The Secrets of Making a Music Scene

As South by Southwest demonstrates, small, independent venues are vital to the new touring economy for bands.

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The South By Southwest festival in Austin began in 1987 partly as a ploy. Musicians and concert nerds had cultivated their own vibrant local scene, and wanted to find a way to bring touring, non-Texan musicians in to perform, connect, and collaborate. The idea was part selfish—what music fan doesn't wish for their dream bands to come to town?—and part utopian vision: a weeklong party with a purpose.

Now that touring is becoming increasingly important, small, non-corporate run venues are becoming vastly more vital as well.

It's the same type of thinking many club owners follow when envisioning their venues. As New York City bar founder Nick Bodor puts it, "We just set up the type of places where we'd like to hang out." Bodor co-owns several successful music venues in New York City, including Cake Shop, a concert space, bar, and coffee shop hybrid on the Lower East Side, and Bruar Falls, a wood-paneled joint in the heart of musician-saturated Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On Wednesday in Austin, as crowds surged into hundreds of venues of all sizes, styles, and varying degrees of sound quality, Bodor lead a panel on the lofty fourth floor of the town's futuristic convention center. The topic couldn't have been more relevant to the festival that hosted the discussion: "Creating a Scene in 2012."

Music scenes like the ever enlarging one that reassembles each year at South By Southwest revolve largely around the locally-owned, mid-size venues that foster them, Bodor and his admittedly biased co-panelists agreed. And, in an age where musicians are forced to confront the fact that album sales will likely never be a viable form of income, and touring is becoming increasingly important, small, non-corporate run venues are becoming vastly more vital as well.

"The live scene has become much of the music industry," says James Moody, the self-described "chief" of Mohawk, a venue he founded in Austin in 2006. Mohawk is by no means a hole in the wall. Pitchfork hosted two well-attended unofficial "parties" there this week, and the place boasts multi-leveled indoor and outdoor areas, two stages, multiple bars, and scenic views of the boisterous Red River Street. But it also has an easiness and accessibility to it: There are local beers on tap, and annual, non-SXSW events that are heralded by locals, such as a beard-growing contest and a queso dip competition. It's not a corporate-owned mega dome with security staff pawing through bags at the entrance and $10 Miller Lites on sale.

These are exactly the types of clubs that Bodor, Moody, and company feel are crucial for the types of bands that overwhelmingly populate South By Southwest—the groups with modest-to-ample followings, who might earn music-blog acclaim and overwhelm DIY performance spaces, but whose members still have day jobs or bartending gigs.

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Caitlin Curran is a journalist based in New York. She has worked for The AtlanticWNYC, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Phoenix, and has written for Spin, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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