Faster Than Sound: A Tale of Two Red River Fests
Free Week and This Is Austin, Not That Great share Red River
By Rachel Rascoe, Fri., Jan. 4, 2019
DIY or Subsidize
Amid the treacherous landscape of Texas music festival profitability, two multi-venue events share square footage this week in the Red River Cultural District. Long-running tradition Free Week, spanning Jan. 1-6 at nine Downtown locales, divvies up sponsorship funds among cooperating district venues to book largely local, unticketed showcases. DIY punk festival This Is Austin, Not That Great, split between Barracuda and Beerland Jan. 3-6, draws on an established underground following to attract out-of-town artists and fans for a third year.
Squeezing out the last dead days of winter before college classes start up, these concurrent gatherings manage to make lemonade.
Margin Walker Presents Founder Graham Williams unofficially launched Free Week in 2002, attempting to spike business at Emo's during a lull in touring acts. Following the formation of the Red River Merchants Association in 2016, Free Week now acts as a shared spotlight for participating district venues. Owners also collaboratively launched the event's July twin, Hot Summer Nights.
"[Free Week] is no longer just about surviving," says Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District. "It's about equity. There's enough programming diversity and creative ideas in the district that we've realized, 'Oh, we should stop trying to find ways of undermining each other, and instead do rad shit together.'"
The citywide tradition drew complaints for offering artists little to no pay for their play, but the Red River Cultural District now raises funds through business sponsorships – primarily from drink companies. The group's money is divided among area venues to book Free Week artists, with nightly budgets based on capacity. Participating venues pay every act somewhere between the recommended minimum, $100, and a strict upper limit of $500.
"The old competition model between bars and venues was: Let me see what the neighbors are doing, and then find a way to undercut that by paying the same band more or making our beer cheaper," adds Cowan. "That was a zero-sum game."
Outside the Red River Merchants Association, other venues like Hotel Vegas and Hole in the Wall are free to host events using the "Free Week" brand.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Juan-Carlos Silva started This Is Austin to ease the void left by beloved punk conglomeration Chaos in Tejas. Silva used to book day shows for the fest, which spanned 2004-13.
"I opened up some credit lines and decided to buy flights, cross my fingers, and pray to Allah that I'd make the money back," shares Silva via email. "I [shouldn't] be sinking money into endeavors that aren't focused on making a profit, but it's all for the love."
Luckily, the promoter managed to break even, barely, allowing for this year's high-energy assemblage to include frenetic SoCal hardcores Tozcos and Rashomon's D.C.-based Japanese punk. Not far off from Free Week's sponsorship provisions, Silva pays touring bands around $200. The founder estimates that half his audience travels from outside the state, flocking to a fest that includes aftershows at 523 Thompson and an accompanying art show.
He adds that the all-ages environment has "nothing to gain" from alcohol sponsorships. And civic grant money?
"I doubt the city would want anything to do with a fest that's promo video explicitly says 'Fuck Ted Cruz,'" writes Silva.
Rapping Red River
Abhi the Nomad pulls hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners. The local rapper's label, Tommy Boy Entertainment, developed legends like De La Soul. My Music column predecessor Kevin Curtin deemed his Marbled the best local album of 2018.
Despite the early success, 25-year-old Abhi Sridharan Vaidehi has never played a show in our city's designated live music epicenter, the Red River Cultural District. Now, the melodic rapper/singer makes his debut tonight, Thu., Jan. 3, on Stubb's indoor stage following local sibling trio the Bishops. Both acts join a youthful crop of local hip-hop artists booked for Free Week's most exciting showcases.
"I can't really have a hometown audience, because I'm from so many different places," says India-born Vaidehi, who has played fewer than 10 Austin shows since moving here in 2017. "It's about putting on the best live show I can, while also rallying [fans] from all over who are online. It's a balancing act."
Hip-hop topped national streaming stats in 2018, and that dominance comes well represented in the online takeoff of Austin's rising rap stars. Seventeen-year-old Quinlan McAfee, who performs as Quin NFN, joins Vaidehi atop the Free Week poster. After his Chronicle cover in August, McAfee's rapid-fire delivery fronted a Pitchfork feature. The teen has since racked up over 3.5 million views on the video for the bass-busting "Talkin' My Shit."
Expanding on past genre crossover, This Is Austin kicks off Thursday with bilingual Miami rapper La Goony Chonga. The night at Barracuda also pulls Austin rap figure the Teeta alongside the smooth delivery of Ladi Earth. Fest organizer Silva, who helps promote Texas runs for buzzy online acts like Lil Ugly Mane, says alternative punk and rap fans largely overlap.
"Because of racism and the social stigma of rap music, the underground rap scene had become isolated from downtown venues," writes Silva via email. "[It] has become more present in the Red River area, but we could be doing better."
Ladi Earth, rap pseudonym of Austin-based Michaela Taylor, impulsively posted her first song, "Water," on SoundCloud a year ago. The track will appear on Natasha Lyonne's new Netflix show Russian Doll. A bubbling online presence allowed Taylor to open for large acts such as Cupcakke during her first year. Still, the 23-year-old Austinite says there wasn't a go-to place to practice her hazy, Princess Nokia-inspired sound.
"There's a venue for everything else except rap music," Taylor shares. "You know you're going to hear hella rock bands at Mohawk, but for rap, you have to know where to look."
The closest she's found is Scratchouse, where Austin rhymer Shirt Off Fe arranged Taylor's first-ever show. The Seventh Street venue, previously home to Beauty Bar and Holy Mountain, joins Free Week for the first time following a change in ownership. As for Vaidehi, the rising star says he's not overly concerned about limited local hip-hop audiences. He chose the city as a home base, rather than a source of hype.
"It's not like I want to prove everything here," he shares. "This is my home, so if I have to do something hip-hop-related or stuff that's important to the culture elsewhere, I can fly out for it. Then I can come back [to Austin], where I'm most comfortable."
UT finally announced plans for a replacement to the 41-year-old Frank C. Erwin Center. The new arena, offering 10,000 seats for Longhorn basketball games and expanding to 15,000 for music events, will sit on a current campus parking lot south of Mike A. Myers Stadium. Both C3 Presents and parent company Live Nation hopped on a 35-year agreement with UT and private sector partners. Furthering his campaign to outshine Bevo, locally based actor Matthew McConaughey will serve as "Minister of Culture" for the venue, set to open in 2021.
Margin Walker Presents has launched a live music subscription service. The Fan Club offered two guest spots at one show a month, so 100 Austinites sold out membership in under 15 minutes. The offer breaks down to just $6.25 per person for every gig – quite a deal considering I pay more monthly to melt my brain on Netflix.
Tango pianist Glover Gill ended his legendary performance career Dec. 29 at the Continental Club, accompanied by his gypsy swing band 8½ Souvenirs. Head to our Daily Music page online for the full story on Gill's retirement.