By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun
5:28 PM EDT, March 18, 2011
Austin, Texas —
It's Thursday afternoon, and downtown is awash in live music. Guitar solos shriek through the air, and the crisp snap of snare drums echoes from inside live music clubs. Hundreds of bands are crammed into every nook and cranny, vying to impress the tens of thousands of music lovers and industry folks who swarm the streets.
They've come to the Texas capital for the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW), a 10-day summit for more than 100,000 on-the-cusp artists, filmmakers and fans that wraps up Sunday. While not the country's biggest music festival, SXSW is perhaps the most important.
"South by Southwest is huge for Austin," says Steve Colmus, drummer for rockers J. Roddy Walston and the Business, who made the trip from Baltimore to Austin for a series of festival showcases. "It's helped brand the city as a live music town."
While SXSW, which turns 25 this year, is one feather in the city's cap, it's not the only reason Austin calls itself the "Live Music Capital of the World." There are more clubs and bands per capita than anywhere else, city officials say, and nationally touring musicians make a point to play in Austin. Since the mid-1970s, indie and mainstream artists have performed on the TV show "Austin City Limits," which lent its name to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a fall showcase of more than 100 bands in South Austin. In the past couple of years, the city has launched programs to educate musicians and passed laws to make it easier for clubs and neighbors to hammer out their differences.
"If you walk around town, on any given day, on any given weekend, you know how ingrained music is in the fabric of Austin," says Bobby Garza, chief of staff for the city's mayor pro tem, Mike Martinez. "We're trying to figure out from the city's perspective whether we're doing everything we can."
All of this poses the question: What made Austin such a hub for live music, and how does the city government help keep it that way? And what can Baltimore, which has in recent years been praised as a home for experimental bands, do to be a more music-friendly city?
While not mentioned in the same breath as Austin, Baltimore's music scene has lately come into its own. Rolling Stone magazine named it the country's best in 2008, and artists such as Dan Deacon, Beach House and J. Roddy Walston and the Business leaped into the spotlight. Since then, a wave of newer bands has emerged to carry the torch, performing in warehouses, bars and clubs.
"We're overtaking many cities when it comes to our independent music scene," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says. "When the arts scene flourishes, the city flourishes."
Live music has long been one of Rawlings-Blake's interests. As City Council president, she proposed an ambitious overhaul of the way Baltimore clubs operate, which would have established a live music commission to issue and revoke entertainment licenses and help settle disputes. If any Baltimore restaurant, bar or coffeehouse wants to have live music, karaoke or DJs, it would need to have a live entertainment license. But after the recession hit, the bill was stripped down and instead opened up new areas to live music when it passed in late 2009.
Still, obtaining a live entertainment license can rigorous. It took six months for the Harbor East restaurant Pazo to be approved by the liquor and zoning boards to have occasional dancing and a more lounge-like atmosphere.
"It's one of the great miracles of our fair city to actually have one issued," owner Tony Foreman said at the time.
A strange but fruitful culture clash helped Austin's music scene come into its own in the 1970s. There, blues and country mixed with hippie culture to help shape a sound known as "outlaw country." Country music legends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings both moved to Austin around that time, bringing national attention and the music industry with them. The Armadillo, perhaps the era's highest-profile club, brought in a range of big-name acts and galvanized the scene. Since then, Austin has ridden waves of punk, alt-rock and pop, all the while keeping its reputation as a mecca for live music.
Marcia Ball, a blues singer and pianist who moved to Austin in 1970, thinks Austin's attitude has helped keep the scene strong all these years.
"We're shameless self-promoters," she said. "We believe in ourselves so much and believe in our own mystique so much that we just sell it to the rest of the world. I think that might have something to do with why a scene is and remains here."
Austin's city government takes a more wide-open approach to regulating live music than Baltimore. In early 2008, then-Mayor Will Wynn created a 15-member live music task force, composed of artists, club owners, residents and event promoters, and asked them to suggest ways the city could help improve its music scene. Based on the panel's ideas, the city established a music office, which sponsors music programs and acts as a mediator between clubs and neighborhood residents. The music office also issues permits for outdoor venues.
One of the most striking differences between the two cities is that businesses don't need a permit to have live music indoors in Austin. Bands perform in bars, coffeehouses and even at City Council meetings. Don Pitts, the head of Austin's music office, was taken aback when told about Baltimore's live entertainment permit process.
"Gosh, I can't imagine that for indoor stuff. That's pretty heavy," he said. "Wow. I hope people in Austin don't read the codes in Baltimore. I'm sure we'd have some that would want that."
Baltimore bar and club owners often butt heads with their neighbors over noise. Not long after Dangerously Delicious Pies owner Rodney Henry opened a store in Federal Hill, he started having small shows, usually with acoustic instruments. When he ran afoul of a neighbor, he had to stop the music. Now he's hoping to get a live entertainment license for his new store in Canton.
"It was going good for a while," he said. "Then one lady in the neighborhood complained. … In Austin, you have a liaison. When you have a representative, you can talk through them."
If an Austin club gets too loud, Pitts and his staff bring in sound technicians and suggest ways to fine-tune the mix so as not to offend the neighbors. In some cases, they move up the curfew or suggest sound barriers to muffle the volume. "It shows we're serious about music," he said.
The Austin music office also partnered with the Austin Music Foundation and several corporations to create a digital resource center for artists. The center, which opens this year, will host mentoring sessions and have eight computer workstations loaded with software that musicians can use to create websites, mix their music and brand themselves.
"The way the industry is going, we need to arm the artists with the tools to go straight to the consumer," Pitts said.
One way Baltimore has tried to beef up its local arts and music scene is by designating certain areas as arts and entertainment districts, offering tax incentives to club owners and artists who live and work there. So far, they've been met with mixed success. Aside from the Creative Alliance, the arts district in Highlandtown hasn't seen the explosion of arts and culture some predicted. But the Station North Arts and Entertainment District is flourishing, with a host of new bars, clubs, theaters moving in over the past five years.
While there is some talk of creating live entertainment districts in Austin, officials and club owners seem split over how best to implement them. At least now, the music industry has a singular voice in Austin — after the live music task force submitted its report to the mayor, many of its members formed a nonprofit group, Austin Music People, which advocates on musicians' behalf. James Moody, who owns the Mohawk, a club on Red River Street and is a founding member of Austin Music People, says the best changes come from the bottom up, not from the top down.
"The key to everything is the culture," Moody said. "It can't be manufactured like a business. You've got to have affordable housing for artists, affordable areas for venues. You've got to have tax incentives. You've got to basically create incubators. Real, authentic incubators for culture. Then the city has to market that."
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