Austin Is In A Creative Class Of Its Own

From SXSW and "Austin City Limits" to venues such as Stubb's, Austin is ripe with music, creativity and camaraderie
  • Photo: Jay West/
    Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson
  • Photo: Jay West/
    Suzanna Choffel
  • Photo: M. Caulfield/
    Terry Lickona
  • Photo: Denise Truscello/
    Carlos Sosa
March 15, 2012 -- 4:04 pm PDT
By Lynne Margolis /

(For information about The Recording Academy's events and programs in Texas, visit the Texas Chapter on GRAMMY365.)

From "cosmic cowboys" such as Willie Nelson to lauded bluesmen such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin, Texas, has always served as a lure for musicians. But now the city known by its trademarked slogan as the "live music capital of the world" is a greater music mecca than ever, thanks to the massive South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference taking place through Sunday, the longstanding "Austin City Limits" TV show and its namesake annual music festival, and similar attractions.

As thousands of musicians and industry representatives descend on the city for the 26th annual installment of SXSW, they're contributing to a creative community that had a $4.35 billion impact on Austin's economy in 2010, according to a study commissioned by the city. And yet, unlike New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, Austin is not home to major record labels, big management agencies or music publishing companies. Despite this, people see something perhaps even more valuable in Austin — an appreciation for music as art rather than commodity, and an environment that nurtures its creative class.

"Austin musicians value their art every bit as much as they value their commercial success, if not more," says Brent Grulke, SXSW's creative director. "Austin has traditionally been supportive of musicians. There are places to play. There are jobs. … Most of the time, musicians have to have another job on top of their music career. And it has traditionally been an affordable place to live.

"In Austin," he adds, "musicians are [in] a high-status profession. It may be a low-paying profession, but it is a high-status position. People love musicians in Austin."

Terry Lickona, former chair of The Recording Academy and current producer of "Austin City Limits" says Austin's music scene is unique because it serves as an incubator.

"It's a place for musicians to meet other musicians, to start bands, to change bands, to try out new songs in front of a new audience without fear of being run offstage, and without the inhibition or pressure that goes along with being surrounded by the business of making music," says Lickona, who joined "ACL" in 1978 and helped turn it into the longest continuously running live music show on American TV.

"ACL," which has given Texas musicians such as GRAMMY winner Eric Johnson their first national exposure, and renowned live music venues such as Antone's and Stubb's Barb-B-Q, have helped put Austin on the world's musical radar.

"In Austin, any night of the week, you can go find amazing music, anywhere, and be inspired," says sax player Carlos Sosa, who previously served as President of The Recording Academy Texas Chapter.

Whether it's Stubb's or other venues such as the Continental Club, the Cactus Cafe & Bar or the Saxon Pub, Austin has dozens upon dozens of large and small venues where artists can perform — whether for tips or actual pay. One interesting paid gig is the live concert stage at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where musicians provide visitors with either a warm local welcome or fun send-off. The Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau even encourages convention and meeting planners to hire local musicians.

"Austin has a well-deserved reputation for being friendly," says Grulke. "People will help each other out. You don't see the same kind of ruthlessness that you see in a lot of places. You see amazing willingness for people to work for common ends."

"That's a really special thing that Austin has that other places don't," says singer/songwriter Suzanna Choffel. "Austin is so great at connecting the city to the music and vice-versa." An Austin native who just relocated to New York, temporarily, she insists, Choffel does note that it is easier to make business connections in New York because there's more institutionalization there.

"You can walk in to the ASCAP office or a label office. The whole industry is there," says Choffel, while noting she sees more music in Austin than she does in New York, given the latter city's abundance of attractions.

According to Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson, the lack of an institutionalized infrastructure in Austin has forced musicians to be more resourceful, and that DIY entrepreneurial streak is what makes them well-situated to weather the industry's metamorphosis from unit sales to alternative revenue streams.

Like filmmakers Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and Mike Judge, who have created their own businesses in Austin, Benson has built two recording studios, and started his own record label (Bismeaux Records) and management company.

"We're working on a niche label, and we're doing it with our own money, our own bootstraps. That has always been the difference between Austin and Nashville, L.A., and New York," says Benson, a nine-time GRAMMY winner and former Recording Academy Trustee. "We've never made a lot of money, or even any money, sometimes, on records, the way that the [major label] system was set up. Now we actually make a little bit of money — on a whole lot smaller number of sales."

As far as Sosa's concerned, the talent in Austin is as good as anywhere, and he's gone out of his way to hire local musicians for gigs with artists such as GRAMMY winner Jason Mraz.

"It's a ripple effect," says Sosa. "I don't know if anybody can match it anywhere. I'm gonna keep spreading the gospel of Austin musicians."

(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for and Paste magazine.)

Email Newsletter