Playback: The FAQs of Austin Music 2015
Q: Is Austin still the "live music capital of the world"?
This tradition-steeped stretch of December, when we munch tamales and exchange gifts (then make impossible resolutions and wait for our balls to drop), historically calls for a year-in-review Music news column. You know the drill: condense the highlights, controversies, trends, and deaths of Austin's musical landscape into a summary of significance that inspires hope and reflection.
Not this year. In the spirit of our analysis-challenged times, I'm choosing convenience over context and recapping 2015 in the only format lazier than a listicle: the FAQ page. Questions are so much easier to answer when you're the one writing them!
Is Austin still the "live music capital of the world"?
Yes – in the same way that Budweiser is the "King of Beers": Ostensibly valid, but also totally arrogant. Our municipal leaders nabbed that unclaimed designation in 1991 based on Austin having the most music venues per capita and, 24 years later, no other music-obsessed territory has crunched the numbers and tried to unseat us. If that ever happens, we'll be sending crates of invalidated souvenir T-shirts to impoverished countries.
How many venues are in Austin?
Counting every bar in the city limits with a microphone and house drum kit is way beyond my pay grade, so here's a practical answer: the same as last year. In 2015, Austin lost six significant venues: Red 7, Holy Mountain, Red Eyed Fly, Trailer Space, the Roost, and Austin Music Hall. During that same period, six new clubs opened: Barracuda, Sidewinder, Stay Gold, Tellers, Geraldine's, and a soon-to-open Antone's.
But I heard all the music clubs are closing because of the "gentrification crisis"?
Stop reading poorly thought-out Pitchfork features. Yes, Austin's music venues exist in an increasingly expensive real estate market, but club owners aren't saying "uncle." In fact, they're signing new leases in central areas. Even the historic Hole in the Wall, which appeared doomed due to a rent increase, persevered because owner Will Tanner refused to give up and the community rallied – including music-loving property brokers who successfully renegotiated his lease pro-bono.
I'm a musician. Should I move to Austin?
Not unless you subsist on drink tickets for cheap beer. Recent analysis showed that 68% of Austin musicians made less than $10,000 through all music-related means in 2013.
I heard Austin loves to celebrate dried-out old bands from 20-plus years ago. True?
Guilty as charged. Did you witness the 13th Floor Elevators summiting the psychedelic pyramid at Levitation? Considering the miraculous quality of the geezers' first gig in 45 years, it likely ranks as Austin's most significant performance of 2015. Speaking of crusty reunions: noise-rock brutes Cherubs, broken up since 1994, rose from the grave to deliver one of Austin's best new albums with their brilliantly warped cacophony 2 Ynfynyty.
Are there any contemporary Austin acts worth seeking out?
Honky-tonk DIYers Mike & the Moonpies and deep country songstress Carson McHone, plus power-pop sirens Sweet Spirit, who cemented their status as Austin's foremost buzz band with an impressive EP, LP, and roughly 1,000 local gigs. James McMurtry restated himself among our best musical poets with Complicated Game, B-3 organist Mike Flanigin stepped out from sideman status to deliver star-studded solo debut The Drifter, and James Petralli weathered a White Denim shakeup with phenomenal side-project Bop English. Afro-beat freaks Golden Dawn Arkestra emerged as one of Austin's burgeoning live draws, Tameca Jones' incomparable R&B vocals blazed big at ACL Fest and via a duet on Gary Clark Jr.'s new album, and young anarcho punks Institute unleashed their wretched misery to national ears. Austin's greatest active rock band? OBN IIIs, who again hit pay dirt with Worth a Lot of Money.
Do Austin bands get signed to big labels?
What a Nineties question. Actually yes, though. Two local favorites inked deals with important labels in 2015: heartfelt punks A Giant Dog signed with crucial indie Merge Records, and alt-classical/indie pop ensemble Mother Falcon threw in with a division of the biggest label in our galaxy, Universal Music Classics.
Does the city of Austin support local music?
The Music & Entertainment Division knocked it out of the park this year by commissioning the Austin Music Census. The extensive report, drafted with information from thousands of musician/music industry responses, identified challenges facing Austin music, which inspired them to focus on industry development. Still, the city has yet to develop progressive policy to deal with the ongoing issue of new developments complaining about sound from music venues.
Who is Gov. Greg Abbott's favorite fiddler?
Brendon Anthony, who became director of the Texas Music Office after Abbott's landslide election victory. No fault of his own, Anthony's appointment to the office promoting music development at a state level caused widespread outrage because it meant that TMO's beloved director, Casey Monahan, who for 25 years served as Yoda to the young Jedis of the local music business, was out of a job.
If I go outside the city limits, can I skirt volume issues?
Not around here, pal. The issue of concert volume and curfews in greater Travis County became one of 2015's most extended controversies as Commissioners Court, reacting to one farmer's complaints against his neighbors at Carson Creek Ranch (hosts of Euphoria and Levitation), imposed earlier music cut-off times on outdoor gatherings. Their regulatory clampdown, which will continue to be appealed, drew prominent concert promoter Tim O'Connor out of hibernation as he plots an outdoor venue in Spicewood. The Backyard 3?
I'm thinking about starting a music festival.
Stop. Put your hands in the air and lay face down on the pavement. Our calendar's pretty full unless it's a metal festival. Housecore Horror relocating from Austin to San Antonio in 2015, combined with Chaos in Tejas' termination the previous year, leaves a void in Austin's metal/grind/punk circle-pit. We hear another spring festival will also cease in 2016.
Does Willie Nelson still perform?
And how – three times this week, in fact. The 82-year-old local icon is still inhaling (and exhaling), despite multiple news hoaxes reporting his death this year. Austin music did lose some favorite characters in 2015: virtuoso fiddler Johnny Gimble died at 88, jazz guitar maverick Slim Richey celestially ascended at age 77, Dave Hermann – who jump-started Red River punk with early Nineties dive Cavity Club – passed at age 53, Hickoids/Dicks guitarist Davy Jones exited the stage at 61, and Dave Sprauer, the brash owner of South Congress dive Trophy's, kicked the bucket in August.
Did Austin really used to be "so much cooler back in the day"?
Yes. Those rose-colored visions of old Austin with cheap rent, abundant parking, Stevie Ray Vaughan wailing guitar solos on Sixth Street, and Daniel Johnston ringing up your Happy Meal still abide. Yet Austin 2015 remains the best music city on the map simply because we can go to concerts seven nights a week without a rerun. For me, the promise of Austin as a place to play music, remain a slacker, and never get bored survives and thrives.