Inside Austin music
In any music scene — or anything else, really — there are what we think of as the insiders and the outsiders.
The insiders seemingly hop along a clear path to success, landing opportunities that others enjoy only in their rich fantasy lives. The outsiders, meanwhile, toil in obscurity, unsure of what they should be doing to get the prime gigs or media attention that the insiders seem to just stroll right into.
It causes a lot of resentment between the two. The outsiders watch years go by as they work hard and find themselves standing still. The insiders, meanwhile, have to assert that they did work hard to get where they are: that they didn’t just ride a wave of scene nepotism instead of earning what they have.
But as the Austin music scene continues to change, it’s fair to ask: Does this way of thinking even makes sense anymore? And maybe more importantly — did it ever?
Who exactly are the insiders?
“Our scene? We don’t really have a scene... Our scene is just bands that we end up playing with. We don’t have that Austin sound, whatever that is.” - Matt Hines
If there are insiders and outsiders in Austin music, then bands like Quiet Company and the Eastern Sea are the insiders. Right? Quiet Company took home the “band of the year” prize at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW, and has received plenty of attention from local — and some national — media.
The Eastern Sea followed the achievement of co-headlining a night of KGSR’s Blues On The Green with Quiet Company by heading out for two-and-a-half weeks of touring the East Coast in support of their well-received second album, Plague. Both bands will be on stage at Zilker Park for a second time this year in October when they’re playing ACL Festival (both bands are booked for official festival aftershows, as well).
So, they're like, insiders, right? Living the dream in the Live Music Capital... the kings of the Austin music scene.
Here’s what Eastern Sea frontman Matt Hines had to say about his band’s place in the Austin music scene earlier this summer. “Our scene? We don’t really have a scene. I feel kind of bad about it, really. We’re not tight like the Matador clique, we don’t primarily play on the East Side. Our scene is just bands that we end up playing with. We don’t have that Austin sound, whatever that is.”
Quiet Company’s Taylor Muse, when he spoke with CultureMap last year, struggled to point out where his band belonged, too. “For the longest time, we didn’t feel like we [fit in] at all,” he said, explaining that it took until his band’s gear got stolen before a tour that he realized that his band had support here.
Nobody needs to shed a tear for Hines or Muse, but it makes the point: If our rising young bands feel like outsiders, is anybody really an insider?
City of outsiders
That’s the thing about Austin, though: We’ve always prided ourselves on being independent. Even as our population booms and countless ex-Californians have pulled on some just-purchased cowboy boots, the types of people who are drawn to Austin remain largely those who see themselves as outsiders.
That means that looking for an Austin music scene in industry terms — "Who’s building buzz?"— is a sucker’s game. That’s not how things work here, then or now. Here’s Muse again: “For all our numbers, we’re still a small town,” he said. “There’s a mentality in the music community, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come play on your record.’ There’s a lot of sharing between musicians. And that’s a big benefit. If there is an Austin sound, it’s probably directly derived from the fact that there’s an Austin community.”
Things are going well for bands like Quiet Company and the Eastern Sea, no doubt. And yeah, there are other bands who are playing great music that are constantly struggling to be noticed. But this isn’t about the struggle between the haves and have-nots, because those have always existed, no matter where you are or what you’re talking about.
The real struggle here might be between two competing notions: the idea of a scene, where we pretend that Red River is Sunset Strip in 1988, and everybody’s fighting for scraps, versus that of a community. In a community, people play together because they like each other, and they like each other’s music. Things endure because they’re built on relationships.
Let’s face it: Even with a hell of a lot more money invested in Austin now than in years past, the only time anybody in the music industry comes here from New York or LA expecting to be an insider is during one week in March, and on Sunday morning, those people are buying their breakfast tacos at the airport.
Whether they moved here a year ago or were born at Seton, people who are making music in Austin picked this place — and not Williamsburg or LA or Portland or wherever — because there’s something about the idea of being an outsider that appealed to them. In Austin, even our insiders are outsiders.