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Blog // Creativity
March 16, 2012

Austin – Small Town, Big Industry

Austin is a small city and yet it hosts one of the biggest and most vibrant creative festivals in the world. Austin is also becoming an important player in the music industry.

My thanks go to Richard Florida, for posting a link on Twitter to this article Austin Is In A Creative Class Of Its Own. As many of you know, Austin, Texas, is host to SXSW, otherwise known as the South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference. It’s a huge affair, one that I’ve kept promising myself, every year for the past seven years, that I would attend.

Austin’s Creative Economy

Austin’s creative economy is bigger than just SXSW. In fact, I was floored to read just how big it is. Typically the cities with big creative economies, like New York or Los Angeles, are home to major studios, record labels, global management agencies, or publishing companies. Austin has none of these. Yet it’s creative economy, in 2010, was worth $4.35 billion. These lines from Lynne Margolis piece on GRAMMY.com tell the story of how a city with less than a million people became such a creative powerhouse,

“Despite this, people see something perhaps even more valuable in Austin — an appreciation for music as art rather than commodity, and an environment that nurtures its creative class.

“Austin musicians value their art every bit as much as they value their commercial success, if not more,” says Brent Grulke, SXSW’s creative director. “Austin has traditionally been supportive of musicians. There are places to play. There are jobs. … Most of the time, musicians have to have another job on top of their music career. And it has traditionally been an affordable place to live.

“In Austin,” he adds, “musicians are [in] a high-status profession. It may be a low-paying profession, but it is a high-status position. People love musicians in Austin.””

The Status Of Creativity

In Hong Kong and Singapore being a musician is not a “high-status position.” Musicians are not loved in these societies. But, the arts and creative industries still matter and so they are propped up by government programmes and corporate sponsorships. This creates just enough incentive to keep younger locals from leaving why they explore their creative interests. It also generates enough cultural entertainment to keep rich locals satisfied.

But, it also generates enormous dependency and works against the kind of entrepreneurship artists and musicians need to flourish. So, how does Austin manage to create such a huge creative industry in such a small city with so little supporting infrastructure?

“According to Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson, the lack of an institutionalized infrastructure in Austin has forced musicians to be more resourceful, and that DIY entrepreneurial streak is what makes them well-situated to weather the industry’s metamorphosis from unit sales to alternative revenue streams.”

Doing It Without Dependency

So, instead of relying on the big end of the business and institutional infrastructure, the “Austin model” relies on resourcefulness, DIY entrepreneurship and adapting to the current market reality.

“Benson has built two recording studios, and started his own record label (Bismeaux Records) and management company.

“We’re working on a niche label, and we’re doing it with our own money, our own bootstraps. That has always been the difference between Austin and Nashville, L.A., and New York,” says Benson, a nine-time GRAMMY winner and former Recording Academy Trustee. “We’ve never made a lot of money, or even any money, sometimes, on records, the way that the [major label] system was set up. Now we actually make a little bit of money — on a whole lot smaller number of sales.””

UPDATE (2022): I never did get to visit SXSW. But, ten years later the festival is still influential. And during those years several creatives I know have moved to Austin.

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