Lost in Austin
If you ask singer Sarah Sharp '97, no place in the music world—not Los Angeles, not New York, not even our own fair Beantown—can hold a candle to Austin, Texas. With several major festivals, a storied musical history, and, according to city officials, more venues per capita than any other U.S. city, Austin is hardly exaggerating when it bills itself as "the Live Music Capital of the World." The city's crown jewel is the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW), a five-day music festival during which approximately 2,000 bands perform at more than 100 venues across town.
It's no surprise, then, that when Berklee came to present its sixth annual showcases at SXSW, the college found a host of alumni already within city limits. At Berklee's Off the Record party at Lucky Lounge, three of the groups who played had both Berklee alumni and Austin roots.
"It's ingrained in the culture to see shows," said Sharp, who emceed the party, fronts the swing-jazz quartet Jitterbug Vipers, and has lived in Austin for more than a decade. "Living in an environment where there's an endless amount of amazing music constantly makes you want to go home and write a song that's better than your last one."
The Jitterbug Vipers, the psychedelic pop outfit Royal Forest, and the guitar-driven rock band Tucker Jameson and the Hot Mugs have little overlap musically, and even less chronologically. (The Vipers's guitarist is 73; the one in TJ and the Hot Mugs is 21.) Yet even across generations and genres, the groups all share an effusive enthusiasm for Austin's artist-driven atmosphere.
"Down here people are more relaxed, and are all about going out and listening to new bands," said Jameson, who attended Berklee from 2007 to 2010. "The whole city is built on that creative energy."
Alumni said that the main draw of Austin after their time at Berklee was the ability to be part of that same kind of musicians' community, but in a location that, with nearly 200 performance spaces, boasts far more opportunities to play.
With so many venues, shows come in all shapes and sizes. Justin Douglas '01, who plays pedal steel guitar in Royal Forest, recalled a posh gig for a design firm in which a bevy of fashion models came onstage to dance while confetti streamed down from the ceiling. "For a nerdy, esoteric indie band, that was a pretty rock 'n' roll moment," Douglas said with a chuckle.
It's not all parties and rock-star antics: most of the musicians juggle other jobs, from managing bands to supervising film music. Douglas owns a local recording studio, while Vipers drummer Masumi Jones '97 performs with no fewer than six other groups around town.
Despite such a saturation of artists, the vibe remains not just civil, but downright friendly. Within a few months in Austin, TJ and the Hot Mugs earned a gig at the esteemed venue Stubb's through a connection with a local band. "The scene definitely doesn't feel competitive," said Texas-raised singer Emily Elbert '12, who swings through the city three or four times a year. "There's very much a sense of mutual respect and collaboration."
That ethos of togetherness is further strengthened by Berklee itself, which has greatly expanded its presence in Austin over the past 20 years. In 1999 Sharp helped start the city's alumni chapter, coordinating get-togethers every two or three months. The Berklee name has gradually evolved from being something of a question mark ("That's in California, right?") to a bona fide calling card.
"With pick-up gigs, I've had situations where my phone rang instead of someone else's because of Berklee," said Douglas. "There's a level of professionalism that is expected of us."
Berklee's growing involvement in Austin extends to SXSW, where the college has held events since 2006. With two daytime parties and an evening barbecue this year, the school has come a long way from its first mixer in a Marriott conference room.
"Shows like [Off the Record] take it a step beyond educating you, to actually facilitating things for your career," Jameson said. "It puts Berklee's name out there while helping alums gain footing in Austin."
As always, the event this year was a whirlwind, with the four aforementioned acts playing a combined 26 shows. "The whole thing was hectic, exhausting, and really successful for us," said Jameson, whose group spent much of its first SXSW furiously shuttling gear from club to club on Sixth Street.
For these Austinites, that kind of grind hardly stops after the festival, with a continuing cycle of writing, recording, touring, and promoting. "The key is to build slow and play everywhere you can," said Douglas. In this town, that shouldn't be much of a problem.