Springfield vs. Austin: Who wins?

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I got an email last week from Jason Poe, formerly of the Springfield band the Professional Americans and currently living and writing music in Austin, Texas under the name Jets Under Fire. His band is coming back to Springfield this weekend to play at Randy Bacon Photography Studio & Gallery Saturday, September 20. Sounds like a cool show, I thought–and an opportunity. It seemed to me as though Jason would be especially qualified to write a musician’s-eye view comparing Springfield and Austin musically, looking at what Springfield does right as well as what it can do better. The results were everything I hoped for and more. It’s a long read, but I sincerely hope anyone who visits this site and cares about local music–from musicians to venue owners, and even local administrators–will gain something from it. Not only is it hopeful, it’s instructive. You’ll find the full essay after the break. Enjoy.

Three years ago my bandmates and I packed our things and moved from our home in Springfield, Missouri to the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin, Texas. After having success in Springfield, we were certain conquering Austin would be just a matter of time. We were wrong.

After settling in and practicing hard for a few weeks we decided it was time to start booking shows in the capital of Texas. We quickly realized we no longer had a web of friends booking clubs; so booking a show became an enormous task.

In Springfield we always had friends helping us out. Yankton Sothern booked the Outland Ballroom and would put us on bills with national acts. Jeff Radle, owner of the Magic Bean, would always find a spot for me to perform, even letting us showcase for a major label on two days’ notice.

In Austin, I found myself on the phone trying to convince talent buyers, who book multiple venues, to give my band a shot. They’d often tell me to bring them a demo, and they’d see what they could do. If we did get a show booked, we’d get maybe $20 in compensation, if anything at all. It came as quite a shock to us after consistently making at least $200 a show in the Queen city.

Trying to get people to shows was another overwhelming task. Again, in Springfield we had our web of friends, and also had a small amount of name recognition, making posters and handbills effective ways to promote. In Austin, we had no name recognition and very few fans.

In Austin, the dilemma of show attendance is an odd one. Austin is called the “Live Music Capital of the World” because people there love music. Because people in Austin love music, there are 100 venues with 100 shows a night. That means an enormous amount of competition to get people to your show.

Needless to say we didn’t do so well, and after nine months of effort, burnout started to set in, and we called it quits.

It seems like a lot of doom and gloom, but honestly, I wouldn’t trade that first year of failure for anything because that experience made me grow up quickly. I had to learn how to handle situations better, and needed to mature as a musician and as a person before I could start to see any type of success in Austin.

A few months later I decided to start pouring my creative efforts into Jets Under Fire, my solo project and current band. I began recording my full-length album in my home and had a lot of time to dwell on the previous band experience, and on Springfield.

During that reflective time I started thinking about all of the amazing musicians who really formed my musical identity. I began comparing successful Austin bands to the bands I played with in Springfield. I quickly realized that Springfield has an amazing pool of songwriters and musicians, and can be on par with great music towns like Austin and Nashville if people, city leaders and local culture could take notice.

I began writing songs and playing in bands when I was about 18. Although bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and The Verve influenced me, I found that my sound was formed by the local bands I would see at Nu Brew Coffeehouse, Springfield Skatepark, or at the old Juke Joint/Rockwell.

Let me take a minute to tell about a handful of these bands:

Fern made me love a straight-ahead rock song, and the performance that has to accompany it. In their prime they were touring with the Goo Goo Dolls, playing Rolling Rock Festival with The Stone Temple Pilots, and filling up the Juke Joint. Today Jason Gaylor, lead singer and songwriter, is part owner of Departika, a successful design firm in Springfield. The band also returned earlier this year after a brief period of writing under the name Rabbit Fighter. –Ed.

Johnny Q. Public made me not be afraid to write about what I believed in. Johnny Q. was the first “Christian” (I hate the term “Christian music”, the word “Christian” is not an adjective, but I’ll use it incorrectly nonetheless) band to be featured on MTV’s 120 Minutes with its song “Body Be.” Oh yeah, they were all under 20 years old at the time. Dan Fritz, lead singer, recently developed a website for songwriters called Songpull. The revolutionary idea is quickly catching on. You can check it out at www.songpull.com.

Flick was started by brothers Trevor and Oran Thornton (previously of Johnny Q.). The band put out an album on Columbia Records, were featured on movie soundtracks, were praised by legendary producer Butch Vig, and toured Europe, all before Trevor could legally drive. Oran is now a successful producer (His studio was most recently used to record Cindy Woolf’s new album. –Ed.), and Trevor is a songwriter living in Nashville.

Today I am still learning from other great Springfield artists like The Whitest Light (former happyendings), Starrfadu, Jeremy Larson, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Matthew Long and others, while also getting inspiration from artists who at one point called Springfield home like Mute Math, The Elms, The Golden Republic, Elevator Division, and The Republic Tigers (yes, they are named after my high school in the town of Republic, MO).

These talented artists are just those in my tiny genre. There is a sea of talent in Springfield, but unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of opportunity.

In Austin we have the famous South By Southwest music festival. During this week in March, the music industry meets in Austin to find the next “it” band, and to figure out what the newest musical trend will be. While I write this, I can look to my right at a stack of business cards from SXSW given to me by labels and management companies. I didn’t get them because I was talented. I got them because they’re everywhere during that week. To get one you just introduce yourself and strike up a conversation.

Even outside of SXSW, the city is crawling with industry reps. Just last week my band performed at Antone’s, a famous blues club in downtown Austin. After stepping offstage I was introduced to Steve Lillywhite, legendary producer for U2, Morissey and others. Unfortunately, these things just don’t happen in Springfield, MO… but they could.

As I mentioned before, Springfield has the talent, but is lacking the infrastructure to sustain or keep a lot of its talent.

The first step is creating a community of bands and artists that support each other regardless of genre or ability level. Successful bands should work to mentor younger bands. My friendships with a lot of the previously mentioned bands came from me asking to play with them, and them allowing it, despite my pitiful songs.

Another step is for there to be community and respect between venues and artists. Understand as a musician it is your job to bring people in to the show. Use all your resources to bring people in. Don’t play too many shows. It’s more effective to have one show with 100 people than 5 shows with 20. Your fanbase will make or break you no matter how good your band is, so treat them like family.

Always respect club owners and employees, especially your soundman. You’d be surprised how much venue owners will overlook your lack of talent if they just like you as a person. At the same time, venue owners shouldn’t bully artists around or withhold money. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Lastly, work to earn the support of city leaders. The Austin music scene has great support from the local government. They have health care plans set up for musicians, have a booking database you can be a part of, and even have a marked loading zone for musicians on Sixth Street. Unfortunately, they don’t do it just because they’re kind souls who love to listen to music at all hours of the night. They support the scene because the scene provides revenue for the city.

According to the Austin Business Journal, the 2008 SXSW festival generated at least $110 million for the city of Austin. I think the Springfield city council would jump at the opportunity to add $110 million in revenue to the city budget. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. It took 20 years for SXSW to build itself into what it is today.

The general concept is the same. Realize that the music industry is a business. Find ways to show city leaders how a thriving music scene can add revenue to the city of Springfield. If Springfield artists can do that, city leaders will find ways to help the scene, and artists in general, succeed.

Today I still work a 40 hour week at a normal job, playing shows on the weekends, hoping for my big break. The older I get the more I realize that only a select few of us can reach the U2 level of success. Work hard, but take time to enjoy the journey, because that’s all most of us will have.

These are just observations from my short time as a musician. I hope to see the music of Springfield have an impact on musicians across the globe the way it has impacted my life.

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One Response to “Springfield vs. Austin: Who wins?”

  1. Springfield Goes To SXSW 2009 « Says:

    […] Brand New Year at Springfield’s The Studio with Lou Whitney in 1999. *The Republic Tigers, named (we’re told) after the Republic High School mascot and containing Kenn Jankowski, formerly of Springfield band The Golden […]

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