and And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have had impressive careers as well, thanks in part to the exposure they've gotten from SXSW. But taking into account just how massive SXSW has become and how saturated with music the city is, there are a relatively low amount of acts breaking through. Do you guys think that people who move to Austin for the so-called vibrant music scene are disappointed by this?
Nick: It would make sense. Maybe it's like film students gravitating to Hollywood. Filmmakers go hoping to have their voice heard, and all then get smashed by the business of The Smurfs and Mr. Popper's Penguins. Or maybe I'm just a bitter film major. At SXSW 2010, I talked briefly with a few bands at an Aquarium Drunkard showcase -- they seemed happy to be coming through a town buzzing with music. So there's that. But I imagine it'd be intimidating to live there as a musician.
Pete: Naw, man. No way is Austin an intimidating town to be a musician in. Wholeheartedly disagree with you on that, Nick. Not in a town where everyone "loves music" and takes pride in being "so supportive." Ugh. From where I stand, Austin's supposed greatest music strength -- that music is everywhere -- is also its greatest weakness. Because there are so many venues, because there are so many people whose identities revolve around the fact that they "love music," and because the town's just a magnet for wannabe blog darlings, the music scene as a whole actually suffers. You've got shitty band after shitty band with followings. You've got venues clamoring for any of them to come in, play and round out a bill. It's probably the least intimidating music town that I can think of, in that regard; they want you to form a band. The flip side of all this, of course, is that so many people do. And, in turn, you've talentless hack after talentless hack trying his hand at making it in the scene. I've been saying it for years: Sure, Austin has some great bands; but can you name another city with a greater volume of completely terrible ones?
Nick: Nashville -- isn't that where Kings of Leon is from? OK, maybe just Kings of Leon are the terrible ones.
Pete: I'm not even talking about shitty big bands, actually, but the ones that are struggling to "make it." It's got to be annoying, right? I mean, there's a reason why Spoon moved to Portland. Is that not the whole point of this discussion? That Austin's reached its point of saturation?
Daniel: Yeah, Pete, I think that's what Lomax is getting at with his story. Essentially, he says everything that made Austin a great destination for music and culture disappeared in the '80s. But even still, bands continue to flock there. Nick, I agree with your assertion that Austin's music scene is a lot like Hollywood and film. And yes, I do think it's intimidating for bands starting out there. Trying to elbow your way through the muck and into the spotlight is an exhausting prospect for most new bands. But once your there, your there. I mean, Trail of Dead is still doing really well, and when's the last time they put out a good record? Over a decade ago.
Nick: The saturation level thing makes sense, and (I think) is in the vein of what Lomax is talking about. It's super easy to have a concrete perception of what a city is (especially when you're a young asshole), and gravitate towards that city because of it. Austin is perceived as a music-centric city. Bands are going to go, and probably get more attention there -- at least, in comparison to, say, living in Destin, Florida. Maybe we'll be having this same discussion about Portland in two years. Or wherever there's a high frequency of bushy beards and a shortage of American Spirits.
Pete: It's the age-old hipster conundrum, though, isn't it? Once you know something's cool, then, inherently, it no longer can be cool. Let's get down to brass tacks here, though: Who are the great Austin bands at the moment? Black Angels, The Sword and White Denim, for sure. Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears, too. I guess you could argue for Ghostland Observatory (I won't). Octopus Project, with their "hexadecagon" live show, is pretty damn impressive. Okkervil River is pretty great, although I wasn't really in love with their new disc. Same goes for Explosions in the Sky. And I still like Trail of Dead; I could listen to "Another Morning Stoner" on repeat for another 10 years. Anyway, that's nine names that I could theoretically get behind. I'm probably forgetting some others. But is nine that impressive a figure? Not sure. Wait: Do Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston still count?
Daniel: The argument is that once a place is cool, uncool people take notice and move in. Eventually all the original cool people get the hell out of there, leaving behind a bunch of uncool people who wonder how the rent got so high. Austin isn't quite there yet. People are still hanging around hoping that the uncool people with go away, which explains the nine good Austin bands you just listed, Pete. I'm not so sure it's all that impressive, though. The ratio of good bands to total bands in Austin has to be way smaller than it is in most other major cities -- Dallas included, don't you think?
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Pete: That's exactly the point I was trying to make with the shitty band argument earlier. To answer your question: No, there isn't another city with more shitty bands than the Live Music Capital of the World. I guess you reap what you sow.
Nick: Daniel, that's a solid point. But the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan is going to hit you with thick chains in the middle of the night.
Daniel: Nick, I would be scared of a late night Vaughan attack, except that Stevie Ray is from Oak Cliff, which is mentioned in the story. Anyway, do you think that North Texas will eventually benefit from Austin's unwelcome growth?
Pete: I think it's already starting to, in some ways. How many articles have we seen about Denton being "the new Austin" or whatever? Clearly, people are looking for a new hub for Texas music. And, apologies to Houston and their kickass Free Press Music Fest, most people are looking north. Listen: We've got a lot going for us up here. There are tons of venues in all three of our pivotal music cities (Dallas, Denton, Fort Worth), which all run the gamut from corporate and state-of-the-art to the somewhat classic, if also played out, dingy nightclubs. We've got DIY spaces, too, with 1919 Hemphill and the Phoenix Project, in addition to some house venues. And we've got big names to call our own, too: Erykah Badu, The Polyphonic Spree/Preteen Zenith, Neon Indian, St. Vincent, John Congleton, Old 97's, the Toadies and even Sarah Jaffe -- not to mention some seriously solid up-and-comers like Telegraph Canyon, The Orbans and True Widow, the last of which just wrapped up a tour of the East Coast with Surfer Blood and Trail of Dead. More important, though, is the fact that we've got gumption here. The folks behind the 35 Conferette should be lauded for their efforts. Same with the crew behind the Homegrown Festival. Each of these festivals are growing, and people are starting to take notice. Really: A few weeks back, I was talking with the Black Angels' Alex Maas after his band's show at The Loft, and he told me that he and his band were considering even moving their annual Psych Fest out of Austin and up to Dallas. I'm not saying it's gonna happen -- I'd place money against it, were I a betting man -- but the fact that he even mentioned as much is a sure sign that, as Austin's dipping, North Texas is rising. Same goes for the fact that the Electric Daisy Carnival chose to take place here rather than in Austin. These are all positives. Let's just be careful not to put the cart before the horse here. North Texas is in an adolescent stage at best right now. From my standpoint, I don't want it to grow up to be the next Austin. We're seeing right now how that story ends. And, clearly, I'd say, that tale's filled with more bickering than it's worth.