The Austin, TX music scene is in such a death spiral, I’m not sure if it’s even worth composing scathing rants railing against the injustices it continues to suffer, or if to save the energy for when it’s proper to pen the eventual epitaph. That’s no disrespect to the holdout artists and venues clinging to their last little bit of real estate as gentrification impinges upon them more and more every day until you can count the safe creative spaces in the city by the square inch.
Even after much talk in the city about what to do to save the dying music scene and special studies and super committees, last week it was revealed that the massive Westin Hotel who purposely chose a location right beside Austin’s long-standing and historic 6th Street entertainment district is suing the tiny Nook nightclub that it towers over for $1 million dollars due to noise issues. The Westin says the music noise bothers guests, even though the Nook has all the proper permits and registers their noise levels every 30 minutes to make sure it stays within city codes, and was there way before the Westin was built. It’s a true David vs. Goliath situation that is currently illustrating the pitfall of Austin’s urban redevelopment boon: it’s killing the very thing people come to Austin to experience.
But there’s another story that came out this week that is just as irking. Famous director Terrence Malick is getting set to release a new movie on March 17th (when Austin’s SXSW is raging) called Song To Song starring Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman. The movie is centered around the Austin music scene, with a heavy musical component to the film. Many big-time music names are said to appear in the movie, including Patti Smith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Iggy Pop. Florence + the Machine, Lykke Li and the Black Lips are all said to make cameo appearances. And Arcade Fire, the Fleet Foxes, St. Vincent, and Iron & Wine have also been tied to the film in the past. The movie is a scripted romance about two entangled couples that include a couple of songwriters and a “landscape of seduction and betrayal.”
No offense to any of these music artists, but isn’t it a little bit strange that a movie about the Austin music scene would not include one single artist actually from Austin, or with significant ties to the Austin scene itself? I can understand if you weren’t featuring any actual musicians in the film how you could make this oversight. But they are—just not artists from Austin. It’s almost a too-perfect illustration of just what an artifice Austin music has become—how people love to use it in their branding and how there’s still nothing more hip than talking about Austin music. But when it comes to actually highlighting talent on a big stage, people look elsewhere, even when it’s supposed to be about Austin.
Of course this has been going on for years in Austin’s own institutions. Austin City Limits highlights almost everything but local musicians, except for a few here and there each season, when the whole point of the program was supposed to be showcasing and promoting Austin music to the rest of the world.
What’s going to eventually happen is a few select remaining Austin musicians will all be transferred to government subsidized housing and given daily stipends, and each evening they will trek out to musical safe spaces peppered throughout the city to play music to people almost like reenactors of what Austin music used to be. But the sad part will be everyone in the city will feel happy about this because they passed the right laws, and put plenty of money in the budget to support these enterprises in an effort to preserve the city’s musical identity, not even aware that the creative inertia that made Austin music known worldwide has long since moved to Nashville, Los Angeles, and other ports of call where the support for the music isn’t just symbolic and driven by guilt instead of passion.
It’s pretty simple: You want to use “Austin” or “Austin music” to promote your stuff? Then possibly actually consider using actual Austin musicians as part of it. Do that one simple gesture. Otherwise, you’re just being opportunist, if not exploitative.