Red River Reality
Echotone director's interview: Artists make it, commerce breaks it
While Austin’s international reputation as The Live Music Capital of the World attracts touring bands and transplants from across the globe, it seems the city is having some trouble expanding as rapidly as necessary while still Keeping it Weird—and, as Nathan Christ’s documentary Echotone explains, there’s no better example of the tension between tradition and growth than in the music scene itself.
The film focuses on recent issues relating to the Red River entertainment district; as CultureMap columnist Dan Solomon explains, the film explores:
The tension between art — especially music — and the realities of trying to make a living have long been themes of life in Austin, and Echotone finds ways to express that elegantly. It uses vividly-depicted characters, each representing different viewpoints, to illustrate exactly what challenges an artist faces when it comes to making a living from his or her art.
Next Monday, August 29th at The Parish, Vagabond Collective is presenting a special screening of the doc, an event that’s particularly timely considering recent news of Emo’s upcoming departure from it’s iconic Red River location.
“There’s a lot of change afoot,” explains Echotone director Nathan Christ. “Our whole film depicts specifically Red River; for me, when I lived in Austin, that was the epicenter of what was happening. Best music, best clubs, best culture, it’s where I spent most of my time.”
Christ was motivated to make the film when he began observing that population growth, noise ordinances and city planning were having a direct affect on live music in Austin and, more specifically, musicians’ ability to participate in a rapidly changing DIY culture.
“It’s almost like, if there were an antagonist to this story, it’s an invisible force,” he says. “It’s growth itself unchecked, or it’s the market unchecked—there’s not one villain to this narrative.”
There is, however, one particular project that Christ cites as central to the direction of Downtown Austin’s future landscape.
“I think anyone who wants to know about the future of Austin needs to study the Waller Creek project very, very closely.”
This is what happens, it’s how a city moves, artists show up and commerce follows, and then the culture gets kicked out. That’s the story we’re trying to tell right now on a nationwide level.
What’s the Waller Creek project? It’s the city’s attempt to reroute an existing flood plain, avoiding erosion and making the (currently kind of sketchy) Red River-adjacent creek more citizen-friendly.
While this effort is obviously beneficial to the aesthetic and environmental well-being of the downtown area, it comes with some serious strings attached.
“When [the project] happens,” Christ continues, “the value of that street is going to go way up, and a lot of the venues are going to be hanging on by the skin of their teeth; we’re just starting to see that happen right now. Most people don’t even know about that.”
With increased rents and a growing residential section, it gets harder for smaller rock venues to continue hosting cheap, late night shows.
But: “You’ve got to keep the small guys around, especially in Austin, because that’s where it’s born, that’s where people play before they’re making any money or touring.”
What happens to the Live Music Capital when it gets harder to perform live?
“People are already getting forced away from downtown,” says Christ, “and it’s showing up on East 6th Street. Whenever I’m away from town for a few months, I come back and I’m blown away by what’s happening over on East 6th and 7th. It’s obvious that’s where it’s going.“
It’s true that East 6th is experiencing exponential growth, with venues like Cheer Up Charlie’s attracting hordes of food trailers which in turn attract tourists—who draw businesses (like the newly-opened shops flanking the East 6th Bird’s Barbershop).
“This is what happens, it’s how a city moves, artists show up and commerce follows, and then the culture gets kicked out. That’s the story we’re trying to tell right now on a nationwide level.”
Since moving to Chicago, Christ has discovered that the story of art influencing commerce isn’t unique to our city—but he’s also hopeful that Austinites’ attitude towards creativity will help shape this growth in a positive direction.
Together we stand and divided we fall, and I really find that to be the case in Austin.
“I don’t think it’ll slow down; I’m living in Chicago, and I find there’s tons of similarity between Chicago in Austin. It’s because there’s a DIY ethic here—I know they have that in L.A. and New York in a strong way, but in Chicago and Austin, people are able to make it, and it’s because of the community, it’s because of the support. Together we stand and divided we fall, and I really find that to be the case in Austin. The fact that we were even able to make Echotone a reality, it’s a struggle every single day, but the fact that we were able to make it work on the grassroots level that we did is remarkable, and that was fully Austin.”
Another success story? That of Black Joe Lewis, a band profiled in Echotone.
“They’re so hard working,” Christ notes. “I saw them come to Chicago, to a 500-person venue, they sold it out weeks in advance of the show. Rahm Emmanuel was there, singing the lyrics—it was pure rock and roll.”
Echotone’s story isn’t over; Christ and crew are currently working on turning the documentary into a miniseries exploring similar issues in other cities.
“We just got done shooting for two weeks in Chicago, we’re going to shoot in New York in September, and we’re going to shoot in L.A. hopefully in January and February. We want to make Echotone a nationwide movement; this is a tipping point in our culture and five years later it’s all going to look totally different. I don’t know how it will end up, but right now it’s very unstable, and documenting it is very important.”
The film will be available on Netflix and iTunes this September, but there’s something magical about watching it on the big screen, at one of the very iconic venues it highlights. Don’t miss Monday’s screening, and for more resources on recent music-related legislation, check the archives of the Live Music Task Force.