A couple of weeks ago at Zoey’s, at the behest of Eric Wallner, the creative economy specialist for the city of Ventura, I was the token earnest singer-songwriter among the punk rock and hardcore promoters who gathered to discuss the future of Ventura’s music scene.
Local musician/journalist/powerhouse Chris Jay’s foul mouth made everyone feel immediately welcome, and the brainstorming began. Particularly charming was the list of problems, wherein “lack of underage venues” and “aggressive police presence” was followed immediately by “cover bands.”
I spend a lot of time in Austin, Texas, a city in which it’s impossible to walk down the street without tripping over four or five world-class musicians. So I thought it might be helpful to learn from the successes of “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
Some of what makes Austin special simply doesn’t apply to Ventura. I spoke to Rusty Chrome (aka Rusty Villa), a veteran of the Ventura scene who moved to Austin a few years back. He explained that one major difference between Ventura and Austin is that many people who are important in business and politics there attended the University of Texas between the 1970s and the 1990s, the heyday of Austin music. So there’s that. And also, the continuing benefit of Austin’s status as a college town cannot be underestimated.
The city of Austin is actively involved in all things musical. According to Sara Hickman, reigning Texas State Musician, there is “constant discussion” at the Austin City Council about music issues. Mark Hallman, owner of The Congress House Studio, told me that that the state of Texas offers a sales tax exemption for equipment used in making commercial music, which makes a difference in a tight economy.
Both Rusty and booking agent Gigi Benno make the point that cheap housing has been crucial to musicians’ ability to remain in Austin. (Thank you, Ventura, for the WAV! More of the same, please!)
Austin benefits greatly from the big festivals — SXSW, Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest — which infuse the town with multiple weeks of music-loving tourist dollars. Many who come for the festivals come back throughout the year.
Rusty allows that as much as the locals want to “keep it Austin,” they recognize the need to welcome the outsiders. Conversely, he’s pretty skeptical about the Ventura scene, feeling that the locals have not been groomed to support it.
At the airport in Austin, everyone who arrives is greeted right away by live music. (Folksinger Matt the Electrician tells a funny story about the pros and cons of the “airport gig.”) Locals formed SIMS Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) to help with mental health and medical issues. Austinians host multiple “School of Rock”-type camps for kids. The coffee shops, clubs, bookstores, churches and libraries all make music part of their regular programming. Danny B. Harvey, who plays with me when he’s not on the road with Lemmy Kilmeister’s trio The Head Cat, says that nearly every time he does a show in Austin, the staffs at clubs make a point of passing the tip jar around to shake more money loose for the band — which brings up the downside to being a musician in Austin. There’s deep creative satisfaction and wonderful civic support, but zero money. Also, increasingly, the noise code is an issue. With each new high rise that goes up, a new battle begins with a small venue that has always hosted bands on the patio.
Hallman says, “They will shut down an 80 db outdoor folk music show, and allow hundreds of 120 db leaf blowers to thrive.” Ventura and Austin are very different places, and Ventura must find its own approach. But it’s heartening to know that my Austin friends liked the ideas we’ve come up with so far (though Rusty was characteristically dubious: “Free parking? Where will they find angst?”). Harvey recommended, as well, an online local musicians’ forum. Hallman suggested a regular opportunity for musicians to address the City Council, and Hickman said we might want to duplicate an annual Austin compilation CD that goes out every year from the Visitors Bureau.
Now, about those cover bands? That’s another topic altogether.
Rain Perry is an award-winning songwriter and author of the autobiographical play Cinderblock Bookshelves: A Guide for Children of Fame-Obsessed Bohemian Nomads. Her song “Beautiful Tree” is the theme for the CW Series Life Unexpected. She divides her time between motherhood and the lucrative world of independent folk-rock music.