The Live Music Capital of the World. You see it as soon as you fly into Austin Bergstrom International Airport. The City of Austin have been using this as their motto for quite some time now. I’ve never really doubted the truth in it. I discovered Austin because of the music. When I found out that there were more guitar players per capita in Austin than in any other place in the universe (my statistics), how could I not want to visit?
After peeling away the layers upon layers of Austin guitar players, you then discover the vibe, the sound, the feel that is “Austin music”. It is a blend of many musical styles that has grown and evolved organically to create that unmistakable vibe. It’s Joe Ely, live at the Liberty Lunch. It’s Sarah Hickman or Lyle Lovett or David Garza at the Cactus. It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan at Antones. It’s Asleep At The Wheel at the Broken Spoke. Or how about the Arc Angels at the Opera House? Or Soul Hat at the Black Cat Lounge? Or Storyville at Stubbs?
Much of that “Austin sound” has been fostered by the laid-back music scene, where artists could come to play their music amongst others who would appreciate it, groove to it, and cultivate it. You came to Austin to play music in the presence of others who love music. My own personal experience as a musician was reflective of that.
But sadly, we are now faced with yet another Austin music landmark closing. With this week’s announcement of the closing of the Cactus Cafe, I am left to ponder the evolution – or perhaps devolution - of the Live Music Capital of the World.
I’ve been to the Cactus, much as I have been to many of the great venues that this city has called their own. The intimate 150 seat capacity is a safe haven for the singer-songwriter. The Cactus has hosted almost everyone with a guitar and a great song to sing. If my memory is serves me correctly, I saw Eric Johnson play there his acoustic guitar there. The Texas Union is where I saw Living Color.
But it’s not just about the Cactus. Let’s take a trip through time and look at the amazing music venues that have come and gone. There’s the Vulcan Gas Company (1970). Armadillo World Headquarters (1980). Liberty Lunch (1999). The original Backyard. The Black Cat Lounge (2000). Even Antone’s has faced the economic music in its storied past. And there are a whole host of smaller venues that have faded into the central Texas sunset.
The Liberty Lunch could arguably be titled as the direct descendant of the Armadillo (floorboards and all). In my humble opinion, it may have been the last remaining vestige of that bygone era of “true” Austin music, when rednecks and cowboys and folkies and hippies all co-existed under the roof of the Armadillo. I saw many great shows at the Lunch. But when we watched it close in 1999, I had the first sense of the spirit of Austin’s music scene fading – if ever so slightly.
Which brings us back to the Cactus Cafe.
The University of Texas, in their desire to make budget cuts, decided to close the Cactus Cafe. It is estimated that the cost saving would be (drum roll please) $66,000. For a university with a budget of $2.1 billion, those are some small peanuts. Even if you look at the $4.5 million budget of the Texas Union, we’re talking some pretty small numbers. The Alumni Association says that it could provide a long-term home for the Cactus Cafe. But if that is the case, and it’s still on campus (as it would be), then why not simply keep it right where it is? And then the issue of budget cuts leaves you wondering how they are concerned about a $66,000 saving when they can think nothing of paying a head football coach $5 million per season. Somehow, the irony overwhelms me – and I am a Longhorn fan!
And don’t for a moment think that the University doesn’t benefit from the marketing presence that is the Live Music Capital of the World. Let’s just say that it sure doesn’t hurt enrollment when your college is in a city like Austin.
For those who have lived in Austin for many years and witnessed the beauty that is live music in this fair city, there have been many angry commentaries on these latest developments.
I am left to wonder about the health of the music scene and the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World. What is being done by the city to truly foster the growth of the live music community, that which brings so many tourism dollars to the city? And when things get tough, is the City of Austin doing what it takes to support that same community? In my eyes, the city cannot simply be a fair weather proponent of live music – it has to embrace the community, support it, and allow it to thrive – and not just use the title as a marketing gimmick.
Yes, Austin’s live music scene is still vibrant, such that on any given night you can still see a dozen musicians better than most cities in the world. Yes, Austin still has Emo’s, Stubbs, the Continental Club, and La Zona Rosa. But if the City of Austin and the powers-that-be in the community (yes, you University of Texas) are going to claim the title of “Live Music Capital Of The World” and reap all of the marketing benefits of this, they must maintain what they have – actively – before it’s too late.
Maybe it already is.
Photo credits: Wikipedia