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Does Austin’s high-tech future mean music’s a thing of the past?

by Lindsey Eck

A shorter version of this article can be found in Bad Subjects 50, June 2000

Historically, economic boom times bring florescence in music and the arts, whether in the Florence of the Medici, Habsburg Vienna, or the France of Louis XIV. Everywhere other than America at fin-de-siècle, it seems, where our uniquely philistine upper class prefers the uniformity of the subdivision to the chaos of bohemia, in loyalty to the bourgeois ethic of the party of Jesse Helms. From the Big Dig to the Golden Gate, high-tech prosperity for the business and investment communities has meant lowlife for the artists and musicians who find themselves priced out of living, studio, and rehearsal space; in an irony now so familiar as to be reflexive, young professionals lured by the charm of a boho district wind up crowding out the very nonconformists that gave the neighborhood its character. Apologists for “development” (often mere construction) like to shrug the process off as the result of the invisible hand of the marketplace. But sometimes the hand is all too visible, as newer, conservative residents use zoning and noise restrictions, enforced by neighborhood associations or sympathetic police, to harass artists and other nonconformists, perhaps driven by an inchoate fear of what is different.

Though gentrification and the damage it can wreak on arts districts have been widely described for other cities, the way in which Austin, Texas faces a tradeoff between prosperity and creativity has special aspects that are worth examining in detail. Specifically, the business community is characterized by feuding and revenge that often takes precedence over profit in a way most unlike other population centers such as New York or Los Angeles. The government, while formally democratic, has many aspects of Old South autocracy that, translated to the national stage, masquerades as the efficient free-market way of the future. And the incredible growth of sprawl around the central city has bypassed the traditional pattern of gentrification; with so many subdivisions sprouting in all directions, Austin as a whole is morphing into a miniature Houston even as its residents fight to maintain the character of the core neighborhoods, now a small nucleus of city planning amid a bloated giant cell that is formless and void (and choked with traffic). Beyond all that, though, the familiar pattern of high-tech prosperity crowding out bohemian diversity has resulted in a widely perceived decline in quality of life for Austin, and musicians, already in exile here, wonder if there’s any place left where they can crank up the decibels.

Dead Music Capital

Texas, like two-thirds of the states, has a city other than its largest as its capital. Following the lead of Eastern states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, Texas located a capital near the center of population gravity and, till the recent high-tech boom, Austin’s economy was mostly based on the state government plus the University of Texas (America’s biggest), with associated lobbies and nonprofits and other institutions such as the IRS.

Because of its trendy college and relatively liberal cadres of lawyers and civil servants, Austin became a magnet for nonconformists from the rest of Texas (and the USA): Musicians, actors, gays and lesbians, political activists, longhairs, drug addicts, New Agers, anyone who felt uncomfortable in the rest of Texas poured into Austin in several waves before high-tech ever reared its electronic head.

And what a society they failed to conform with. By now Texas is famous for its enormous prison expansion and unflinching use of the death penalty. The Texas government seems to lack strategies for dealing with most social problems other than punishment and increasing penalties, and the last decade has been notable for increasing militarization of the public schools, criminalization of petty disorderliness such as sleeping in public, religious bigotry, and of course the brand of paranoia represented by the concealed-carry law that helped Bush defeat Richards (he backed it, she didn’t). In such a climate people are less and less inclined to sing and play, even the blues. Though the GOP is unlikely to come out and decalre itself the party that opposes art, the tirades of Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani leave little doubt as to who best represents American philistines. Indeed, a disdain for popular art, whether Ofili, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, or Pulp Fiction is one thing most Republicans — pinstriped Wall Streeters and snake-handlin’ evangelicals alike — can all agree on. Compared with the Biblical Land of Dallas or the Police Paradise of Houston, Austin managed to buck the state’s movement from right to farther right, but lately the left seems dispirited and the arts community depressed.

The memory of being the capital of an independent republic led by supermasculine heroes, together with its status as capital of a vast nation-within-a-nation (larger than France, more populous than Australia) is central to Austin’s self-image. This hubristic mythos no doubt led the City Council a number of years ago to dub Austin the Live Music Capital of the World, in what was hoped would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were festivals drawing support from the council and a thriving cable channel just for music. New venues kept popping up on Sixth Street, the heart of the music district, and other parts of downtown including the Moontower District around Fourth and along Red River from about Seventh to Tenth. In the excitement of being a Music Capital, few noticed the disappearance of clubs from other parts of Austin, nor the classic sign of a boom about to bust: The hundreds of clubs were mostly empty, most of the time, and bands frequently played their butts off to go home with $12 each, or nothing at all.

The need to see itself as the “capital” of some kind of music turned out to be a liability for Austin in the way that the Imperial title led the Holy Roman Emperors to overreach in order to justify their claim, not just to majesty, but imperium. Austin’s need to be a “capital” despite the more natural claims of New Orleans and Memphis, even within the Blues Belt, led to expansion of the music infrastructure beyond what could be justified by the market. Then, when it became clear that Austin could not be a true world capital but merely a vassal of L.A. and Nashville, depression set in and the city set about becoming a “high-tech capital” instead. Austin could not be a music capital because people on the two coasts held (economic) capital — capital that flowed in to create Arista and Warner Discovery offices in town, and capital that flowed back out and closed the same offices. Now, bigger, badder capital flowed in via the NASDAQ to create a high-tech economy stoked by low wages, poor protection for workers, and massive tax breaks for the likes of Samsung that stick homeowners with the bill for providing high-tech educations. With the decline in software stocks, it is probable Austin’s joyride down the Information Superhighway is due to stall. And nothing stokes the inferiority complex that underlies Texans’ superficial arrogance more than seeing good times go bust. Because the financing inevitably comes from somewhere else.

High-tech may be soaring but for music and other performing arts the boom has obviously gone bust, with Sixth Street clubs rapidly reverting to uses other than music, and other elements of the music infrastructure in obvious decline. To list a few depressing examples:

  • Sixth Street is not just losing clubs, it is losing the larger, flagship clubs that offered quirky new artists a break, from Vallejo to Ian Moore. Gone in the past year or so are four major venues: Steamboat and the Hang ’Em High Saloon on Sixth Street; Liberty Lunch and the Electric Lounge in the western end of downtown. Gone too are the Bob Popular complex that offered up to three stages at once, the psychedelic White Rabbit, the grungy punk venue Bates Motel, even the Coffee Connection that gave acoustic acts a place on Sixth. The remaining clubs are typified by Maggie Mae’s, a college hangout that hires cover bands doing the FM Top 40.
  • Various festivals have declined in quality and attendance or gone out of business altogether. After decades of tradition, Aquafest finally succumbed to chronic money losses and unwillingness of the city to relieve them. As a union gig, Aquafest provided a much-needed wage to musicians otherwise reduced to playing for tips and provided an incentive for musicians to join the union. Similarly, the Old Settlers’ Festival overreached with excessive ticket prices and has now been forced to scale back its talent level while moving from the park in suburban Round Rock that gave the festival its name to the newly “developing” suburb of Dripping Springs.
  • Two major labels, Arista and Warner Discovery, had opened branch offices in Austin but both are now closed. Watermelon Records, a respected indie, went belly-up last year with unfortunate economic consequences to local artists still under contract.
  • Repeated attempts to launch a music publication in Austin, from Mike’s Feedback (where I was a staffer) to Capitol City, have ended after a short run due to lack of profitability, often leaving the owners in debt.
Boom-and-bust cycles aggravate Texans’ already overgrown tendency toward hierarchical social relations, reinforced by the high proportion of leaders drawn from the armed forces and college sports. When Texas is on top, the mood becomes manic as the winners revel not merely in freedom from being bossed, but also in being the boss. When the flood of money becomes a drought, depression sets in as the losers are revealed to be mere dependents after all. Bust times inevitably recall repressed myths of gallant cavalry laid low by Northern treachery and an economy ravaged by carpetbaggers and scalawags. The Confederate myth is just an update of the older feudal schema, with society arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy. Similar thinking leads to absurd disputes such as “Should Austin emulate L.A. or Nashville?” — as if one may only be enfeoffed to a single overlord. For many Austinites, it seemed, if they could not be a Live Music Capital then there was no fun in just being a Live Music Center. Now Les Pauls are out, Beemers are cool, and the city is off on a new manic quest for capital status, this time in the conformist world of high-tech.

The conversion of large parts of the economy from education and public administration to chip manufacturing and speculative dot-coms not only has effects on the local cultural community due to the preference of geeks for forms of entertainment other than live music and art (such as Web surfing and video games), it has also resulted in an approach to city planning that privileges the vast complexes and smaller but dehumanized industrial parks preferred by such businesses, and encourages typical suburban land use (i.e. sprawl) built so that those who work in the industrial zones can buzz by car from subdivision to plant to mall and back without ever realizing they live in a city of nearly a million people.

We Are Devo

“Development” is the Newspeak term for the sprawlification that is gobbling the Southwest faster than kudzu is devouring the Southeast — a term preferred by those who call cookie-cutter tract houses “homes.” But “development” implies that the resulting structures are of value, that what is built in some way improves the site over what was there before. What Austin suffers from is not development, but mere construction. There is constant and ecologically devastating construction everywhere, while development is confined to a few show projects. Indeed, the destruction of neighborhood businesses to be replaced with franchises (a flower shop, coin shop, and deli into Walgreens; a beloved grad student hangout into Starbucks; an African-American–owned fish-and-chips shop into a Jack in the Box, with few counterexamples) represents a sort of anti-developmental trend, a de-evolution. Slurbs ’R’ Us.

Downtown Austin is remarkably well planned. The grid follows the plan of capitals around the world in having major avenues named for features of the domain it rules, in this case the rivers of Texas, for which the north-south streets are named. The east-west streets are numbered. In the heart of the city, the existence of the largely unbroken grid leads to much better traffic flow than amid the concrete spaghetti of North Austin; downtown, if a freeway is jammed one can take a side street and go for blocks without interruption, but the further one ventures into the concrete fringe, the more the traffic is shunted onto a few ineluctable lanes, so that distant suburbanites face worse jams than city dwellers, with equally spectacular fatalities.

The further one ventures away from the central city, the more the chaotic blandness of suburban sprawl takes over, without any landmarks such as the Capitol dome or the UT stadium or the UT tower that give different parts of the core city their character. Despite the best intentions of a self-proclaimed green City Council, development over the past decade has turned mile after mile of picturesque countryside into a depressing monotony of Target … Jack in the Box … Hooters … Exxon, indistinguishable from Houston or Dallas, and notably lacking in public spaces (whether amphitheaters or swimming holes) other than megachurches where you can sweat in a jacuzzi following your dose of fire and brimstone. In short, Art-Free Zones.

Housing availability and type has a direct effect on whether typically underpaid artists and musicians can find a place to live. High tech has brought inflated wages for its workers (often paid in overvalued stock, hence subject to sudden downturns) compared to the longer-standing force of state and university workers (the former get a raise only when voted by the legislature, usually $100/month every two years) let alone hand-to-mouth artists. High-flying techies have gobbled up luxury apartments faster than they can be built, while builders see little incentive to invest in affordable units.

Earlier this year the Austin American-Statesman gave the cost of a typical two-bedroom as $832/month. Four years ago there were lots of them on the market for around $475 but currently there is 99% occupancy and tenants are squeezed as never before. Low-paid musicians and actors are moving out to the country or just out of the area. Plus the high occupancy rate has meant stricter background checks and higher fees for prospective tenants. If Stevie Ray Vaughan were to arrive in Austin today, it is questionable whether anyone would rent him a flat. Not without a damn good day job.

Asked whether the high-tech prosperity is making things better or worse for the working musician, guitarist Iggy Rae Vicious responds, “Examples are pointing towards making it worse. I don’t see a successful music scene fitting in with the corporate striptease. They’re trying to push us into cubicles but we don’t fit.”

The pattern is familiar nationwide, even if Austin’s peculiar attitudes and traditions aggravate the process. Rampant suburbanization is producing communities with no public spaces. Art-free zones.

Increasingly, social critics and urban geographers have argued that the traditional city plan, with each neighborhood serving many needs in a compact, walkable area, offered valuable opportunities for civic life and artistic expression. The plan used by most American developers today, in contrast, presents single-use residential neighborhoods dependent on auto transportation to shopping in single-use malls, with a loss of civic and performance space In latter–20th-century development, there is no village green, no bohemian quarter, and no farmers’ market. People are reduced to spectators of television and consumers of goods; there is simply no space in such “communities” for self-expression, and irrational exuberance is a phenomenon of the stock market, not the rock-’n’-roll stage.

The growing case that Sunbelt-style sprawl is destructive to civil society, unproductive culturally, and unsustainable economically is made and illustrated in a new book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, and excerpted in a recent “FEED Special Report: Sprawl of America.” The authors assert that only two models of planning are known to be possible in the United States — traditional and sprawl — and only the traditional one is healthy. Unfortunately, building the traditional neighborhood (like Austin’s downtown including Sixth Street, or its Hyde Park residential neighborhood), is not even legal under today’s typical zoning ordinances:

… Boston's Beacon Hill, Nantucket, Santa Fe, Carmel — all of these well-known places, many of which have become tourist destinations, exist in direct violation of current zoning ordinances. Even the classic American Main Street, with its mixed-use buildings right up against the sidewalk, is now illegal in most municipalities. Somewhere along the way, through a series of small and well-intentioned steps, traditional towns became a crime in America. At the same time, one of the largest segments of our economy, the home-building industry, developed a comprehensive system of land development practices based upon sprawl, practices that have become so ingrained as to be second nature.

The traditional neighborhood — represented by mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities of varied population … has proved to be a sustainable form of growth. …

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent, and comprehensive. Its performance is largely predictable. It is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living. Unfortunately, this system is already showing itself to be unsustainable. Unlike the traditional neighborhood, sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation.

One familiar with oncology might make the analogy with healthy vs. cancerous tissue. Healthy tissue is differentiated into a community of symbiotic but diverse cells, each with its own function. Tumors contain a mass of rapid-growing but undifferentiated cells, just as north-central Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood offers a diverse mix of residences, small businesses, museums, parks, and churches whereas newer subdivisions such as those around Jollyville and US183 (see below) are homogeneous masses of bloated single-family dwellings. The subdivisions metastasizing like neoplasms all over the tissue of Austin resemble sarcomas, bladder-shaped with a single outlet to a major “artery.”

The sprawlification of Austin is intimately connected with the rise and fall of its music industry, as suburban residential areas and shopping malls offer few places for rehearsal, performance, or recording studios and, as even the suitable downtown spaces become coveted for high-tech production, music finds itself homeless. Just a few years ago, the City Council brashly dubbed Austin the Live Music Capital of the World. Today, Austin’s musicians (and other artists) are witnessing a rapid decline in venues and other infrastructure. The high-tech boom has not only fostered the metastasis of single-use subdivisions next to single-use industrial parks and single-use shopping malls; it has also begun a redefinition of downtown Austin from a space for creative nonconformity into a sterile environment more suited to computers than composers.

It is no accident that Sixth Street (pictured in this official City planning map) and the other downtown entertainment areas have prospered in a grid of streets planned with the equality of numbered streets in one direction perpendicular to longer, broader streets evoking the names of Texas rivers rather than Great White Males. The availability of multiple parallel althernate routes keeps traffic flowing; the relative pedestrian-friendliness encourages club-hopping; the mixed use and nearby apartments allow easy access to downtown without a hellish drive. The democratic aspirations of those who laid out this downtown are symbollized by the great Capitol dome overlooking the whole of downtown from just a few blocks away at Congress Avenue and Eleventh.

Compare the Jollyville/US183 area, pictured in this official map. In contrast to the microplanning for the entertainment district, planning for the city’s outskirts (and the city increasingly consists of “outskirts”) is at a macro level, focused mainly on transportation, meaning highways and maybe, someday, limited light rail Note the lack of a grid or any discernible pattern; note the Balkanization of residential areas into discrete pods that communicate with each other only via massive roadways. The democracy of shared traffic via egalitarian streets in a common grid gives way to, if you will, tiny manors or little baronies, each homogeneous as to class and income level, each walled off by the street pattern. The few street names even mentioned on this map are meaningless, referring to a nonexistent “mill,” “park,” and “lake.”Some developments (especially massive apartment complexes) are literally walled off as “gated communities.” The decline of community is enforced by the street layout, which presupposes auto transportation, individual shopping trips, work in industrial parks, and passive entertainment, i.e. television. Even the rows and rows of new motels seldom offer a lounge where one can catch a band.

Author Sam Smith, writing in his Progressive Review Webzine, discusses the relationship between city planning and civil society. He argues for the traditional plan as opposed to the metastasis of sprawl and freeways: “One of the problems with the non-diverse neighborhood — whether high rise apartments, warehouses or suburban tract housing — is that activities become heavily privatized.” Smith has little patience for “development”-friendly boosterism:

Every self-respecting metropolis, for example, has a city magazine depicting the most mundane commercial activities with adjectival abandon. A style of business writing has arisen that transforms single-mindedly avaricious real estate developers into characters from a Raymond Chandler novel, whose every deal involves the mystery and tension of the Cuban missile crisis. …

Over the past forty years, this literature of urban capitalism has transmorgfiied the image of the organization man from a depressing and pathetic white male figure to one who is not only exciting and sexy but one whom women and minorities demand the right to emulate. Similarly, we no longer frown over the banalties of suburbia, but nod thoughtfully at Joel Garreau’s claim that suburban “edge cities” are “the most purposeful attempt Americans have made since the days of the Founding Fathers … to create something like a new Eden.”

The idea that God’s work has finally been successfully replicated by suburban real estate developers is challenged by the lives and perceptions of ordinary citizens, most of whom think in terms of jobs, friends and communities rather than of commercial markets and their regions. It also is markedly out of sync with the literature of more personal urban experience, ranging from Theodore Dreiser to Ice-T. Or with the stories we tell each other. The mother stuck in traffic five miles from a soon closing day care center would be hard-pressed to feel the liberative benefits for women claimed for the new suburban utopia …

Nor would Austin’s artists and musicians, for most of whom the boom has been a bust.

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