I’m not claiming that what follows is a fresh take on the changes Austin is undergoing. In fact, I would expect there is nothing critically new or unique presented here. That is not my intention. I only wish to add my voice to the dialogues that are occurring.
First, to clarify what provoked the following write up was the recent Austin Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey that was published in the Austin American Statesman and the follow up article by Dan Solomon in Texas Monthly. I had gone to The Omelettry—itself a victim of Austin’s transformations—to have my usual Friday breakfast, when I saw another long timer who I know perched at the counter sipping coffee and eating eggs. Oliver is an Austin musician and has been playing in various bands since the early 1980s. Now somewhere in his 50’s, he works as a salesman at Sears and lives way out past 183 with his wife and 3 dogs. When I first met him at The old Omelettry counter, he and I got into a lengthy discussion about the finer points of health care reform. It wasn’t until our conversation turned toward the lineup for ACL that I realized I was talking to an old and fading rocker. And by fading, I mean he’ll never play ACL or SXSW. He’ll never make a living off of his music. He will have to work at Sears for many more years, and who knows how that will end up for him.
I had seen him a few times since we first met, but on this Friday I made it a point to sit next to him. I was curious about what he thought regarding the recent focus on a situation he knew all to well. He laughed and said,
“Is anyone really surprised by all this? I mean, did anyone really think we were living some rock ‘n roll lifestyle in one of those condos or some house south of the river or on the east side?” Stirring the few leftover remains of potatoes around on his plate, he said one thing that got me thinking very hard.
“You know when all this changed? When that,” he pointed to my cell phone, “replaced lighters.” He picked up his bill, paid and left.
What Oliver illuminated in that simply profound statement was the undercurrent driving the entirety of Austin’s evolution. Austin’s change is not the due to the hipster. It is not due to the tattoo loving youth with their dyed hair and 4-inch beards and their love for home-brew and organic fruit. Nor is it the increase in traffic, the Google fiber networks, or the rise of condominiums on the shores of Town Lake—and yes, it’s Town Lake, not Lady Bird Lake for all of us “unicorns” who still wander the Austin woods after being born here.[i] It is not the job market, the food trucks, or the recent rise in H.I.V. These are all the results of what is transforming Austin. These appear as the products of the driving force of change that moves through the city like a cloud of carbon monoxide with the same dire effect on local artists and businesses.
What is changing Austin?
In one word: commodification.
The grand mistake made by so many of us who stand up and shout out against these products of change—seeing them as change themselves, is the failure to look at ourselves and understand how we are compelling those very things to appear. We are the architects of what we distain.
And we are the architects due to how we sold our city and ourselves.
Let’s be honest about this, the moment “Keep Austin Weird” appeared on tie-dye t-shirts in a gift store in the Austin Bergstrom Airport, it was over. It was probably over well before that, and those t-shirts are just one of the residual ripples from the blow that knocked Austin into its current situation. But retrospectively, they support Oliver’s claim twice over. For 15 plus dollars, you too can be a part the Austin brand and the Austin myth. You get to own some of the cool that apparently covers everything here like the cedar pollen does.
That cool was manufactured over many years of hard work. The act of commodifying something—of turning it into a product and selling it to buyers—requires the simultaneous act of packaging and generating a clientele. We did this with our music festivals, our politics, and our welcoming attitude. We appeared as a liberal oasis in a sea of conservatism that somehow managed to thrive under some very conservative governors. And we sold that image through wristbands and concert tickets like the good little capitalists we really are. Lets not forget that live music generates 1.6 billion dollars for the city annually.
Then with the advent of social media, all it took was getting the crowd here and into the concert venues. Their cellphones did the rest as they spread what was happening in Austin across the country. Snap the pic, upload to Facebook or Twitter, and let the rest play out. At that point, Austin didn’t even need to make those t-shirts anymore. The clientele was doing all of the selling for the city and generating objects that were way more cool than kitschy shirts and shot glasses. They were producing a scene.They were manufacturing something that could not leave the city because it was the culture of the city itself. In a textbook example of post-modernist methodology, Austin proved itself to by right with the times.
In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism as “a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which ‘culture’ has become a veritable ‘second nature.’ … in postmodern culture, ‘culture’ has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself.”[ii] Or, in short, “[p]ostmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”[iii] This happens with what Walter Benjamin “called the ‘aestheticization’ of reality,” meaning that our representations of things now provoke emotions that may not necessarily correlate with the thing itself.[iv] Thus, we embrace or reject the reproduction of an idea as it has been marketed for consumerism.
Back at The Omelettry, this is the very point Oliver was making that Friday morning when he scoffed at the report. The Austin Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey shows how commercial media has succumbed to the myth of the Austin cool. If anybody actually gave the music scene any critical thought, the entire report would appear so blatantly obvious that it wouldn’t get any press attention at all. The report was in reaction to an idealism that any musician would laugh at as they remind you that, “the money is shit, fans are fleeting, and the city’s growth is choking out the club scene.”[v]
Now in all fairness, this is a standard trap of the postmodern condition. One is often blithely unaware of the fact that they are freaking out over a mass produced fabrication that is designed to make him or her freak out. The original is often so obscured that if it was actually encountered, I don’t know how we would react. Our senses have been so dulled by mainstream consumerism that we would probably just take a picture and upload it to Instagram after tweaking it with some pre-programed filter effects.
As for his reaction to the census, I think Oliver was being a littler over reactionary because music is a subject he clearly feels passion and concern for. Unlike most postmoderns, Oliver seems to understand the pitfalls of diagnosis, but he doesn’t get that regardless of those dangers, we have to somehow keep moving forward. Throwing up your hands at a brush fire doesn’t stop the fire. In fact, some of the ideas considered by Don Pitts seem promising. For example, I for one am all for helping local musicians recoup unpaid royalties. This issue should be first and foremost at the top of every “strike team” agenda because the bottom line is money.[vi] It’s always all about the money.
And that leads me to my last question, and one that I feel was not addressed at all in any publication I’ve seen dedicated to Austin’s music conundrum. Who are the landlords of these venues? Seriously, who owns all this property? I would rather see strike teams tackling that issue than developing business clusters that would only be owned by more shadowy landlords who lurk in the corners with their hatchets of denying lease renewal and increasing rents. In regards to the whole marking of Austin that I addressed earlier, I think it’s important to remember that these venues were not “lost” like so many people say. They were sold. Let’s not forget that with every music festival hosted by Austin, we invited more and more potential buyers to play the game of outbidding prices and profit margins.
This all leaves us on the other side of commodity. The postmodern is really the post-market. And, I think despite Oliver’s protests, cellphones won’t be replaced by their predecessor anytime soon. I hope the opinions offered here, coupled with the various reports about the census are translatable to the other creative areas in Austin. If we keep moving along this trajectory of gentrification, we need to not only question and second-guess the landlords and policy makers but ourselves as well. We have to remember our role in all of this. If we actually care about things like the Red River district, then we have a responsibility to do more than just document it and believe in some “magic bullet.”[vii] Logic like that is flawed from the beginning by taking the ability to change something away from the musicians and club owners and giving it to some fictional easy-fix. Magic bullets cheapen the reality of what’s going on here. Instead, we need to listen to each other, and let new ideas continue to be heard in a real critical dialogue. Otherwise, we’ll keep seeing more air guitars than real ones.
[i] According to Solomon, because I was born here I’m a unicorn. But I promise you all that stuff about healing abilities is just a myth.
[ii] Jameson, Fredric. Introduction. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. By Jameson. Duke University Press, 1991. IX-X.
[iii] Ibid. X.
[v] Curtin, Kevin. “Playback.” The Austin Chronicle 5 June 2015, 54. Print.
Posted 7th June 2015 by Arnold, H.C.