Skip to Content

Make It Or Break It: How To Succeed As An Austin Musician

Feature Article: Music + Film Issue

Intro Photograph by The Voorhes
Portraits by Daniel Cavozos

Despite the doom and gloom of music census reports and venue obituaries, it has never been easier to listen to Austin-made music at home via Spotify, vinyl, or even cassette. This is even more extraordinary given the lack of management companies, booking agents and PR firms that keep Austin’s music scene from integrating into the larger national industry. Instead, most of the credit is due to a few scrappy record labels and music companies.

Less Slacker More Serious

There’s over 30 record labels in Austin, which considering that we’re a small market, should show that there’s a music scene in this town that’s not going to die, no matter what venue closes,” says Nathan Lankford, the founder of Austin Town Hall, a music blog and label that has released jangly rock albums from Shivery Shakes and Literature.

Labels can’t motivate musicians to wade through iTunes license agreements instead of taking a dip in the Greenbelt, but record companies do offer a safety net of industry due diligence — and a crucial element of outside accountability.“

can have the slacker thing as an image, but in day to day life need to be much more serious towards a music career if want it to work,” says Brian Sampson, owner of Western Vinyl, which has released albums from bands like Balmorhea and the debuts of now-huge national acts like Dirty Projectors. “Or, have a team of people to take that off your plate.”

The Affordability Issue

When a musician earns $20 a show and can’t rent a room for less than $500 a month, they can’t afford the behind the scenes team that turns an album into a career. It’s created a system where some bands simply cannot compete on the same level as their coastal contemporaries. And so, Austin musicians have opted instead for a fierce DIY ethos and unparalleled live chops. But when a musician leaves the stage, doing-it-yourself can sometimes mean doing it wrong.

Local nonprofit Punctum Records combats this with a cohesive artist development approach. Their fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality is centered around a polished presentation, serious work ethic, and social media wizardry that can turn a five dollar Facebook ad into a packed club. Their roster ranges from the swampy Americana of RF Shannon to the garage rock afterglow of ex-Strange Boys singer Ryan Sambol, both artists poised to expand outside Austin given the right resources.

“In the microcosm of Austin, there are a lot of people putting out really great art, but it’s staying in one place. We’re trying to figure out how to use the infrastructure of the modern independent music industry to move artists into the national conversation,” says Andrew Stevens, assistant director at Punctum and member of anywhere from six to ten bands.

Creating More Than Music

Making an Austin band as viable as one from New York City is problematic in flooded genres like indie rock, but it can happen organically in smaller niches. One local success story is Holodeck Records, a label of electronic bands that has gained an international reputation for a raw sound indebted to vintage synthesizers and ‘80s horror film scores.

Fans outside of Austin don’t have trouble finding Holodeck artists online, but their physical releases have become rare commodities, with some cassettes fetching as much as $30 at shops in Germany and Japan. The reseller mark-ups might imply a profit, but the reality of a boutique label is that each release funds the next. “It’s not like I have a ton of resources to offer these artists, I’m lucky that they’re working with me,” says Adam Jones, founder of Holodeck and member of darkwave bands Troller and SURVIVE. “Everything’s really small-time, no one’s making any money or getting famous, we’re all just grinding away.” But that grind is creating commodities, and is shifting the music industry away from record deals as the primary way to make money.

What Holodeck manages to do organically for the electronic scene with albums, Austin-based Levitation has done for psych rockers through their festivals. Originally known as Austin Psych Fest, Levitation has grown from a one-day party anchored by local rockers The Black Angels into a four city series of internationally renowned events with headliners like The Flaming Lips.

Now integrated into the national music landscape, the next step for the Levitation crew was to form a label to spread the psychedelic gospel of Austin music. “The Reverberation Appreciation Society label really sprung out of our merchandising operations for the festival. We were selling T-shirts and posters, then saw an opportunity to reinvest that money and put out music,” says James Oswald, media director at RAS, who has now overseen 26 releases from the likes of Holy Wave and Ringo Deathstarr.

Not Everything Has Changed

Despite changes in the industry, the one thing that remains is a creative class filled with working musicians. “The one resource that I never have too little of is content to put out,” says Adam Jones of Holodeck. “I don’t feel like there’s any shortage of talent or musicians, or that there ever will be in the foreseeable future.”

Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2016