Regardless of what you think of Austin calling itself the “Live Music Capital of the World,” you’ve got to admit it is pretty effective branding. Even people who don’t like music, and who’ve never been here, equate the city with a vibrant scene.
New York is “The Big Apple.” Chicago's "The Windy City." But people don’t talk much about those nicknames. Austin is like the town that boasts the world’s largest ball of twine: If you stop in that town, people are going to ask you if you’ve seen the twine.
That prompted Austin Brown (yes, his first name is Austin) to ask this question for our ATXplained series:
“Where did the live music capital of the world moniker come from? Does it still feel accurate to residents or musicians?”
A lot of people say the music scene in Austin really took root right around First Street and Barton Springs Road.
That was the site of the Armadillo World Headquarters. It was one of the clubs where, history tells us, Willie Nelson helped unite the hippies and the rednecks. That union encouraged a vibrant music scene to take hold that might today be called roots music or Americana.
Nowadays the place where the Armadillo stood is a surface parking lot for a city office building, but the memories of Austin in its heyday remain.
“I was at a party maybe a year ago and this guy had a poster from the Soap Creek Saloon,” says KUTX host Jay Trachtenberg, who has been a DJ in Austin for decades.
The Soap Creek Saloon was a popular venue in the '70s and '80s. Trachtenberg says in the one month advertised on that poster, big names like Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt, Marcia Ball and Paul Ray were all playing gigs.
“You look at this and go, ‘I can’t believe all these people were here,’" he says, “and this was only one place of dozens.”
By that time the Austin Chamber of Commerce had also taken note. One Chamber pamphlet from the '70s said people were calling Austin a “Second Nashville.” Through the '80s and '90s, the scene expanded to embrace blues, punk and new wave. The Austin City Limits public television show grew in popularity.
By the time SXSW started up, the Austin city government began to see music as a money-maker. It created the Austin Music Commission to foster the industry in 1988. Clearly, "Second Nashville" wasn’t going to cut it.
Chances are you haven’t heard of Lillian Standfield, but when it comes to the "Live Music" nickname, Standfield left a big mark.
“I give 100 percent of the credit to Lillian Standfield for bringing it up and bringing it to the music commission,” says Nancy Coplin, the first chair of the Music Commission.
Coplin says sometime around 1991 she got a call from Standfield.
“She said, ‘You know, I just drove back from a gig in Houston, and as I pulled into Austin and saw the Austin city limits sign, I thought maybe we should have something that says 'Music Capital of Texas,’” she says.
The music commission looked at how many venues there were in Austin per capita and decided maybe "Live Music Capital" was a better claim. City Council Member Max Nofziger had recently helped create the music commission and was considered Austin music’s biggest champion at City Hall. Coplin called him with the slogan idea.
“I said, 'Well that’s good. I like that, but this is no time to be modest,'” Nofziger says. “So, how about if we become the 'Live Music Capital of the Universe'?"
Coplin was skeptical, suggesting the city didn't really have a way to gauge music on Mars.
Eventually, they settled on “Live Music Capital of the World" and brought it to a vote at City Hall. That means, if you look through City Council archives, you can find the exact moment in history – Aug. 29, 1991 – when Austin proclaimed itself the Live Music Capital of the World.
There was one final piece to this question. What do people think of the nickname? Back in the '90s there was some skepticism; these days maybe more so.
Nofziger thinks it might not be accurate anymore. Austin has just become too expensive for a lot of musicians to live here. It's common for people to talk about Austin music as though it’s in crisis.
But, at the same time, public hand-wringing over the Austin scene has been with us longer than the city's "Music Capital" slogan. Nofziger remembers back in the '70s there was a movement among hippies to leave Austin "because it had become too corporate."
Trachtenberg says the local music scene has changed, but maybe not as much as some people think.
"There's always a scene here because of the students," he says.
There would be one way to quantifiably determine how Austin music compares today with the '70s and '80s. If you could find that old survey the city did to show how many clubs were here, you could compare it to today. But the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, which now owns the “Live Music Capital” trademark, says it doesn’t have that survey.
As the search for the survey continues, the truthfulness of Austin’s live music claim might just depend on who is listening.