The Austin Chronicle

Faster Than Sound: Inside a Competition to Become Musician-in-Residence at a Luxury Apartment Complex

Would you play 25 hours a month to live rent-free in Downtown Austin?

By Rachel Rascoe, April 15, 2022, Music

I felt considerably terrible on April 5 when my landlord pointed out I had forgotten to pay rent. I felt considerably more terrible than I would have when I moved in five years ago, as my rental feels much more valuable now. According to apartment agency Zumper's March data, the median monthly cost for a one-bedroom residence in Austin is now $1,570, an increase of over 30% from last year.

In the price-out despair, I've heard a few musicians express hope that a pricier town could serve lucrative opportunities, like last week when Elon Musk invited Gary Clark Jr. and other acts to perform under an aerially suspended Tesla at the opening of his Gigafactory. The question drew me to a competition to solve the affordability crisis for just one artist, as the musician-in-residence at Downtown luxury apartment complex Sienna at the Thompson. For a year of free rent, the winner would pay their way in songs, performed 25 hours a month throughout the blockwide development off Fifth and Brazos.

On the fourth-floor, neutral-toned Bayberry Room last Saturday afternoon, emotional displays and a generic party atmosphere would have made for solid background-viewing reality television. Radio host Anne Hudson told the crowd of building residents to think hard, and take notes on their ballots, on who they'd like to hear playing around the building's pool, hotel, and many restaurants. Each contestant offered two songs, all solo on acoustic guitar. While one played, the other three bobbed supportively on a rather squished-looking sofa.

Overseeing, Vanessa Casciano of Magellan Development Group said she'd selected the four finalists from one-minute video entries submitted via social media or email, of which she'd received some 35 total. The builders first rolled out the novel program at Chicago and Nashville apartments in 2017, smoothly enough to make a promotional video with artist testimonies. In a strange development for its local launch, the first contestant was actually an employee of the Thompson building.

Jarin Humphrey, an aspiring pastry chef and musician with six weeks left of culinary school, works downstairs in the street-level bar and market. "I'm really blessed and privileged to have a family of people to work alongside and grow with," she said, before covering Coldplay and Adele. I voted for Humphrey by default, figuring she deserved it the most.

More residents, nicely dressed to work out or lounge poolside, streamed in during Humphrey's set, which seemed a bit unfair for voting. Here were around 50 adults, voluntarily spending their weekend at an event put on by their building for the promise of two drink coins, complimentary sliders, and unknown entertainment. Their eager camaraderie surprised me. Some said they'd met last week on the elevator, or connected on the resident-only social media platform.

In their telling, the new building held a magnetism, making moving in a long-sought accomplishment. Some had temporarily lived in other units, awaiting construction on their own, and others had briefly lived out of the hotel. Others had extended their leases in Clarksville. One had already relocated from an apartment on the building's north side to the south, bothered by the noise from Sixth Street.

The final and most interesting performer, who started with a deep-voiced, "I'm very nervous," ultimately won. Billed at the competition under his full name of Cameron Rafati, the very tall half-Persian performer actually carried a formidable industry history under the solo pseudonym Rafferty. Titled with the dream of placement on an Apple commercial, his 2016 track "Apple Pie" soundtracked rollout of the iPhone 6S. And after being dropped from a record label, he began entering contests like The Voice. His loud, sweet-then-gravelly croon appeared in 2020 on the NBC songwriting competition Songland – which Rafati told the crowd he actually won but was later swapped with another contestant in the TV edit.

Downtown, he belted country tune "Tennessee Whiskey" before a false start to the Amy Winehouse-popularized "Valerie," which another finalist had already covered. He told the sound guy to turn his vocals up and opted for an original track called "Nobody Loves You," like if Michael Bublé went through a bad breakup. During our conversation, Rafati scrambled to get contact information from the other hopefuls – JoAnna Lee and Jared Masucci – promising to get them paid gigs with him during his residence.

A friend who lives at the Sienna had suggested he enter. He showed me pictures in a hard hat at his last job, earning $15 an hour in an industrial bitcoin mining facility in Rockdale, Texas. With the charming confidence of someone either completely clever or insane, he said he'd flown to the competition directly from a crypto conference in Miami, where he'd been networking in hopes of a new job. "I'm getting the fuck out of Rockdale," he said, describing his current residence as a tiny trailer.

A 500-square-foot studio at Sienna at the Thompson starts at $2,349 per month. As a member of one resident cluster I overheard talking industry disruption pointed out, the in-house musician will essentially earn $30,000 a year in rent expenses being covered. The man said, personally, he wouldn't take the deal. Across the coffee table, his friend/neighbor argued for the value of the building itself, beyond free rent and amenities. In a passionate monologue of business parlance, he broke down the incentives – proximity to music venues, an impressive space for meetings, and access to upscale clientele.

"A financial advisor sets up meetings at the richest coffee shop in her nicest outfit to say, 'I make the most money,'" he explained. "This gentleman now has the ability to play a character by performing here. He has just increased his value in stock as a musician. And while you do that 25 hours [a month], who are you surrounded by? Anybody in this building is going to have money. The benefits begin to become seismic."

Before an encore of "Many Rivers to Cross" by Jimmy Cliff, Rafati got choked up during his acceptance speech. Recapping his exit from the music industry, he told the audience: "I was like, 'I'm never going to do this again.' Became a crypto bro, forget it. Because that's what you do when you're done with something. You become a crypto bro."

Residents whooped encouragement from the lounge's many couches. "You live here now!" Another quickly followed up – "You're family!"

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