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31 March 2004
Live Music Gulag

The cult of Austin continues without letup. Latest to drink the Flavor Aid is the Denver Post, the pop-culture authority that warned us, about a year ago, that digital recording was a bad, bad thing because it might make performers sound better than they do live. Now the Post, in a fresh article, says:

With a little luck, and lots of legwork, Denver could be singing the same tune as Austin.
Music fans are petitioning Denver for more visible promotion of its live music scene and touting figures that show its economic strength. However, the Mile High City has a long way to go to match Austin's musical clout.

Pity Denver. Not only, it seems, is the Mile High City lacking in live-music resources, it suffers from the widespread delusion (promulgated by the likes of Richard Florida) that Austin is some sort of model for the arts. It’s time somebody told the truth: The scene started to fade seven years ago and today Austin is no more friendly to music, and the arts in general, than the rest of Texas. In fact, the town can be downright hostile.

Witness the police harassment of the Grammy-winning Latin band Ozomatli during this year’s South by Southwest festival.

Members of Ozomatli were hauled away to the Travis County Jail for violating Austin’s notorious noise ordinance. According to the band’s manager, they were told by city fire-marshal staff that the club in which they were playing, ironically named Exodus, was overcrowded according to fire regulations, and the band was asked to help lead people out of the building. So they turned their last song into a processional, leading the crowd joyously out into the street. But there is no joy on Sixth Street, where the procession was afoul of the noise ordinance, and band and audience members alike were locked up. Again according to the manager, when she attempted merely to tell band members she would bail them out, she too was manhandled, manacled, and jailed. The cops claim that one band member attempted to hit them with a drum, which is not seen on the footage that’s been televised, and at any rate the only reason for locking up everyone else was too loud, too unruly.

This is not a deviation for Austin’s arts district; it’s the norm. Cops with dB meters lurk like vultures outside of venues and force people unloading equipment to park blocks away, no matter how heavy the drum kit. Alcohol enforcement is particularly heavy, while the State Comptroller has singled out downtown clubs for closure over unpaid taxes (which must be paid in advance of the club taking in revenues). And let’s not even begin to enumerate the ways in which zoning, industrial policy, and development decisions generally have made Austin an impossible place for Florida’s “cultural creatives” (at least truly creative fields, not Florida’s yuppie lawyers and techies) to live. The trend has only worsened since I wrote about it here.

The decrepitude of the music district is illustrated by that club “Exodus” — scene of the Ozomatli arrest. I had never heard of it, and it doesn’t appear in the phone book. In fact, it doesn’t exist. The decline of the arts district means that there is no longer the necessary infrastructure even to hold the SXSW festival, so they rent out vacant storefronts and stick a name on them, creating a temporary “club.” This fools outsiders, like the Denver Post reporter, into thinking Sixth Street is a functioning music district. In fact, following two years of Mardi Gras rioting by drunken frat boys, respectable people avoid downtown altogether. While the city encourages strip-mall development, complete with seas of asphalt and a skyline of concrete spaghetti, on its outskirts, it has neglected Sixth Street so that the once presentable music district has become a filthy, derelict area for homeless beggars and strung-out junkies, a disgrace. The presence of an annual festival that showcases few local bands and that few locals can afford to attend does nothing to arrest the obvious, humiliating, and ongoing decline of the popular arts. City fathers, in expiation of their campaign to wipe out the hated hippies and rockers, had planned a new district along the river for fossilized, official music such as opera but even those plans have been put on hold owing to lack of funds. The high-tech horse on which the city bet its life savings has turned up lame.

Meanwhile, the city’s mayor is trying to defund the pitiful remains of the Austin Music Network. It seems the city just can’t afford the exorbitant cost of less than half a buck per citizen per year to support a community cable channel for local music. That money is earmarked for much more important things, like hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to Intel for a building they never finished. High-tech good (though dying), arts bad (and also dying).

Note that this level of noise and alcohol enforcement is aimed squarely at the music district. You won’t see such Puritan zeal directed at the city’s many strip joints, nor will you often see Austin’s legions of street whores subjected to the scrutiny and harassment that’s directed at the music district. Whorin’ is just part of the landscape for good ol’ boy businessmen (and, sometimes, members of the Lege) but an arts district? Downright un-American, maybe even a little French.

The Post reporter swallowed the whole tofu enchilada, right down to parroting the slogan “Live Music Capital of the World.” Here’s a clue, Colorado: The city fathers abandoned that slogan in favor of “City of Ideas” years ago during their now-failed quest to culturally cleanse downtown of its artists in favor of a (now mostly empty) industrial park. Nobody else uses the slogan either, except in a deeply ironic sense.

The nasty little truth is this: While Austin continues to beat its chest over how arts-friendly it is, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth have quietly invested in their downtowns and opened new arts facilities (such as Dallas’ stunning new sculpture garden). For musicians, Austin means playing to empty halls for no money and risking jail time. If you want to get signed, you need to be in Dallas. If you want to make money playing live, you need to be in Houston. If you want a supportive arts community, Fort Worth. If you want a hostile, philistine city with unaffordable rents and no rehearsal space but full of self-serving, bogus hype, well, Austin might be the town for you.

So, for Denver’s own good, let us hope its residents ignore the Post’s advice and do the exact opposite of what Austin has done. But, given Colorado’s reputation of outdoing even Texas as a center of Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, right-wing gun nuts, there’s little chance that the sorts of scruffy, cigarette-smoking, tattooed and pierced, un-American nonconformists will be tolerated any more readily there than they are here, or in the rest of the USA.

Update: When I posted this article I was unaware of the near-simultaneous arrest of Alamo actor Jason Patric in downtown Austin after he didn’t follow a cop’s “order” to “move along” quickly enough. According to his publicist, “The officer ‘threw him to the ground without provocation and attempted to smash his head on to the concrete.’” What a town. Just because you’re a movie star, don’t think you can get away with loitering when the man with the gun commands you to march. Now that the APD has ruined the city’s reputation with the L.A. music suits, thanks to the Ozomatli harassment, the force has proceeded to offend the film industry as well. Perhaps the city’s cultural-cleansing campaign will indeed turn Austin into the art-free zone that a bigoted, philistine state so richly deserves as its capital.

Turn over another new leaf:
7 September 2003
The Needle and the Damage Done

The execution of anti-abortion murderer Paul Hill shows the futility of capital punishment.

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