Playback: Bombs, Beto, and the Biggest Music Stories of 2018
“Playback” recaps the news, trends, and controversies of the year. Outrage level: high.
For 18 days in March, our customarily carefree city experienced a radical unnerving when a serial bomber began shipping explosive devices around Austin. Not since Charles Whitman's UT shooting terrorized the state capital had locals felt so helpless. We were afraid to open our mail.
Draylen Mason woke up that Monday morning one of us: a musician, an Austinite, a person with a life ahead of them. The 17-year-old died in his kitchen when he opened a box left on his family's porch. Previously, the young composer and talented upright bassist received life-affirming correspondence: acceptance letters to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, UT's Butler School of Music, and the University of North Texas.
Austin's most shocking and sensational storyline of 2018 continued to play out during the South by Southwest Music Conference. With paranoia running hot, a star-studded revue led by the Roots at Fair Market evacuated and was canceled when co-promoters Live Nation received an ultimately unrelated bomb threat. The real bomber, a 23-year-old white terrorist from Pflugerville, blew himself up the following week.
Beto-mania Sweeps Austin
A lanky congressman from El Paso won the Most Popular Musician in Austin honors in 2018. When Beto O'Rourke took the stage at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic to deliver a speech decrying border detention, a portion of the bipartisan audience booed. And yet, over the next five months, "Beto for Senate" shirts became top fashion, musicians campaigned for him on social media, and seemingly every local band played a Beto benefit show.
O'Rourke became so popular that some people even pretended to like his godawful Nineties post-punk band, Foss. September's Turn Out for Texas rally, featuring Nelson and Leon Bridges, proved a defining moment in Austin music, packing Auditorium Shores with progressive voters. His opponent got more votes, but now Democrats tempt Beto for President big time.
Makes sense. Austin's music scene always knows what's cool before the rest of the country.
Nashville, L.A., Austin?
News that BMI intends to open an Austin office signals infrastructural growth for a grassroots scene historically trivialized as a live music playground. The industry giant's arrival signals the first time a performance rights organization – which collects licensing fees for songwriters – has maintained office space locally. Logic dictates they'll draw publishing companies to town.
2018 also brought Austin's first-ever commercial record pressing plant. Opened in March, Gold Rush Vinyl changed the game locally by giving Austin artists and labels a relatively fast, local source for records with small-batch options.
We also learned this year that you can still become millionaires from throwing shows. Austin concert promoters ScoreMore, who built a grassroots empire listening to the youth and staying ahead of the curve on burgeoning hip-hop and trap artists, sold a controlling stake to Live Nation in May – just as C3 Presents had in 2014.
Sayonara to the music venues we lost in 2018: Rainey Street renegade the Blackheart, West Sixth honky-tonk the Rattle Inn, and Red River two-stager Sidewinder, which got hosed by fire marshals, who dropped their capacity right before SXSW. The most contentious club closings came simultaneously: EDM hotbeds Kingdom and Ethics Music Lounge both got locked out by their new landlords at World Class Capital Group, which also acquired the property on which stood Encore Records, who beat a hasty close once alternate designs for their space appeared on a real estate website.
Conversely, the last 365 days saw the addition of a primo warehouse district showroom called Parker Jazz Club. The Parish also went back into operation after Empire Control Room & Garage operators Heard Events, plus partner Alex Saunders, purchased it ... on eBay! Meanwhile, to make up for Encore's loss after 33 years, Austin gained BLK Vinyl, which sprouted up on the Eastside.
After six years of debate and $8.5 million spent shaping it, CodeNEXT finally hit the dumpster. Music policy wonks entertained high hopes that the new land development code could position venues into future developments as well as defining them apart from bars and nightclubs.
At least the Red River Pilot Program succeeded, passing at Council after unprecedented cooperation from club managers and neighborhood groups. Bands can now play the strip's outdoor stages later Thursday though Saturday. Council also passed Agent of Change, the precept that a new development will have to soundproof accordingly if it's within earshot of a music venue, and vice versa.
Now we wait to see if the legislation emerges in a way that holds violators accountable. It's on the desk of the Economic Development Department – also known as "where good ideas go to die."
SXSW felt strangely manageable this year with shorter lines and fewer appearances from corporate-sponsored megastars. For music industry busybodies – scouring for buzzy baby bands and networking with colleagues – March's conference felt like a return to its roots. Some venue operators saw a downturn in music week profits, though an Economic Impact to City analysis showed increased numbers yet again.
Finding that sweet spot isn't easy.
Euphoria Fest shrank to one day, but the EDM gathering got relegated to club fare after organizers failed to secure permits to hold it at Carson Creek Ranch. The Eastside pasture hosted an inaugural jam band party, September's Waterloo Music Fest, plugging into an increasingly crowded fall calendar that also saw C3 Presents' family-friendly day rave, Piknic Électronik, debut to scant attendance at Auditorium Shores in October. Next year, Levitation moves from April to November.
Meanwhile, Old Settler's and Utopia Fest endured transitional years that included organizational shake-ups and new locations. Both survived on the strength of their die-hards and volunteers, plus extracurricular fundraising.
Veteran audio engineer Mark Genfan, a beloved force in our music community whose sound design and consulting business, Acoustic Spaces, brought to life many of ATX's finest studios, perished along with his wife Alisin in flooding last Friday. Both were 62. Austin music lost many legends over the past 12 months: Sammy Allred of the Geezinslaw Brothers, accordion titan Ponty Bone, music event electrician Bob "Bulb" Cannon, Poison 13/Lord High Fixers/Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee singer Mike Carroll, venue owner and dance hall preservationist Steve Dean, Bobby Jealousy's Seth Gibbs, Thee Unseen Eye singer/guitarist Sonny James, Mings owner Fai Jow, Offenders frontman J.J. Jacobson, and soul master Joe Valentine.
Music Controversy Guide 2018
Proud Boy Ty Richards: Reacting to listener feedback, KUTX stopped playing his song "Western Chauvinist," which references a far-right, white nationalist men's group that skewers transgender people and Muslims. The "apolitical" Richards then went on Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes' Get Off My Lawn podcast, where he soaked up praise. Outrage level: high.
Stevie Ray Vaughan's statue was found adorned with an Eagles football jersey and spray paint reading "Philly [hearts] St. Nick" after Austin-raised quarterback Nick Foles led the team to Super Bowl victory. Matthew Rutledge was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. Outrage level: medium.
Suzanna Choffel found herself labeled a cultural appropriator for a Selena tribute performance in Dallas. After national news outlets debated a white artist honoring the Queen of Tejano, Choffel revealed she's 1/16 Mexican and got props from Selena's father and husband. Outrage level: mild.
Summer Salt was dropped by Epitaph Records after fans accused them of being sexual predators. Bassist Phil Baier got the axe and MJ Tirabassi distanced himself from the tropical rock quartet. Outrage level: maximum.
Raw Paw's HQ went up in flames in January, destroying the art collective's stock of art, vinyl records, zines, and printing equipment. Investigators ruled it arson. Still unsolved, the crime occurred one month after Raw Paw ousted co-founder Will Kauber amidst sexual assault allegations. Outrage level: high.