an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Imagine two performances from the original cosmic cowboy and outlaw country musician, Willie Nelson. The first takes place in an austere concert hall that holds about 400 hundred people. Nelson is playing on a simple stage in front of a tacky skyline mock-up of downtown Austin, Texas. The stage is covered in cheap Christmas lights. Held in an ugly office building on the main campus of the University of Texas, the event is BYOB, and the closest bathrooms are one floor below. Now imagine watching Nelson perform in a $40 million, 2500-seat, state-of-the-art-venue located in the luxurious W hotel and condominium complex in the heart of downtown Austin. The building has a glass balcony facing the street, ornate walkways, and 25 places to buy drinks and food. There are plenty of easily accessible restrooms. Both of these scenes describe performances Nelson gave to christen the studio of Austin City Limits (ACL) television show of the local PBS syndicate KLRU. The first is from 1974, when ACL debuted; the second is from 2011, when the live-music program first broadcast from its new studio under its new name, ACL Live. What happened over the intervening 30 years to transform that shabby public television studio ACL into ACL Live, one of Austin’s most elegant concert spaces?
Between 1974 and 2011, there were significant changes in Austin’s urban form, demographics, and music scene. During the 1980s and 90s, Austin’s urban footprint had expanded dramatically, following substantial suburban growth, but by 2000 a new vision for the city had taken hold that called for more development in a denser, more compact urban core (Steiner 2008; Moore 2007). The rise of the high-technological economy, of which Austin was a center for innovation, and the accompanying Internet revolution brought new, more technologically savvy people to the city, fundamentally changing its character (Engelking 1999). Meanwhile, punk and indie rock were becoming more commonly heard in a city that had previously been known for its progressive country and blues rock (Shank 1994; Austin American-Statesman 1994).
Yet even with these remarkable changes, over the past three decades, the ACL television show has remained one of Austin’s most significant cultural exports and a symbol of its live music scene (City of Austin 2002 pg. 12). The show’s live performances, broadcasted on hundreds of PBS syndicates throughout the United States, have helped to define Austin as a center for musical talent, particularly for country, alternative country, and other so-called “roots music.” However, limited seating at the original venue hampered the show’s growth potential, so beginning in 2003, ACL began seeking out a new location for its performances. Several locations were considered that would have allowed the studio to more effectively capitalize on its studio space and provide support for the redevelopment of Austin’s downtown (Novak and Corcoran 2003). In 2006, it was announced the ACL studio would be moving to a building slated to be constructed downtown, directly behind Austin’s City Hall (cater-corner to where the famous music venue Liberty Lunch once stood).
The future site of the ACL studio would be on a lot owned by the city that had been targeted for a redevelopment project to increase density and boost downtown’s entertainment quotient. Originally, the City Council had sold the right to use the land to the Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) in 2000 to build a downtown office building, but following the crash in technology stocks in 2001 nothing was built, and two years later, CSC sold their rights back to the Council for a handsome profit. Four year later, after several offers, the Council sold the property to the Stratus Corporation, which proposed a project that included condominiums, apartments, office space, and a public plaza. In 2006, a modified final plan was released that consisted of the new ACL studio, a luxury W hotel and residences, street shopping, offices, and (at that time) a museum (Morton 2006).
The Stratus Corporation was famous among many Austinites for residential developments it had built in the city’s western suburbs that had resulted in a protracted two-decade battle with the environmental community (Swearingen 2009 pgs. 202-204). Until 1998 Stratus had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the mining company Freeport-McMaran, which through Stratus, had become one of largest suburban developers in Austin and a symbol of everything that was wrong with the city’s developers and development in the 1980s and 90s. Encouraging urban sprawl, Stratus built huge suburban residential communities with county clubs and golf courses far from existing public utilities or infrastructure and encouraged more road construction. Worst of all for environmentalists, these developments were located in the ecologically fragile limestone environment west of Austin, where they threatened endangered wildlife and risked polluting the city’s clean water sources. Fighting with the environmentalists and their allies in the City Council, Stratus tried numerous times to overturn restrictions on the development of its land, such as appealing to the more conservative state legislature to undermine local ordinances and funding the election of more developer-friendly Council members.
However, Stratus’ newest project, at an estimated $300 million, would contain the two things most treasured by Austinites: environmentally sensitive design and live music. The proposed building, which would tower over the same City Council that had once given its developer so many problems, was originally planned (but ultimately failed) to have the highest environmental rating of any modern skyscraper: a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. But it was not enough for Stratus to claim it was going to construct one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Austin, perhaps making amends for its past transgressions; it would also now own Austin’s most important cultural icon. The agreement worked out between ACL and Stratus was that Stratus would own the ACL studio (which was built with funds from private charitable contributions) and could use or rent it out to private parties when it was it not being used for the television show. Meanwhile, the local PBS syndicate would retain sole ownership on the ACL brand and receive an undisclosed payment from Stratus for the exclusive right to use the ACL brand name on its building (Novak and Corcoran 2006).
The premium Stratus placed on the ACL studio reflects the growing economic significance of live music in Austin since the city branded itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” in 1991. Today, more and more, live music has become essential in garnering inward investment by enhancing the potential value of downtown real estate and providing the city with a stable marketable image. The value of live music has changed so dramatically in Austin because of technological revolutions in the means of music distribution and production that have simultaneously reorganized competitive relations among cities and industrial relations within the music industry. On the one hand, transformations in information and transportation have shrunk the world, broken down local barriers, and pitted cities ever more against one another in the fight for limited resources in an international marketplace. On the other hand, these same technologies have helped transform industrial relations within the music industry’s business model and destabilize the record labels’ central role as the hub around which all other aspects of the industry spin. In both instances, the response has been to seek out new ways of harnessing the value of particularity in order to secure a more stable position in the market.
Austin American-Statesman. 1994. Editorial: Changes are Inevitable with Music Scene’s Success. Austin American-Statesman, March 18. City of Austin. 2002. Austin’s Economic Future. Austin.
Engelking, Susan. 1999. Austin’s Economic Growth. Economic Development Review 16 (2):21-24.
Moore, Steven A. 2007. Alternative routes to the sustainable city : Austin, Curitiba, and Frankfurt. Lanham: Lexington Books.
<Morton, Kate Miller. 2006. New Home for ACL, musuem? Austin American-Statesman, March 23.
Novak, Shonda, and Michael Corcoran. 2003. ‘Austin City Limits’ Looks for New Home. Austin American-Statesman, December 5.
———. 2006. ‘ACL’ to put its name in lights at 1,000-seat downtown spot. Austin American-Statesman, October 11.
Shank, Barry. 1994. Dissonant identities : the rock’n’roll scene in Austin, Texas. Hanover [NH]: University Press of New England.
Steiner, Frederick. 2008. Envision Central Texas. In Emergent Urbanism: Evolution in Urban Form, Texas, edited by S. Black, F. Steiner, M. Ballas and J. Gipson. Austin: The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.
Swearingen, William Scott. 2009. Environmental City. Austin.
Eliot M. Tretter is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. His research has focused on the political and economic dimensions of urban development, and he has regional specialties in Northern Europe and the Southern United States. He is presently working on a book titled Shadows of a Sunbelt City: the Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin, which is under contract with the University of Georgia. He is also a collective member at Monkey Wrench Books, an all-volunteered own and run radical bookstore in Austin. His other writings on Austin can be found at: http://utexas.academia.edu/EliotTretter