Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to Austin, Now Get Out

Here's some free advice for aspiring local musicians, in the spirit of this season of giving. Get out of town!

I'm not saying you're not welcome here, although those of you who don't work hard on your songs, think you're above practicing, and begin drinking in earnest four hours before your set begins should definitely consider relocating to some place where the competition is less fierce. But for those of you who have put the time in on creating a setlist you're proud of and a recording that represents you well, it's time to go play in other cities!

It's certainly possible to play five or more shows in Austin every month, with the high concentration of clubs that offer live music in town. But it's a terrible idea. For the first several months of your existence, you're going to be counting on a core audience of friends, co-workers, and relatives to fill up those empty rooms. With the unbelievable amount of entertainment options available in Austin any given night of the week, just about nobody is going to show up at your concert dates out of the blue and give you their full attention. (The only person in this entire city who does that is me, and there is only one Western Homes.) You're going to be testing your girlfriends' patience fairly quickly if you expect them to show up in mostly empty bars twice a week to hear the same eight songs.

Restricting your "home" shows to about once a month (or even better, once every six weeks) makes it much easier to concentrate on promoting a single concert. If you tell an acquaintance that you're playing Wednesday at Headhunter's, Tuesday at Beerland, Thursday at the Hole in the Wall and so on, they're likely not to come to any of those shows. If you're playing locally too often, there's no incentive for anyone to come to one particular show, since they can always just catch the next one. More often than not, they won't come see you at all. But if you tell them your last show was in November and your next show is January 15th, they're far more likely to make a point of attending. Keep local shows scarce! You devalue your band by playing constantly, and loading in and out six times a month for shows that are attended by no one is demoralizing. Spreading out your Austin appearances also gives you more time to prepare for each show. Give your fans a reason to come see you a second time! The next time you play, five or six weeks later, have a bunch of new songs in the setlist.

You don't want to overload your calendar with local shows. But you do want to keep playing live as often as you can. There's an element of adrenaline that separates playing live from practice. Playing two or three tight shows can bring a band along faster than two months of casual rehearsals. Since it's a bad idea to play all the time in Austin, you need to get in the van. Central Texas is a fantastic incubator for developing original bands because there are major population centers in practically every direction. What's more, the markets for original music in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston are not as diverse nor as oversupplied as the one here in the capital.

You don't want to undergo a weekend trip within Texas without some planning. First of all, don't travel until you have stuff to sell. You need T-shirts and CD's to hawk if you're going to make your gas money back. It also increases your chances of playing to receptive crowds if you spend some time finding out-of-town bands who complement your own group's style. As tough as it is making headway in Austin for bands who live here, imagine how intimidating it is for outsiders. Set up a show on your home turf for a band from New Orleans or the Metroplex, then have them book you a show on theirs.

There's an amazing system of grassroots websites that didn't exist a few years ago that can help you to find bands and venues all around the country ( and even places to sleep for free ( If your band handles itself professionally, makes sure to take enough merchandise, and is any good at all, you should break even right away and once you start returning for second and third visits, turn profits. If on the other hand the idea of sleeping on strange floors and driving all day unnerves you, you should probably select a different line of work.


  1. "...nobody is going to show up at your concert dates out of the blue and give you their full attention. (The only person in this entire city who does that is me, and there is only one Western Homes.)"

    Given that you've lived in Austin a grand total of three months, it's hard to believe this city's little music scene had managed to exist without hardcore music fans like yourself before your arrival.

    Snarkiness aside, I agree that bands should play out of town as much as possible. But playing 4-5 times a month in Austin is a good thing, not bad. You want people to know who you are... people who go see the headliner and show up early enough to catch your band. And having your name on lots of show posters and Do512 listings is its own kind of marketing.

    Bankrupt and the Borrowers is fantastic example of early success by playing a ton in town. They went from sloppy bar-rock band to a tight and confident band that could (and did) play any venue and was invited to play Fun Fun Fun Fest as a result. They worked hard and built an audience by playing 3-5 times a month. Then there's the uber-successful Band of Heathens, who started as a weekly residency at Momo's four years ago. Now they're touring Europe and North America.

    The only way you can get away with only playing every few months in town as an Austin band is if you have a popular album behind you. Bands like The Black Angels and The Octopus Project can play here once seasonally because they have successful albums. But when they started out, they had to play a lot more.

    If you never play in your own city, no one will know you exist. The goal isn't "How many friends and co-workers can we get at our shows?" It's "How many strangers can we convert into fans?" The latter concern is helped by playing more, not less, in Austin.

    Because there are so many options on any given night, your odds of having your friends and co-workers making it to a show are hurt by playing only once every two months. What if that uber-hip indie band from Brooklyn is playing down the street on the one night your band decided to play in months? Sorry, but your band loses.

    Austin isn't like other cities where there's nothing else to do, so you know your friends will always come out and support you if you play once every two months. You HAVE TO play as much as possible here. You can't build momentum or grow your name as a new band if you only play six times a year in a city with hundreds of bands.

  2. Hey, if you can get a residency at Momo's, more power to you. But there are a ton of clubs here that simply aren't worth playing at all. What's more, how are you going to get money to make a record? Unless you have someone just willing to give it to you, you've got to travel to get paid. There are a lot of ways to maintain visibility that work better than playing to empty houses every weekend. I ran out of steam before I got to it on this one, but playing record store shows and house parties and "alternative venues" doesn't count against my local cap here. Probably worth another entry to qualify that. I'll get back to you when I do the research.