The Origin of Austin as 'The Live Music Capital'
By Mose Buchele
I have a confession to make: I have misled you. It’s not something any reporter wants to say, but here we are.
I did it in a story I wrote a few years ago, after a listener asked about Austin’s claim to be the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
You remember? Maybe not? Let’s recap.
The story was for our ATXplained project. Austin Brown asked: “Where did the live music capital of the world moniker come from?"
The answer went something like this: Back in the 1980s, Austin was known for its vibrant local music scene. That scene was being threatened by a real estate boom brought on, in part, by a burgeoning tech industry.
“Skyrocketing land costs, lack of affordable housing and a lack of communication between music professionals and business leaders are threatening the vitality of live music in Austin,” read an article in the Austin American-Statesman that just as easily could have been published today.
It was an era of anxiety, where people felt they had to choose between guarding Austin’s musical soul or embracing the city’s rapid growth.
Or maybe not.
As the music scene developed a national reputation, the Chamber of Commerce and city government began to see it as a money-maker. They created a position in the Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote Austin music and set up a live music commission.
The common answer to the question of where the city's live music capital moniker came from is that it was a product of that commission.
That's the story I reported: It was a collaboration between local musician Lillian Stanfield, Commission Chair Nancy Coplin and City Council Member Max Nofziger.
But I wouldn’t be issuing a correction if that were the end.
Here Comes Everybody
Shortly after the piece aired, I started getting calls and emails from listeners telling me I had it wrong. One guy who contacted me was Ronnie Mack, who used to work for the city-owned television station Austin Music Network. In the late 1980s, he said, it needed a new slogan.
Ronnie Mack says he came up with the "Live Capital of the World" slogan in the late 1980s.
"It hit me that I needed an alternative name for Austin," he said. "So I finally come up with it – Live Music Capital."
According to Mack, the “world” part came later, as a nod to the Armadillo World Headquarters.
But he wasn’t the only one claiming to have invented the title. Turns out, some people thought former Texas Gov. Ann Richards created it – which just isn’t true.
Then there was this mysterious email:
Dear KUT, I lived in Austin from 2006-2013, and I wrote a Texas Dictionary on my website of over 2,000 terms. I have also solved the origin of the "Big Apple" and the "Windy City." If you ask me to help you, I do it immediately and for free, although I am penniless. "Live Music Capital of the World" wasn't coined in 1991. Nonsense!
The email was from Barry Popik, who researches the origins of words and phrases, and catalogues his discoveries on this website.
He listed about 20 different names Austin has gone by. To discover the true origin of “Live Music Capital,” he told me I had to find an advertisement in Billboard magazine from July 1985.
Fortunately, there’s an archive on UT campus that has it on microfilm.
If you look way down in the corner of this little ad you see it. Predating the City Council story, predating the work done by Ronnie Mack and predating the administration of Gov. Richards: “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
Below the words, there was a phone number. I called it. The Chamber of Commerce answered.
Two Pitchers Of Margaritas
It took a few more steps, but through the chamber I was introduced to a man who could answer my question. David Lord worked at the chamber in the mid-'80s, promoting Austin music to help boost tourism.
In 1985, he said, he took a group from Austin to a music industry conference in New York to highlight Austin music. As part of that trip, the chamber decided to take out an ad in Billboard. But it needed a slogan.
David Lord, who worked for the Chamber of Commerce in the '80s, says he came up with the slogan.
So, one Monday night, Lord and some other chamber staffers went to Headliners East, a gone-but-not-forgotten bar on Sixth Street, and started drinking margaritas.
“Someone in the group said, 'I wonder how many places we can go see live music on a Monday night?” Lord remembered.
They took a look at the listings in the Statesman and The Austin Chronicle.
“We added them all up, and we came up with over 70 places,” he said. “And we decided as a group that we indeed were the live music capital of the world.”
Initially, Lord said he didn’t remember who first strung the words together. But when asked again during a second interview if he was the slogan's creator, he said: “I will claim that.”
Lord went on to create marketing strategies for other U.S. cities like Lexington, Ky. and Tulsa, Okla. He said after he left Austin, he’d laugh when he watched other cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on branding. In Austin, he said, it only cost “two pitchers of margaritas.”
I went back to my other sources to let them know I had found a use of the slogan that predated their stories. None said they were aware of it.
Nancy Coplin was the first chairperson of Austin's live music commission.
“I didn’t know about this or I would have stolen it," Coplin laughed.
“Success has many fathers; failure’s an orphan,” Nofziger said, cryptically.
“We didn’t have any idea, at least I didn’t,” Mack said. “I came up with that independently.”
Popik, the guy obsessed with the origins of things, said that's actually quite common. Sometimes people half-hear something, and when it re-emerges, they think it’s all theirs. Other times, he said, people just come up with the same idea around the same time.
In the case of the "Live Music Capital of the World," you can see how that might have happened. In the '80s, the city was full of people trying to promote Austin music. It was a “capital” city and home to the famous live music venue, Armadillo World Headquarters. Maybe different people did arrive at the same moniker independently.
But perhaps my favorite explanation came from Mack. He said the story reminds him of something a lot of people say about the '60s and '70s: "If you remember it, you weren’t really there."