Music capital

How did Austin become the “Live Music Capital of the World”?

Regardless of what you think of Austin calling itself the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, you have to admit, that’s quite effective branding. Even people who don’t like music, and who have never been here, equate the city with a vibrant scene.

New York is “The Big Apple”. Chicago’s “Windy City”. But people don’t talk a lot about these nicknames. Austin is like the city with the biggest ball of string in the world: if you stop in this city, people will ask you if you’ve seen the string.

This prompted Austin Brown (yes, his first name is Austin) to ask this question for our ATXplained series:

Where does the nickname for the live music capital of the world come from? Does this still seem correct to residents or musicians? “

A lot of people say that Austin’s music scene really took root around First Street and Barton Springs Road.

Credit poster to Michael Priest, via Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

It was the site of Armadillo’s world headquarters. This was one of the clubs where, history tells us, Willie Nelson helped unite the hippies and the rednecks. This union encouraged the emergence of a dynamic music scene that we could today call roots or Americana music.

Nowadays, the place where the armadillo stood is an above ground parking lot for an office building in the city, but memories of Austin in his heyday remain.

“I was at a party maybe a year ago and this guy had a Soap Creek Saloon poster,” says KUTX host Jay Trachtenberg, who has been DJing in Austin for decades.

The Soap Creek Saloon was a popular venue in the ’70s and’ 80s. Trachtenberg says that during the month advertised on this poster, big names like Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt, Marcia Ball and Paul Ray all played concerts.

“You look at that and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe all these people were here,’” he said, “and this was just one place out of dozens. “

At that time, the Austin Chamber of Commerce had also taken note. A 1970s House pamphlet said people called Austin a “Second Nashville.” During the 80s and 90s, the scene expanded to embrace blues, punk and new wave. The public television show Austin City Limits has grown in popularity.

As SXSW started, the city government of Austin began to view music as a source of money. He created the Austin Music Commission to promote the industry in 1988. Obviously, “Second Nashville” was not going to cut it.

Chances are you haven’t heard of Lillian Standfield, but when it comes to the “Live Music” moniker, Standfield left a big mark.

“I give 100% credit to Lillian Standfield for raising it and presenting it to the Music Commission,” said Nancy Coplin, the first president of the Music Commission.


Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Nancy Coplin, the first president of the city’s musical commission.

Coplin says that around 1991 she got a call from Standfield.

She said, ‘You know, I just got back from a gig in Houston, and when I got to Austin and saw the Austin city limits sign, I thought maybe we should. be having something that says “Music Capital of Texas,” “she says.

The Music Commission looked at how many venues there were in Austin per capita and decided that “Live Music Capital” was perhaps a better claim. City council member Max Nofziger had recently helped set up the Music Commission and was considered Austin’s greatest music champion at City Hall. Coplin called it with the idea for the tagline.

“I said, ‘Well that’s good. I like it, but now is not the time to be modest, ”says Nofziger. “So what if we become the ‘Live Music Capital of the Universe’?”

Coplin was skeptical, suggesting the city didn’t really have a way to rate music on Mars.

Ultimately, they picked “Live Music Capital of the World” and put it to a vote at city hall. This means that if you browse through the city council archives, you can find the exact moment in history – August 29, 1991 – when Austin proclaimed itself the live music capital of the world.


Austin City Council Archives Credit


Archival audio of Austin City Council resolution proclaiming the city “Live Music Capital of the World.”

There was one last element to this question. What do people think of the nickname? In the 90s there was some skepticism; these days maybe more.

Nofziger thinks that may not be correct anymore. Austin has become too expensive for many musicians to live there. It’s common for people to talk about Austin’s music like it’s in crisis.

But, at the same time, public criticism of the Austin scene has been with us for longer than the city’s slogan “Music Capital”. Nofziger recalls that in the 1970s there was a movement among hippies to leave Austin “because it had become too corporate.”

Trachtenberg says the local music scene has changed, but maybe not as much as some think.

“There is always a scene here because of the students,” he says.

There would be a way to quantitatively determine how Austin’s music compares today with the ’70s and’ 80s. If you could find that old town survey to show how many clubs there were here, you could. compare it to today. But the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, which now owns the “Live Music Capital” brand, says it doesn’t have that investigation.

As the investigation continues, the veracity of Austin’s claim about live music may depend on who is listening.