Lexington, KY – In 1981, Armadillo World Headquarters, an iconic music hall in Austin, Texas, was demolished to make way for a new development on the outskirts of downtown. The city was growing at a rapid pace, and the club was unsightly and financially struggling. In many ways, though, Armadillo had served as an epicenter for live music in the city – it was a place where Austin’s “progressive country” sound came to fruition, and it hosted hundreds of the most influential artists from the past century, from Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa to Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. Its demolition left a gaping hole in the burgeoning music scene of a city that had not yet garnered the reputation of one of the world’s greatest live music destinations.
Parts of this story ring familiar to Lexington’s own music community, which saw the center of our own music and nightlife culture razed to make way for downtown development in 2008. As was the case with the Armadillo in Austin, the demolition of “The Dame block” opened the doors for other opportunities in Lexington’s live music community, with the development of venues like Natasha’s, Buster’s, Cosmic Charlie’s and Al’s Bar. In Austin, however, the fear of losing more valuable resources shook the local music community to its core, inciting an organic, multi-faceted movement during the ’80s that played no small role in the overall development of one of the world’s leading music industries.
In the decade following the demolition of the Armadillo, and partially in response to it, several forces in Austin aligned, resulting in a number of developments and initiatives that continue to contribute to the city’s cultural landscape today. A University of Texas graduate student authored an eye-opening analysis of the financial impact of the local music industry, which was circulated among city officials. After some prodding by the disgruntled music community, members of the local chamber began meeting privately with club owners, promoters, musicians, music writers, etc., to discuss possible ways to preserve and strengthen the local music scene (this was due largely to the support of David Lord, who put in some time with the Convention and Visitors Council of Austin’s chamber before leading the Lexington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for the past 18 years). From these meetings, a report that rallied for greater cooperation and collaboration between the city’s music community and financial and government institutions was produced. The chamber placed an ad in a 1986 Billboard Magazine purporting Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World (a title that was officially adopted by the city in 1991, due to calculations that Austin had more live music venues per capita than any other city in the world). MTV and Rolling Stone sent crews to Austin to see what was going on with the city’s music scene.
One of the most significant and lasting initiatives to contribute to Austin’s music scene during that time was the inception of South by Southwest (SxSW), an event that started in 1987 as a convention for music industry professionals and has since grown into a 10-day conference and festival that also includes the film and technology industries. With more than 70,000 attendees reported in 2010, the event had an estimated $113 million economic impact on Austin last year, according to a report compiled by Greyhill Advisors.
“(South by Southwest) is definitely the anchor of a huge, busy economic period for this city,” said Beth Krauss, the media relations adviser for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, whom I met last month after enmeshing myself in dozens of events affiliated with the music portion of the conference and festival over a dizzying four and a half days (for photos and more musings on my experience at the event, visit the SxSW blog at www.bizlex.com).
Attendance numbers haven’t yet been released this year, but festival organizers have reported an increase of more than 30 percent from 2010 for at least one segment of the festival. The impact of SxSW far eclipses any other single event in Austin, Krauss said, and nearly surpasses the economic impact of the entire University of Texas football season (six home games). The event is certainly a “monster,” as Krauss affectionately referred to it, and it’s also a dream come true for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose job it is to to keep the hotels filled and to market the city as a tourist destination. With hundreds of concerts, parties and film screenings accompanying 10 days of panel discussions, trade shows and networking events, the event paints a lively portrait of Austin as a fun and exciting city to thousands of visitors each year, who, in the meantime, spend millions of dollars on food, booze, music and hotels. And a growing number of these attendees peg Austin on the list of places they might one day like to live.
According to Rose Reyes, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s music office, which was created after a recommendation from the city in 1991, one of the most significant and priceless impacts that SxSW has on the city is the international media coverage it attracts. Blogs, daily papers, magazines and public radio swarm to cover the event, producing an international campaign that was valued at nearly $15 million in 2010 – and probably even more in 2011.
“It is such an important piece about how we have become a leading music city worldwide,” Reyes said. “The word of mouth that is out internationally about Austin as a music town, Austin as a fun town, Austin as a great place to visit – we couldn’t dream of a better sort of capsule that can do that for us (than SxSW).”
In many ways, South by Southwest seems to be a poster child for the spirit of Austin. In the five days I was there, I visited a dozen venues, patronized numerous independent restaurants and shops and saw nearly 30 bands, most of which I was unfamiliar with before the festival. Almost all of them were sincerely and surprisingly great. The story of SxSW and of Austin that resonated the deepest with me, as one of many Lexingtonians who was disappointed by what happened with the Dame block but who still has faith in our city’s own creative community, is the history of synergy among city officials, the tourism bureau and local organizers who were unwilling to let the city become “safe for the Fortune 500 and unpalatable for everyone else,” as a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman wrote in 1985.
Thirty years ago, Austin’s local government and chamber of commerce took an active interest and investment in the concerns of the city’s musicians, small- business owners and music lovers, a move that was highly unusual at the time and remains so to this day. It’s a model that significantly contributed to the city’s current $3 billion annual tourism industry, and one that leaders in other cities looking for creative ways to attract new industries, talent and visitors (I’m looking at you, Lexington) might not be remiss to consider.
Saraya Brewer is a founding board member of Lexington Area Music Alliance and a founding director of WRFL’s Boomslang festival. She is the managing editor of this paper’s sister publications, Chevy Chaser and Southsider Magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.