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Conclusion on Austin as Live Music Capital of the World

November 23, 2012

I’ve been off the blog a bit as I had to travel from Austin, Texas to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then I spent some time playing music with my friend Bruno Santos in Sao Paulo as I tried to hold back the grip of the fatigue of the lack of sleep on the flights from the U.S. to Sao Paulo. But that gave me time to digest the Austin experience a little bit in order to come good on my resolution last week to write on this blog my conclusion about whether Austin really is the live music capital of the world, as it likes to call itself.

I think my last night in Austin, on Tuesday, greatly filled out a very important aspect of the whole puzzle. I went from one open mic Internet listing page to another seeking out open mics on Tuesday night in Austin. I read the notes I had taken in Paris through Austin friends, as to where I should go on Tuesday night. I then walked the streets of Austin to find these places…. And one after another of the five or six or so choices that I had recently closed down or had not existed for a long time.

Even some of the most highly recommended open mics, such as the one at the Ruta Maya Coffee company and the one at the strange place called Whip In, no longer exist. Ruta Maya found itself being affected by high rents and it closed down its long-standing and legendary shop on Congress Avenue. Then, other places I visited either did not know anything about the open mic listings or had closed.

What does this mean? It means that in one sense Austin is either no different from everywhere else in the world with its fragile open mic scene – places rising and falling, opening and closing – or the economic problems have meant that it could no longer support a massive number of open mics.

Having said that, I was still able to find an open mic venue on Tuesday night, at a huge and interesting venue called Rusty’s, on 7th street. It turned out it is primarily a gay bar, but Tuesday night the majority of the audience was made of women – well, all right, mostly lesbians. That was absolutely no problem at all for me, and in fact, it was great to find yet another kind of open mic. Having said that, Rusty’s open mic has nothing to do with sexual predilection. Apparently the owner of the bar just loves music and so called for an open mic to answer to that need.

Unfortunately, there were not that many people present and not many performers. Those who were there were really interesting, though, my own personal favorite being the duo who call themselves “Baby Killers.” Nice name. I loved the dulcimer and cool vocals. I said it sounded a little like some kind of cross between early 70s folk and even progressive rock of that time – in fact, they consider themselves “Progressive Folk.”

Well, I just LOVED playing in Rusty’s. Standing on that huge stage and having this massive, voluminous room with a hugely high up ceiling, it was like playing in a concert hall. Beautiful – even if there were only a handful of people listening… at least they WERE listening.

So what about it? This boast of being the live music capital of the world? I learned that there is a special health coverage system for musicians in Austin. Venues, instruments, musicians, they are ALLLLL over the place. But the boast is really difficult to judge. In the end, I realize that there cannot be any live music capital of the world. There are only cities that have a more or less large musical culture. For me, few cities beat Istanbul for that. But if you look at the small size of the Austin population – under a million – and if you look at the small size of the downtown area and the concentration of live music, it is massive.

And it is great. And musicians seem to congregate there, and the city loves its musicians. So I would have to conclude that Austin is definitely one of the great music cities on earth – but there is no such thing as a live music capital of the world anywhere, in my opinion. It makes for a great marketing ploy, and a great statement of intent and love, in any case.

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