Dance Music in Austin Survives Despite Cultural & Economic Obstacles
The history of the genre in the Live Music Capital of the World reveals a story of perseverance
By Graham Cumberbatch
Photographs by Moyo Oyelola
Austin’s title as the Live Music Capital of the World comes with some significant fine print around which genres get the main stage and which ones have to build their own.
“Austin is where DJs come to die,” Q Davidson, stage name DJ Q, remembers telling friends and family when he first moved here from the Bay Area in 2010. DJ Q came to Austin for two reasons: first, because he’d heard the seismic 2008 recession had landed more softly in Texas than elsewhere; second, because he assumed Austin’s stature as a music mecca would make it the perfect next step in a burgeoning electronic music career.
Despite boasting a decade of residencies and packed houses in San Francisco, Caen and Moscow alongside Chicago house legends like Jesse Saunders and Gene Hunt, Q quickly became disillusioned with what he calls the buddy-buddy politics of Austin’s club scene. Compounded by the community’s lack of exposure to classical house and techno, the increasingly uphill climb of steady gigging found Q questioning his resolve. But a serendipitous run-in with a kindred Midwestern selector convinced him to keep going.
Detailing the night in a group video chat, Q recalls walking in on a packed house set by DJ Shani at East Sixth Street’s Volstead. Shani (Shani Herbert, to her friends and daytime accounting clients) was in the zone, and Q was inspired. Afterward, she pulled him aside.
“‘Q, they do like house music,’” he recalls her saying. “‘They just don’t know what it is. You just have to keep giving it to them.’”
Both Midwest natives—Q and Shani hail from Milwaukee and Chicago, respectively—the DJs’ musical connection is about more than shared geography. The Black postindustrial sounds of the Midwest are the lifeblood of global dance music; the fact that they both landed in Austin around the same time—two house music apostles marooned in the land of the honky-tonk—is a testament to the vast reach and cosmic pull of the music. Whereas Q always knew he’d be a DJ, Shani studied Spanish and literature with dreams of becoming “the first U.S. diplomat to Cuba.” Her focus changed when she realized her politics of liberation and unity aligned perfectly with her love of dance music. “I liked dance music, but I thought, ‘We gotta fight the revolution. We gotta have people together,’” she explains. “Little did I know, that is pretty much the foundation of house music and dance culture.”
Shani’s assimilation to Austin, like Q’s, hasn’t been easy—and the fact that white culture has so aggressively co-opted their preferred genre despite its Black origins certainly doesn’t help. When Q recalls a conversation with a local club manager who tried to credit European artists like Paul Oakenfold as the original architects of house music, his frustration is palpable. For Shani, these struggles are even steeper for a Black woman in a male-dominated profession. With a 17-year radio show and multiyear stint in Paris to her name, the fact that she spent so long waiting in the wings here speaks as much to her humility as it does to Austin’s persistent habit of suppressing Black female talent.
In a way, Shani and Q’s ongoing struggle for affirmation within the dance sphere itself is symbolic of the genre’s quest for validation in the Austin music landscape as a whole. Nonetheless, they’ve managed to find community and sustenance through their love of the music. The resulting dichotomy between jaded fatigue and hopeful energy is a common thread across conversations with DJs, club owners and ravegoers alike. On the one hand, the city’s electronic music scene offers a hypercreative, often off-the-grid haven for Austin’s most marginalized nightlife tribes. On the other, the fringe nature of these communal practices, pioneered by marginalized Black, Brown and queer creatives, has made it hard to gain a foothold in a historically segregated, largely monocultural music scene. The Austin dance scene’s continued survival speaks to the enduring power of the music and the quiet persistence of its local practitioners.
They don’t come much quieter than locally revered mixmaster and self-professed homebody Bill Converse. When Converse first moved with his family from Lansing, Michigan, to Austin in 1998, he already had a budding reputation as a savant of sorts, having started DJing at the tender age of 11 and, with his parents’ blessing, traveling to house and techno hot spots in Detroit and Chicago to learn from the best firsthand. But down in Austin, there weren’t many mainstream clubs playing dance music outside the era’s festival-saturated EDM wave. Apart from a few house parties with friends, Converse largely spent his early Austin years honing his now-renowned turntable skills in his bedroom, playing the music he’d become enamored with back in Michigan: hard Detroit techno, disco-infused drum patterns and experimental house. Meanwhile, he argues, Austin’s general musical sensibility was (and still is) largely confined to dudes and their guitars.
But over the next couple decades, things began to change: Still largely eschewed by conventional clubs, the emerging dance scene found a home in upstart bars, off-the- clock restaurant spaces and empty warehouses. Converse credits Chain Drive, the dearly departed old-school leather bar in what is now the Rainey Street District, for being among the first spots to let him take over the DJ booth. Other catalysts he cites are venues like Cheer Up Charlies, founded by partners Maggie Lea and Tamara Hoover, and word-of-mouth dance parties at Tamale House East and former sushi bar Silhouette.
“The nature of the music, it’s just better in an unestablished kind of space,” he says. “It’s like there’s more room for the abstract ideas, for the music to take shape. Those kinds of spaces are more fun to play.”
That same DIY energy continues to fuel Austin’s underground electronic scene, even as rising real estate prices make similar makeshift venues fewer and farther between. But for dance music to really thrive in any city, it needs a place where it can go toe-to-toe with more-established regular venues. That’s exactly what Texas natives Brian Almaraz and Cole Evans had in mind when they envisioned the Coconut Club as a first-rate dance den worthy of the genre’s biggest acts.
“I felt like the most exciting stuff I was seeing around town was at house parties or at these pop-ups and one-offs,” Evans explains. “So we really wanted to provide a proper dance floor with the right sound, in a fun location that just felt really exciting to come to.”
If the house party is Wednesday night Bible study, the Coconut Club is Sunday service. Avid nightlife and music scene fixtures, Almaraz and Evans met as bartenders at Cheer Up Charlies around 2011, shortly after moving to Austin from San Antonio and Dallas, respectively. When Almaraz started DJing at Cheer Up and other spots around town, he noticed a void: Dancers were looking for a regular place to hear more eclectic sounds, and electronic-leaning DJs sought an outlet free of the constraints of traditional downtown circuits. Most clubgoers don’t realize how often club owners restrict what DJs can play while also putting the night’s financial onus on their shoulders. For Q, this conflict of artistic perception and economic interest is among the most frustrating elements of the local scene.
“DJs are artists; they need to be focused on their art,” he laments. “And then you have the owner saying…‘You are responsible for the livelihood of every bartender, every door person, every host…. It’s your fault [if] we’re not successful,’ but if the DJ is successful…he’s not rewarded.”
It’s a lose-lose scenario that the Coconut Club founders are working to reform. Modeled after the multifloor dance cathedrals of Chicago, Miami, New York and Berlin, the space is built specifically to center the DJ as both conductor and orchestra, promoting a relationship between management and talent that’s rooted in mutual respect and ample artistic runway.
“It’s symbiotic,” says Evans. “In making Coconut Club, we knew an integral part of it was letting the DJs be the centerpiece. They should be the ones curating the night.”
“It’s strange to have to ask people to not dance in a dance club.”
The idea worked: When it opened in 2019, the Coconut quickly became a multitribe meeting place for enthusiasts from all across the dance music spectrum. As Evans notes, it’s become a nexus for real connection in a city where “it’s really easy to end up isolated.” (Almaraz and Evans met Q and Shani by booking them at the club.)
Even after the initial struggles COVID-19 ushered in, including mandatory closures and a brief reopening, Almaraz thinks they’ve landed on a somewhat sustainable format for now. While the downstairs dance floor remains closed, the open-air rooftop provides a make-shift alternative for those looking for a safer way to get their BPM fix. But, as Evans is quick to add, the ironies of social distancing are more than a little obtrusive: “It’s strange to have to ask people not to dance in a dance club,” he says.
Nonetheless, the community is coping. DJs are finding new creative outlets, turning to virtual spaces like Twitch.tv and Instagram Live to keep their skills sharp. Others like DJ Q have invented their own stages: Before the deep freeze in mid-February, his impromptu Black History Month sessions were the perfect soundtrack for afternoon hangs at Zilker Park. Meanwhile, many listeners have found ways to show their support digitally, tipping via Cash App and Venmo for livestreams and buying original music online. For Converse, returning to his home production roots has been an unexpected balm for the loss of traveling gigs.
“I’ve always done music just for my own accord,” he says, “but it’s becoming more of a source of income for me.”
For Shani, the fact that dance music—best appreciated in sweaty, close contact with others—simply isn’t built for Facebook Live or socially distant settings has made survival harder. Nonetheless, she finds hope in what she sees as a growing willingness among electronic music freelancers to stand up for themselves in the industry.
“I think people going forward are going to be more focused on recognizing their value and getting paid their worth,” she says. “I feel like people of color, queer people, trans people, anyone that really is not Caucasian [now] have the pride and confidence to say, ‘Hey, I’m not getting paid 10% of the bar…. I can’t just do this for the love or for the exposure.’”
Even working as passionately as Evans and Almaraz do to value talent at their venue, keeping a club open is hard and getting harder in Austin’s increasingly amusement-park-style approach to development. While he has a positive outlook on the future, Evans is still anxious about some of the roadblocks Austinites of color have been lamenting for years.
“Austin pats itself on the back all the time for diversity,” he says. “But it’s the most gentrified city in America. There are a lot of really beautiful artists in Austin, but the gatekeepers here are becoming increasingly corporate-minded.”
Still, Q has seen the scene survive in cities with even larger-scale gentrification, and Shani adds her Chicago experience as reason to hope.
“What we did to maintain the culture was to keep doing it,” she says. “We didn’t let big business knock us down. We just kept doing it and doing it…. And then this tiny block party with maybe 200 people [turned into] 10,000 people, and the Obamas showed up.”
From an economic perspective, optimism is often hard to muster, but one thing Austin’s dance music denizens can bank on is that dance music—whether house, techno or bass—is steeped in a history of survival. The roots of the genre and its subgenres are all the product of a Black diaspora that created the blueprint for how to protect one’s art and culture in times of strife and oppression. These lessons will keep Austin’s electronic music community going strong until the dance floors are full again.