I saw Echotone last night and just as I expected, it was beautiful and thought-provoking. Named for the transition between two adjacent but different types of landscape, the documentary explores the collision of Austin’s downtown construction boom and its music culture. The cinematography is incredible — much of the movie was filmed from the top of construction cranes. Echotone also has one of the best indie soundtracks I’ve heard, featuring music by Belaire, Sunset, The Black Angels, Dana Falconberry, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, The White White Lights and more (you can download it for free from Paste Magazine).
The movie gives us a close-up with musicians with different outlooks and situations — Black Joe Lewis, recently signed to Universal and already huge, but still so broke he makes ends meet delivering fish; Dana Falconberry and Belaire’s Cari Palazzolo, so independent, just trying to make music they think is beautiful without starving; Sunset’s lead singer Bill Baird, whose band Sound Team was apparently headed for the big time before getting abruptly dropped from Capitol after the label merged with EMI, still making music, a bit sadder and a lot wiser than he used to be. All affected by the economy and the music industry’s woes, as well as the changes in Austin.
There was also a Q & A session after the film, featuring director Nathan Christ, band manager and producer Daniel Perlaky, blogger Chris Apollo Lynn of Republic of Austin and Paul Oveisi of the musician advocacy group Austin Music People (AMP).
When I went into the theater I already had an idea of what I was going to say about it later. I was cooking up a little rant — about all the spoil sports moving into Austin, wrecking the music culture and ruining the city I love. I was just looking for ammunition. As it turns out, the documentary was a lot more nuanced than I expected. I ended up leaving the theater in a strangely hopeful mood. Yes, Austin is changing rapidly and times are tough for local musicians and the people who care about them. But not all the changes are negative, and musicians are beginning to organize and find their political voice.
All those high rises and condos in downtown Austin changed the character of the city, there’s no doubt about it. They made housing in central Austin more expensive, putting the squeeze on musicians — and families too, for that matter. But if they hadn’t been built, think of the added sprawl, all the land that would’ve been gobbled up, trees chopped down, wilderness paved over. It’s not all bad.
I’ve grumbled plenty of times about people moving into high rise apartments in the entertainment district and grousing about the noise at city council meetings. It wasn’t some anti-musician conspiracy that led to that situation. As Oveisi noted in the Q&A, it’s simply the fact that when all that downtown growth was being planned, musicians didn’t have a place at the table. The city didn’t have staff dedicated to musicians (now they do) and musicians haven’t been especially organized or politically active (something AMP hopes to change).
There are things that can be done to save Austin’s music culture. Musicians can get organized and vote, become more entrepreneurial. Fans can do the same, as well as supporting the bands they love by turning out for shows and spending a bit on albums and cover charges.
Change is inevitable. Maybe instead of bemoaning and cursing it, Austin’s creative class can learn to adapt. It’s definitely worth trying.
If you live in Austin and didn’t get in to see Echotone yet, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz Theater scheduled an extra showing on May 1 after theater sold out for the third time in a row. The film will also be shown in some festivals around the country, including the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg, April 28-30.
See the trailer and find out about show times at the Echotone website.