Music means more than radio

At the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, arriving passengers would see the printed sign as soon as they got off the plane: "Austin: the Live Music Capital of the World."

At the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, that slogan is chiseled in stone.

Austin has had a music-friendly reputation for decades, but in the last few years, community and government leaders have been working harder to strengthen the city's musical support systems and market its most identifiable attribute as the valuable commodity it is.

That's why Nancy Coplin works full time booking bands for daily performances at the airport. It's why the Convention and Visitors Bureau's Brenda Johnson is devoted to promoting Austin's music as a tourist and conference attraction. She also hires the bands that play before weekly city council meetings. Those performances are aired on the city's own 24-hour, all-local cable music channel.

Last month's Austin City Limits Festival provided even stronger proof of this coordinated effort.

The three-day event featured 130 established and emerging national acts, from R.E.M. to local favorites Los Lonely Boys. Tickets were only $25 per day, and travel packages were created as an added lure.

"This city's getting known more and more for its music," says convention bureau spokeswoman Cynthia Maddox. "This festival itself is helping to propel it."

In only its second year, the festival has expanded from two days to three and attracted about 65,000 people per day, almost double last year's attendance. The well- organized and laid-back event, held Sept. 19-21, also served as a preview for the 29th season of "Austin City Limits," which kicked off last week with a performance by Steve Winwood.

Austin's signature festival

After nearly three decades of showcasing local talent, "Austin City Limits" defines the city's identity as strongly as cheese steaks connote Philadelphia or "Derby" goes with Kentucky.

But the University of Texas-based PBS show needed to generate new funding sources, says Ms. Maddox, and research showed the community would support a live festival. "We didn't have a signature festival before. That was desperately needed," she says.

Austin City Limits board member Ray Benson, founder of the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel, said the show also needed to reestablish its fading cachet.

"Ten years ago, I kept going, 'This is ridiculous, guys.' We have this incredible brand name and we did nothing with it except the show, and the show was really deteriorating [in popularity]."

He says the festival concept grew from that realization.

"We actually pulled it off. And now the city's looking at it and going, 'Whoa, gosh, this is worth 20 million in tourist dollars.' " The event is being positioned as a major attraction, similar to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The city also sponsors free concerts, and backs loans for music-based businesses. The city-council appointed Austin Music Commission was created to support and protect the local scene.

Earlier this week, six members of Austin's music community participated in a panel discussion titled The State of Austin Music. The main topic of discussion: How can the city help boost the local music scene and offset economic hardships for musicians and club owners, both of whom face high rents and competition?

"We want to have these meetings every so often," says panelist Charles Attal, who books artists for the festival and co-owns Stubb's Bar-B-Q, one of the city's main live music clubs. "We want to be proactive instead of reactive."

A cool place

In Austin, the goal is to celebrate and sustain, not exploit, its most important resource: an intangible, music-driven essence best described as the vibe that makes it a cool place to work, play, or visit.

Before Dell Computers was born here, Austin City Limits was the city's biggest export. Jay Woods, who manages the Austin- and Los Angeles-based New West Records label, says, "Austin has always thought of itself as a music town. It's never really been a music-industry place, but it's always been a music-friendly place."

Musicians flock to New York, L.A., and Nashville hoping to fulfill their superstar dreams. They come to Austin for the music itself - and the support of a scene that coalesced in the early '70s when a stream of talent started flowing in from other cities.

In Austin, says Mr. Benson, "People value music on a daily basis."

Like Benson, Woods is one of several high-profile musical activists. He's on the board of the SIMS Foundation, which offers mental health-care to musicians, and the Austin Music Foundation, an educational organization for career-minded artists.

"If we want to keep musicians here, we have to help them," Woods says.

Efforts are under way locally and statewide, via the governor's Texas Music Office, to cut energy costs for the city's live music venues and address the critical issue of affordable health insurance for musicians.

Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan says they deserve credit for convincing Austin's "traditional powers" that the music-based quality of life in Austin was the catalyst for the city's entire software industry.

Exposing local talent

Austin also is known as the home of the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, aka SXSW, an annual event that attracts concert promoters, managers, record label representatives, and journalists for several days of seminars, parties and, most of all, music showcases.

Like "Austin City Limits," the conference originally was designed to expose local talent, though the target audience is more specialized.

More than 1,000 bands and solo performers from all over the world are selected to be seen and heard by potential career boosters.

The 21-year-old Austin Music Awards, now SXSW's kick-off event, annually gives recognition to local up-and-comers and respected veterans.

This year's big winner was Del Castillo, a flamenco-rock band started by brothers Rick and Mark Del Castillo. They began the project just for fun, but it quickly grew into a bona fide phenomenon.

The band was a huge hit at the festival, and can be heard on the soundtrack to fellow Austinite Robert Rodriguez's latest film, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

"All the stars were aligned for this band," says Rick Del Castillo. "I don't think it would have happened in any other town."

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