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Kings of Red River: Keeping Austin Music Alive

We built this city on rock and roll (and blues, and hip hop, and punk, and country western…)

Engrained deep in the myth of Austin is the idea that the city will never be as good today as it is yesterday. The sleepy Texas capital of the 60s and 70s has been replaced by a booming metropolis which can play host to the international playboys of Formula 1 one weekend and the metal-loving fans who flock to Auditorium Shores for Fun Fun Fun Fest the next. It’s a strange dichotomy, yes, but it’s the reason that so many of us love to live here. While we relish these cultural opportunities, we may not realize that all around the city small groups of business owners and civic leaders are working to protect —and grow —these artistic enclaves.

For years, club owners, industry folks and musicians have been rallying to protect the swath ofRed River between East Sixth and East 12th streets which houses one of the densest collections of live music clubs in the city. With relative ease, music fans can ditch the car and stroll from block to block enjoying everything local hip hop acts to internationally-acclaimed rockers, making it the perfect backdrop for events like Free Week to the Weird City Hip Hop Festival to, of course, SXSW.

The clubs are as diverse as the bands that play them and range from newbies like Cheer UpCharlie’s to neighborhood stalwarts like Beerland and in 2013, Austin City Council officially declared the area the Red River Cultural District. While the designation does little to curb development, the goal is preserve the musical history of the neighborhood while fostering a dialogue between music venues and developers eager to build in this desirable downtown area.

But despite the cultural district designation, the neighborhood is still facing an uphill battle on everything from event permitting to sound ordinance to infrastructure. Like so much of the city, the neighborhood is struggling to find the balance between growth and a culture that has given birth to some of the biggest names in Austin’s music scene.

To get a sense of where this neighborhood has been and where it is going, we sat down with music insiders across the city including James Taylor of Holy Mountain, Graham Williams of Transmission Entertainment and Stephen Sternschein and Travis Newman of Empire Control Room to share their stories and give us a glimpse in the past, present and future of Red River.

Graham Williams

Austin Music
Graham Williams’ storied career includes a decade-long stint working at the original Emo’s.

Would there still bean Austin music scene if Graham Williams wasn’t in it? Yes, of course. Would it be as dynamic and well-renowned? Absolutely not.

A native Austinite, Williams got his start as “a skuzzy punk rocker” who started a record label in high school, hung out on The Drag and was playing in bands by the time he got to high school. In high school, unable to get gigs at the 21-and-up bars and clubs in town, the aspiring promoter began throwing his own shows at local rec halls and VFWs just so he and his friends could perform. Little did he know he would go on to create one of the most successful event and marketing companies in the history of Austin. And it began on Red River.

For Williams, throwing shows is a family tradition. His aunt spent time booking musical acts at Chance’s at what is was now 900 Red River St. (The space later became Club DeVille and is now the second home of Cheer Up Charlie’s.) In the 90s, Williams landed a gig working security at the original Emo’s just a few blocks away on the corner of Red River and East Sixth streets. Within a year or so, armed with a telephone, a calendar and a bottle of Wite-Out, he was the full time booker for the club, a gig, Williams says, that was as much a labor of love as it was about financial success.

“ treated it like our club,” Williams says. “We would say no to a band that could sell it out and make us money if it didn’t match the brand.” By 2007, fed up with the owner and ready to strike out on his own, Williams left Emo’s to open Transmission Entertainment. Now in its eighth year, the production, marketing and booking company recently expanding to Dallas and is responsible locally for shows at venues like ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Hotel Vegas and The Mohawk.

Oh, and he also found time to start a little festival called Fun Fun Fun Fest.

“I was born and raised here. I’m not as scared about the progress that happens in Austin.”

Spending all of those years hanging out at punk clubs on the Drag and working at Emo’s has given Williams a unique perspective and allowed him to tap into and, arguably market, the Austin music culture that enamors so many of us. Like all of the business owners we chatted with, Williams points out that more people moving to Austin mean more people experiencing live music. “I was born and raised here. I’m not as scared about the progress that happens in Austin.” Instead of closing the city limits, he says, it’s about finding the balance between growth and the reason so many of us wanted to move here in the first place.

“The idea is how that we accept that there are going to be new things and developments within these areas of town —within these culture and communities —and not completely push them out?” Over the past two decades, Williams has bore witness to Red River’s transformation from a row of pawn shops to a live music destination. Now, he says, it’s about making sure these venues, which are arguably the reason why developers are attracted to the area to begin with, can afford to stay. “They’re not bougey bars,” he says. “If it becomes really hard or really expensive and there isn’t protection and they are just supposed to get up and move, I can see that being a hard to do.”

But, the Williams says, even if the clubs of Red River do find themselves battling affordability, it won’t mean the end of this live music community. “We shift and change around what works. …The city is still as good as it ever was.”

James Taylor

Austin Music
James Taylor has proved an integral part to giving the Red River Cultural District its modern identity.

If he’s not behind the bar at his club or performing on stage with bands like East Cameron Folkcore, there is a very good chance James Taylor is standing outside staring at the sidewalk. To be fair, this a very big part of Taylor’s job.

As owner of Holy Mountain, the club that took over Beauty Bar on East Seventh Street in 2012, Taylor has quickly became known for his civic mindedness, playing an instrumental role in getting the neighborhood’ s cultural district designation in 2013. But more than serving as a spokesperson for the RRCD, Taylor is known for taking on the small projects (uneven sidewalks, unmarked loading zones) that ultimately create a better experience for both the bands who perform in the area’s clubs and the fans that flock to see them.

And this idea of paying attention to the small projects? It’s paying off in big ways. Some Fridays, nearly every club on the strip is at capacity, thanks to curated lineups, big name acts and special cultural events ranging from Austin Facial Hair Club finals to Cheer Up dance parties. “There’s something fascinating and special about the fact that you park once and goto multiple live music venues and see a lot of things,” says Taylor. “Live music is better experienced you can feel the street is pulsating.”

Taylor’s civic mindedness is more than just about getting people in the door of club. In a city known for innovative efforts like Austin Music People and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Taylor says he’s simply the latest in a long legacy. “People had to fight to make sure these things happen. There have been good people involved in music for a long time in this town who have really put up a good fight,” he says. “I’m some lucky bastard who worked the door at Plush and now I own … I don’t know how I got so lucky. But I feel some sort of responsibility about that. I got lucky and now I’m trying to make it for everyone.”

… I don’t know how I got so lucky. But I feel some sort of responsibility about that. I got lucky, and now I’m trying to make it for everyone.”

For now, that responsibility is about protecting the RRCD from meeting a similar fate as The Drag, or “Dirty” Sixth Street, both of which were at one time flush with live music clubs. “This is it. This what we have to decide as a city. If you let these last music venues go away that all happen to be a block of each other, then that’s a choice we made as city. If we let area just become condos and TGIFridays and Chipotles, that’s not a city I want to live in, and I think a lot of people are going to say that.”

But that’s not to say Taylor doesn’t want to see development. In fact, much of his work cleaning up the sidewalks and installing signage is in anticipation of the renovation of Waller Creek currently underway, and the two hotels set to open within the cultural district over the next two years. If those guests don’t feel safe walking from their hotel the area’s various club, says Taylor, they’re just going to take a cab to another neighborhood. “If they’re staying in the district, they need to stay in the district.”

Taylor knows that all of this work, the planning and fixing, the curating and coordinating and talking to Austin City Council will pay off. Though it remains to be seen just what protections the cultural designation will provide, Taylor knows it does provide something. “I don’t know what happens after five years, I think growth and really interesting, cool things A lot of beautification projects , and hopefully a lot of us continue to do really well. After that five years, I don’t really know. But I think what the cultural district says is you have to include live music and culture in that conversation.”

Stephen Sternschein and Travis Newman and Trey Spaw

Austin Music
The brains behind the newly opened Empire Control Room: Stephen Sternschein (managing partner), Travis Newman (director of entertainment) and Trey Spaw (partner and director of operations).

Two different paths beginning in two different cities both led Stephen Sternschein and Travis Newman to a new home on Red River.

A New Jersey native, Sternschein got his start working in New York, but would make the annual migration to Austin every March to host a SXSW event at Lipstick 24, the club he, Newman and business partner Trey Spaw would eventually turn into Empire Control Room.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away from the RRCD, Newman was quickly making his way up the managerial ladder at The Parish, going from assistant to the booker to stage manager to director within a year and a half. When he wasn’t on the road with his own band, Newman was developing a reputation within the local music community for his work at both The Parish and The Historic Scoot Inn.

In October 2012, Sternschein got a call that the owners of Lipstick 24 would canceling his annual SXSW event and would be selling the business on East Seventh Street. Though he had plans to open a music venue in New York, Sternschein decided to pack his bags and move to Austin instead. “As soon as I got the opportunity, I said, ‘we can do something great here.’” Sternschein enlisted Spaw, who owns Sidebar next door, and Newman, whom he had met the summer before through a friend working for SXSW.

The idea was simple, but revolutionary. Empire Control Room, a nod the Empire Automotive garage that once called the building home, would be a music venue for musicians, by musicians. “We just sat down and it became clear that we shared the same vision for building a community, paying attention to local artists and making sure they have a great experience,” Sternschein explains. The team packed the space with high-quality audio equipment and went to work crafting dynamic bills that would get people in the door.

“We’re very cognizant that we’re the new kids on the block… but what’s special is everyone is part of the same team and the same mission.”

“We’re coming at it from a grassroots perspective, we understand what its like to be on the road, touring, sleeping on people’s floors. And I think that lends some authenticity to the shows we’re doing,” says Newman. That authenticity quickly garnered the support of both the local music scene and the Red River neighborhood.

When Empire opened in 2013, not only did music fans come out in droves, but neighbors like James Moody of the Mohawk and Graham Williams were among the first in line. “We’re very cognizant that we’re the new kids on the block,” Sternschein says. “James and Moody and Graham have been here for a while, but what’s special is everyone is part of the same team and the same mission.”

And that mission has meant continuing the neighborhood’s musical legacy, a pressure both men say they feel. “There’s something really special about this scene that we have here. We have to support it and do everything we can to stay true to everything it has been and everything it could be,” Sternschein says. start working … harder to protect this important space that we have. It really deserves that.”