Tamara Deike is a Creative Leader + Consultant with Aces High Creative specializing in audio-branding, creative strategy, and experiential marketing. Her original article “Turnt in Texas” was published with Flaunt Magazine, an American satirical fashion and culture magazine based in Los Angeles.
Venues and restaurants on Rainey and 6th Street are boarded up, once packed with party revelers. A chaotic semblance of makeshift signs are scattered on the doors of nail salons and taco stands proposing apologies to would-be customers. I-35 has never been so lonesome.
If you still haven’t been to Austin, it’s a place full of contradictions. Startups, artists, musicians, and big business all galavanting around a sea of honky-tonks, bars, and wide-open spaces. Always welcoming, and fervently freak-flag-forward.
Creatives around the globe are weaving between thriving in isolation while finding new ways to connect and hone their craft; while others are hitting the wall… struggling to find their voice. We take a glimpse into the lives of Texan creatives, venue owners, and musicians who are fighting back with the tenacity that makes Texas…well, Texas.
I gave in to Austin’s feisty music scene, natural springs, DIY culture, and seemingly endless queso varieties one year ago, by way of LA (and half a dozen cities before that). And while it’s not my first foray in Texas, having graduated in a one-red-light northeast Texas town…I think I just became a Texan.
TURNT IN TEXAS.
It’s hard to believe that just one month ago Mayor Steve Adler announced the cancellation of SXSW, in light of the current pandemic it may as well be a lifetime ago. With the cancellation, a tsunami of financial woes and setbacks for thousands of small businesses, gig economy workers, entrepreneurs, and artists was unleashed, with a particular black eye to the music industry, and an early warning of the uncertainty yet to come.
SXSW brings approximately $355 million to Austin each year. By comparison, the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston saw an influx of $347 million. Between 100k – 200k people had their sights set on attending, numbers that surely would have impacted the death toll had the conference proceeded.
As a promoter and event producer myself, I felt the immediate sting as one by one, all four of my events canceled in 48 hours including my Hard Country party at Scholz Garten, featuring Texas-native Charley Crockett as well as The Black Lips.
In the throes of isolation, vulnerability is the commonality that unites us. And when it comes to being a musician, that exposure can open up new portals into creativity.
Take Austin’s White Denim, the band announced on March 18th in a defiant approach to isolation—the release of an album of entirely new material, “World as a Waiting Room,” in just 30 days (due out April 17th). Holed away in their studio, limiting collaboration to 3-members at a time the band created a pact to restrict interactions to each other and family-only to keep safety supreme during the recording process.
“It’s eerie…like, weird.” Speaking with frontman James Petralli, “We’re social distancing inside of a place that used to be safe and it’s just kind of scary that this thing that you can’t see is…lurking.” Having recently launched their own imprint, Radio Milk Records has allowed a quick pivot. “So we came up with this idea and reached out to Gold Rush Vinyl (vinyl manufacturers) and they were into it…we just announced it, and started taking pre-orders…to generate some income for the guys that work for us like our road crew, and musicians in the band. So yeah, we’re just kind of trying to stop the bleeding, a little bit, and hopefully, make something positive out of a scary situation.”
Hinting at the sound of the new album, “The music is good, it’s definitely reflecting this moment. So creatively it’s been a breath of fresh air…I think it’s really strong.”
Leaning into social distancing, the band created a Whatsapp group with more than 20 past-collaborators. “Basically anyone that’s ever been in the band: engineers…producers, everybody that we’ve co-written with…it’s kind of become like a support group, essentially. It’s been a positive thing for healing relationships in that way too, you know, just kind of connecting on those fundamental things that brought us together in the first place and letting go of any bullshit. Basically, (this situation) puts a lot of things into context.”
“I’ve been working almost around the clock to try to make sure that we can stay open and keep pressing records…” says Founder Caren Kelleher, “…Calling city councilmen lobbyists, manufacturing associations, the county judge. One of the things I think for me is that I’m kind of realizing the amount of resilience I have. Every single day feels like getting punched in the stomach, and you still have to get back up. I’ve also been blown away how my team has shown up in this too. Despite all the uncertainty…Our mission has always been to help musicians make more money off their art through vinyl. And…with concerts and festivals canceled, studios closed and royalty checks taking so long to reach artists: vinyl sales direct to consumers are really the only revenue stream musicians have beside (virtual) tip jars.”
Houston, one of the first Texas cities struck by the virus, is home to Khruangbin, the trio’s bassist Laura Lee explained, “we’re in a state of surrendering because planning is just a really odd thing to do right now.” With a new album release and touring schedule that continues to shift with the ever-changing landscape, “it’s been over three weeks now…and I think it’s sort of like the stages of grief…the first week was just sort of shock and I had a hard time that first week, and the second week I found to be really nurturing. And now I’m like, ok, I need to figure this out. One of the things that have been making me smile is thinking that the birds and the trees and everything that’s not human is having a laugh. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so hard being you guys being in your nice apartments watching TV all day, meanwhile you’ve been shitting on us for years.”
Despite the isolation, “We’re still working on different aspects of our new album, and started a weekly mix series so we’re really digging for songs and adding them to playlists.” Next up, a focus on Reggae rarities from around the world.
The cache of content is critical to our couch-fueled binges, and Austin City Limits (ACL) has been at it for 45 years, with the longest-running music program in television history. Speaking with ACL General Manager Tom Gimbel, “From an Austin City Limits perspective, not being able to do taping in front of a live studio audience…is a serious stoppage in our season. You know, it’s challenging…we want to create a diverse, really high-quality season. And that’s a tricky puzzle when you’ve got 12 months to do it, and it’s even more challenging if we’re going to try to compress that into 6 months. We’ve got a 45-year library of some of the most amazing live music that’s ever been recorded. And as people are home, they’re consuming more content. So this is really where we’re trying to put a lot of focus.” ACL just released its last 2 seasons to stream online for FREE here.
Gimbel is also co-founder of the “Hi, How Are You Project,” a charity founded in memory of the late Daniel Johnston, with a focus on mental health awareness. “Now we’re in this forced isolation it’s so important for people to find meaningful ways to connect with one another and pay attention to self-care…get out and take a walk in the sunlight, exercise, drink plenty of water, get good sleep, eat right, connect with friends in ways that you can…”
Writer Joe Nick Patoski hosts his weekly radio show on west Texas’ own Marfa Public Radio, residing in Wimberley. Speaking about the cosmic shift when this ‘thing’ is over, “It will not be the same. As far as creative energy…I mean that’s what’s fueling Austin’s economy. It’s not about oil or gas, it’s about the creative mind. it has been over the last half-century. It’s the resiliency of the culture to snap back again. It’s a culture that’s foundation is really underground, it’s always been alternative. The Great Depression was a period when music first really flourished. And, you know, two of the biggest recording centers in the world in the 1920s, in the early days were Dallas and San Antonio, because everybody’s making music (during hard times)….and I don’t see that going away just yet.”
“Look at Scholz Garten, it’s the oldest business in the state of Texas. It’s been around since the 1860s and survived the Great Depression, The Spanish Flu, World War One, World War Two, 9/11…all the great disruptions. And it will continue.”
Scholz Garten owner/operator, Daniel Northcutt has continued to pivot with each passing week: canceling all events, laying off staff so they can obtain unemployment, and continuing to find clever ways to navigate. “I remember the day that I pulled the plug on everything. I really felt like that was the right move, and it was time…it was a quarter-million-dollar decision but I definitely was not trying to make decisions from a financial standpoint any longer. It was really about the community and the safety of all of us.”
In the early days of door closure, Shultz hosted DIY concert live stream sessions with singular bands on stage and launched M.A.S.H., or the “Mobile Austin Sausage Haus”, preparing curbside German sausages for those of us fed up with our own culinary experiments.
“Instantly, everybody was like, how can I help you? We love you guys, what can I do? And everybody’s pulling together. It wasn’t even a question. You know we’re in the middle of a pandemic and everybody’s hurting. Physically, mentally, spiritually and financially, but it’s certainly comforting to know that we live in this phenomenal city.”
With touring screeching to a halt, musicians are finding new ways to expand their reach from the confines of home.
Houston DJ Disko Cowboy (aka David Wrangler) and Vinyl Ranch lifestyle brand purveyor, “I’ve got time on my hands now to wrap up creative projects and time to explore….even the Facebook Live thing. I’m watching and learning…and picking up on ways to connect with new audiences.”
San Antonio resident musician Garrett T. Capps would be on tour with the Jacuzzi Boys. His bar and music venue, the Lonesome Rose shuttered its doors, “We closed at 11:59 on March 18th and yeah…I mean, I’ve been wanting to make like a rock and roll record with songs that I’ve kind of put on the back burner…Right now I’m reveling in the fact that I can just create art for myself.”
Composer Graham Reynolds, “Having all the social obligations cut out…allows me to focus more…I can take more time with things that I might normally push through and I can dig in more deeply.” Next up, the debut of MXTX, a project with Orion Garcia of Peligrosa—featuring Texan DJ’s and composers with more than 40 different samples from both sides of the border. A project previously slated for the stage at Austin’s Fusebox Festival, will now be experienced online.
Charities have also stepped up all over Texas to support creatives and those affected by the downturn in the economy. Banding Together ATX was launched by Red River Cultural District’s own Stephen Sternschein “to support the venue workers, musicians, creatives, service industry and production workers that rely on regular (music) programming and continual income to survive.”
Speaking with Sternschein, “SXSW canceling was like the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ We knew that it was going to take some time for the wheels of government to turn to the point where they’d be able to help the situation.” Banding Together has raised more than $50k so far and will continue to support those hourly workers from bars and music venues. We’re sending everyone gift cards for HEB groceries…and we’re going to continue to try to do that every week. We’re able to help about 500 individuals to start, and hope to add 100-150 more people per week from there.”
Nothing bonds like a crisis. And living in Texas during this particular breed of catastrophe has brought me closer to my community and my neighbors, recognizing that when the shit hits the fan there is a tenacity that’s woven into the fabric of Texas culture, a sense of purpose and responsibility. As they say, “you can hang your hat on it.”
And as Joe Nick Patoski said recently, “With Texas music, all things are possible in your life,” he added, “although it does help to wash your hands very thoroughly.” (Washington Post).