The Big 5 – where are the big name acts in Austin?

Austin has long since been known as a famous music town, but there are some factors that have limited big acts from playing regular shows in ATX for some time. Until recently, the largest theaters and venues could only hold a couple thousand people, and the location (deep in the heart of Texas) is out of the way for a lot of bands. Sure, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin create a nice run once you make it all the way to Texas, but the next city to the east is New Orleans, and to the west is Albuquerque. With the huge geographic barriers and size of venues, Austin didn’t catch huge acts until the 360 Amphitheatre was built. Below are a list of venues where you might catch the biggest names in the industry.

Circuit of the Americas 360 Amphitheater

Built as a race track, the Circuit de Americas has a huge amphitheater that can hold about 20 thousand people. About half of the venue has permanent seating covered by an overhanging ceiling, while the remainder of the theater (the back) is a grassy field. Bring blankets, sunglasses and sunscreen for summer shows. Like all venues, beer and food is expensive but the biggest names in the business perform at the 360 Amphitheater.

Stubbs

A long time name stay in Austin, Stubbs BBQ is far more than the name suggests. Sure, the BBQ is great and Sunday Gospel Brunch is a favorite of mine, but the Stubbs Back Yard takes the cake. Holding about 2,000 people, the yard is big enough for mid-sized acts that tour the country. Due to noise ordinances (check out my ramblings on Austin’s noise ordinances here) the outdoor venue closes around 11pm. Don’t worry, your ticket gets you into Stubbs Indoors for the after party. The restaurant converts into a venue after hours and the shows go as late as 2pm.

Moody Theater

The long-time famous Austin City Limits Live edition has played from the Moody Theater in downtown Austin for decades. Large names and great acts perform in this intimate theater often for live recordings. Tickets are higher priced, but sound quality is incredible and musicians always perform at their best.

Beauty Ballroom

UPDATE: The Beauty Ballroom is now permanent closed. Tucked away on Riverside Rd south of downtown, The Beauty Ballroom is an unassuming warehouse surrounded by shopping centers. Inside, you’ll find a space that holds about 600 people and a schedule that boasts touring acts from all over the country. Owned by the same folks that purchased Antone’s, The Beauty Ballroom keeps the rock, blues, soul funk spirit alive.

Antone’s

One of Austin’s most famous blues bars has re-opened on 5th street in downtown Austin. Known for incubating greats such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr., the legendary Antones is a favorite for incendiary live music. This small space has a loyal customer base, selling out mid-week shows as large acts pass through and weekend gigs alike.

Three Factors that make Austin Tough on Musicians (Opinion)

Austin TX is a great place for any live music lover. Sounds of rock, blues, DJs and grunge permeate downtown, with venues lining 6th Street, Red River and parts of Guadalupe. Neighborhoods dives range from intimate bars that boast an underground music scene like the Sahara Lounge or The Gallery to larger venues like the Beauty Ballroom or Threadgils. A music goer could stay busy for months before checking out each place and finding a favorite.

For musicians trying to “make it” in Austin, the scene looks quite different. Long boasting the Live Music Capital of the World, just like any major music city, Austin is not an easy place to break through the noise. Below are a few factors that I think make it tough to be a successful artist in Austin, TX.

Other Musicians Play For Free

As the music goer looks at do512.com for a concert, it’s easy to feel there’s so Musicians Playing for Freemuch to hear and so little time. Literally hundreds of musicians play each weekend, and each day you can find dozens of empty bars with live musicians singing to the wait staff. Being the Live Music Capital of the World means musicians have a high level of competition. How do you convince strangers to make it to your show instead of every other option in Austin on any given night? Well, there is no answer. It’s just hard work.

With the abundance of musicians, there are many people who play for nearly free to get gigs. Entire bands are forced to split $200 ($50/each) for four hours of playing. After the thousands of hours put into learning an instrument, creating original material and learning to sing, working for $12/hour is a tough pill to swallow. Play a show 7 nights a week at $50/night and you won’t be able to make ends meet. Trying to make more money and charging a cover at the door? The number of free or nearly free ($5 cover charge) shows in Austin makes it tough to build a crowd for less known artists.

Geographic Isolation

So you’ve built up a name for yourself as a band or musician. You have hundreds of people who show up each time you play, and you’re ready to take it to the next level. You can’t play the same show every week, much less twice a week, before you begin to see a drop in clientele. Why? Because why would someone come see you if they can see the same show this weekend. Any why pay to see you again? It’s time to spread out and play in other cities before you wear out your fans. Well, musicians in Texas have another problem set: you’re in the biggest state in the continental United States. It takes FOREVER to get anywhere outside of Texas.

There are some options of playing outside of Austin. Houston and Dallas are huge cities and certainly playing across suburbs there is an opportunity to spread out. There’s also San Marcos just an hour and a half away. After that… nada. Your options are limited as you become weekend warriors going to and from Houston or Dallas. Hotels add up. Gas adds up. 6 hours every weekend adds up quickly. Want to try and tour? Austin is really far away from other major music towns. Once you get past New Orleans, you have a long way to go before Atlanta. The balance of playing enough to survive and not overplaying the same material pushes many musicians to play in multiple bands or play cover music to get by.

Lack of Industry

Over the recent years, Austin’s music industry has grown but still has a few gaps. Prior to 2013, high quality recording studios and record labels where nowhere to be seen. After the drop of the industry 10 years ago, many artists have learned to self-promote, self-produce and record on budgets, but there is still some growth that could benefit the musicians of Austin. There are wonderful programs providing advice and health care to musicians of Austin, such as the Austin Music Foundation or HAMM.

Local Favorite: The Continental Club Gallery

I have mixed feelings writing this post about “The Gallery” because it has long been my favorite spot in Austin. Over the years, it has grown in popularity, and with a max capacity of about 75 people it can never be too crowded, but it’s nice to have a place that feels like your own. The Gallery serves as a source of amazing live music for locals all week long, and it hits the top of my list as a place to explore.

Getting There

The Gallery is on South Congress Street above the famous Continental Club. Disguised as an unassuming doorway to the left for the tattoo parlor attached to the Continental Club, it’s easy to pass right by and never know you missed it. The main room just atop of the stairs holds about 75 people. Walls are lined with a collection of work from a local artist that rotates seasonally, giving The Gallery its name. Head up the stairs in the back of the room for a game of ping pong between sets. There’s really nothing else like it.

A little taste of jazz with the talented Mike Flanigan and the B3 Trio. Shot by djlinalovely.

Who plays?

The musicians that perform are on residency, so the schedule remains the same week to week. My favorite nights have always been Wednesdays and Thursdays, bringing a lively crowd together for a mid-week funk/soul breakdown. Longstanding resident Tameca Jones played here for the first few years that I moved to Austin and she quickly became one of my favorite acts. Always playing on a Thursday to an excited crowd for just a $5 cover, Tameca brought soulful covers to melt your heart and make you groove.

With a new lineup of residencies rolling through each year and 7 days of music a week, The Gallery’s music ranges from jazz to soul to funk and blues. Guests appearances from Ephraim Owens (who plays regularly when not on tour) Blues Traveler’s Johnny Popper, Tom Jones, and Jimmy Vaughan just to name a few. The early show starts around 8:30 and is more acoustic and relaxed (generally) while the late show starts around 11:00. It’ll take a while to see every musician, so get started!

Music on the Street: Noise Ordinances and Busking in Austin (Opinion Piece)

Albeit a great city boasting live music each day, Austin has a few peculiarities that limit the music experience. Prior to ever visiting Austin, I had been to other major cities know for music: Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, etc. They are all vibrant in culture with shows of plenty, but a factor that stood out was the street performers and late night scene. NYC and Chicago seem to have talent bursting at the seams, from train stations to rounding random corners downtown, saxophones playing carols near Christmas or bucket drummers crushing it on stoops.

So, what’s the deal? Why doesn’t Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World” have street musicians? Why don’t we see blues guitarists laying their hat down collecting singles at bus stations? In short, it’s illegal, but the future seems bright for this aspect of Austin’s live music. Turns out Austin has limited busking significantly. Yes, those of you who have been here have seen a percussionist or two on the edge of 6th street, but Austin has nothing compared New Orleans where entire bands setup for impromptu shows across the French Quarter. Recent legislation is pushing to legalize busking. Check it here.

Musicians CAN busk (play for money on the street) in Austin, but only on private property where the owner of said property gives permission. This means government property (bus stations, streets, sidewalks, etc.) is off limits, and musicians are required to find a local business owner who is generous enough to allow late night busking. Could a talented street musician bring an appeal a local business, agreeing to pay at the entry to bring folks in? I guess that is up to the musician to argue.

What happens to musicians who busk in Austin? Well the penalties range from warnings to tickets to getting equipment taken away. Seemingly extreme measures, but Austin’s police department has their hands full during festivals such as SXSW and ACL. Speak softly and carry a big stick – the risk of losing equipment isn’t worth playing for many musicians.

Neighborhoods in Austin have long since been limited to music ending at midnight. Given the city has been booming with new bars and clubs opening daily, it makes sense to protect the long-standing residents. 6th street, on the other hand, is a different story. Walking from “Dirty 6” to “West 6th” after midnight and you’ll see that sound ordinances have limited bars, patios and venues to cut off amplified music (decibel requirements can be found at https://www.austintexas.gov/faq/noise-issues-what-noise-ordinance) at midnight. Why? Well, the same apartments that advertise “Come live downtown, where the beer is cold and the music lasts all night!” have residents complaining of music going until 2pm. Seems like if you’re buying a place above Austin’s premiere nightlife, you shouldn’t be able to complain about the noise.

A local shooting a video boasting how he has called the cops at 10:30pm on West 6th

Many open rooftops, patios and bars struggle to keep clientele with these music bans. What was originally the host hopping, profitable times (midnight-2am) are now dead zones. With restrictions like this, how was Austin self-proclaimed as the Live Music Capital of the World? I’ll research and write about that soon.