WE HAD BEEN TOYING WITH THE IDEA OF TALKING WITH THE MAYOR FOR AWHILE. I REALLY DIDN’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HIM OTHER THAN THE FACT THAT HE HAS THE GREATEST NAME A POLITICIAN COULD EVER WANT. WITH A NAME LIKE THAT, HOW COULD YOU LOSE? FORTUNATLEY, THERE WAS MUCH MORE TO HIM THAN A GREAT NAME. WE DISCUSSED MANY OF THE PROBLEMS AND ADVANTAGES OUR CITY IS FACING. WE ARE GLAD TO HAVE GOTTEN THE CHANCE TO HEAR WHAT HE THOUGHT ABOUT BEING THE LIVE MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.interview by W&R
transcribed by JoBeth and John McJunkin< AD: Where you from?
WW: Well, actually I was born and raised in Beaumont, TX. Left at eighteen. I had an older brother living here with a spare bedroom, so I jumped at the chance to move to Austin here as a young man.
AD: How long have you been involved in politics?
WW: Well I….uh….politics never crossed my mind, honestly, for most of my young adult life. And then in 2000 some people approached me and suggested that I run for the Austin City Council…..kind of a random thing to do….and I did, was elected and have enjoyed it. I spent a three year term on the City Council, and then eighteen months ago was elected for four and a half years into what likely won’t be a long, you know, potentially… a long political career. Fundamentally I think City Hall is sort of where the action is and I have no plans to do anything different. I mean, my background was in architecture and urban planning, and commercial real estate. And I swear that, you know…key decisions are made at the local level.
And your downtown historic preservation; “Urban Fabric”, I like to call it. And I just enjoy being at City Hall.
AD: One thing, I frequently ask musicians that we interview is, what they’d like to see done to make the musicians’ lives better in our city….
And, the top two things they always say are that they need and they’d like to have help here with health insurance. And that they’d like to have a mandate on club owners to pay a certain amount of money for music. What do you think about that? What do you want to do about that?
WW: Right. Well, one…I am a BIG music fan. Uh, so first and foremost I frequent clubs and frequent live music venues. And I tell people all over town it is first and foremost, it is about paying musicians for doing what they do. Uh, I was very proud to support…three years ago, we at the City actually spent a lot of money…you know… tens of thousands of dollars and hired an economist, because we wanted to get our arms around the economic benefit of Austin’s live music scene. And it’s significant. We intuitively all knew it was big, and we know it’s important…like all spiritually. We wanted to get a number to it because we wanted to then have the back-up to have some fundamental policy decisions made, just like we would do on an economic front for an industry cluster. Technology obviously comes to mind. Hoteliers are a big partner with us, we’re always trying to help hotels do better because they spit out bed tax and they hire a lot of people. I wanted to take the same approach with musicians right now. So, we had an economist do a study that showed that the music scene in Austin generates, has an economic impact of about $700 million dollars a year.
WW: Yeah, big numbers. Actually we have bigger industry clusters than that. But, that’s a big part of Austin. And so, we can take that; and as we make decisions, on everything about, like even real estate decisions about live music venues. Live music venues… you know, we’ve lost some iconic ones in the last five years. You know, many of them are on the brink economically. And so, everything frankly from the whole smoking ordinance debate…..you know, I’m not a smoker. Don’t like cigarette smoke! But, I listen to these club owners and I was concerned about us losing a few venues over something as difficult as the smoking ordinance. We now have enough information where we can make; I think better decisions about how we try to promote live music. Meanwhile, every chance we get as a city, we try to at least promote the concept of live music. Everything from, we have live music at the airport, and those musicians are all paid. I mean, people stop me all over the country and say, “ I was in your airport and ya’ll had like, a live music concert going on.”. So, oh yeah, we take that very seriously.
We have live music at every single City Council meeting. It’s just so second nature for us. Every time at every Council meeting, I can tell who’s never been at a Council meeting before, because they’re going, “Why are we listening to music?”, you know. I’ll tell right to them that this is our weekly live music gig at the Austin City Council. We’re the Live Music Capitol of the world. We honor the musicians playing you know, that one song that one day.
So, you know, we’re doing some structural things. But, in every chance we get, we want to just remind people that we are the self- proclaimed “Live Music Capitol of the World”. But, we have to deliver on it. Ultimately, it’s about paying musicians to do what they do. When it comes to healthcare for instance, frankly musicians aren’t in any different boat than twenty-five percent of our population. You know, the working poor, the self-employed people all over town still struggle with the same thing. So, fundamentally, we have to address the larger challenge of healthcare for our citizens, and musicians sort of fall into that, of course. We had a successful election this past May on creating a hospital district. So actually, our voters approved a new taxing authority countywide to form the Travis County Hospital District. So, it’s going to take a little while to build up that infrastructure. But, there’s now a long-term funding source for delivering, you know, indigent and affordable healthcare. It’s not likely we’re going to meet the demand anytime soon. But, it’s a fundamental start.
AD: Well, it’s really good to hear that, you know, you’ve been thinking about these things.
WW: I think about it all the time. You know, just last month we celebrated the Broken Spoke’s 40th anniversary. And obviously, it’s the classic… if you have a venue, that’s an important piece of our fabric. Next summer Antone’s will celebrate its 30th anniversary. And Antone’s is this iconic place in town. But, you know, they don’t make any money. You know, they barely get by. They have big rent payments and big electric bills and all that. I was proud to actually support an issue where we now, for Austin energy, our electric utility company…we have better rates for live music venues than for other small businesses the same size. We actually have a program where we’ll help live music venues do an energy audit of their space. Antone’s spends more on electricity than anything else.
AD: Is it feasible to, like, have a rent cap established for Live Music Venues?
WW: It’s feasible, but it’s very, very difficult. Sadly, we’ll get into the issue of “so how do you define the live music venue?” And there’ll be people who say, “I’m one too.”, and they’re not really one, but, sure. Occasionally somebody might be able to play in a corner. So, yeah as opposed to our true live music venues, like….
AD: The Continental Club…..
WW: Yeah, the Continental Club.
AD: …….and Antone’s and what not…
WW: Yeah…But, the good news is the city’s very cognizant of the challenges. I’m at the Continental Club, probably monthly. I’m at Antone’s more frequent than that. I’m at the Broken Spoke about that same amount of frequency. And, I frequently see other city officials and leaders frequenting these same venues. So, the recognition is there and fundamentally we recognize that it’s about paying musicians for doing what they do. Almost on the same thing, our visual artists downtown….same challenge with this great design talent we have in town.
AD: What do you think of Ozomatli and the situation at SXSW, because we interviewed them. Yeah, and they’re going to be in this issue.
WW: They are? I’m proud they’re coming back to town. I felt crummy for everybody involved. I thought Louis Black actually had a very good editorial the next week after the big brouhaha last year. (Indicating)That there were likely significant miscommunications from both directions. You know, our police… we have a good police department and they have a very challenging job. But, at the same time, we also need to recognize that we’re the Live Music Capitol of the world. We want to treat people with respect and…
AD: And know when to step out of the box…
AD: …and when not to…kind of
WW: Exactly. So, I’m proud that Ozomatli is coming back. You know, I’ll welcome them here and….
AD: Appears they said they love Austin and they would come back. I believe, that situation, helped their fan base.
WW: Right! Oh, it did…the point is, ironically, the point is, one of my assistants, Thelma, who , I couldn’t get along without her….she happened to be there that night and was right sort of in the middle of it. So …
AD: Like, “I can’t believe this is happening!”!
WW: Nothing like the fact, okay, that while the Mayor’s office is even here too, you know, just personally…
AD: Right. Representing and…
WW: We’re a fan… and her there…you know, helping.
So, I felt crummy for everybody involved and I’m glad they’re coming back.
AD: So, what live music brings you out?
WW: What’s funny is I’ve gotten to where I know the venue owners so well that I find myself going there to support them.
I tell people that Guy Clark’s the reason I moved to Austin. The Wagoneers kept me here, and the Derailers are why I’ll never leave.
AD: I like that!
WW: So, I have this appeal towards…. My first concert in Austin was John Prine and Steve Goodman at the Paramount Theatre in 1981. Great show. Just doing the acoustic thing…so, that’s sort of my personal appeal towards…on my city website I declare that I know every word to every Guy Clark song ever written. I’ve challenged people to stump me. And, occasionally people see that and just randomly I’ll get some email from somebody in Wallatosa, Wisconsin. And they’ll type in like, three words of a Guy Clark line…and so far I don’t think I’ve been stumped yet.
I find myself at the Continental Club a lot. You know, James Hand, guys like that, I think are just awesome! I’m at the Broken Spoke, mostly just sort of to support James White and the great…. what that club sort of means.
AD: Chicken fried steak!
WW: That’s right… and just good music. I like Antone’s a lot. And Clifford really has, and his friends, you know. Michael McGuire and others have really expanded my blues knowledge. I’ve seen James Cotton not too long ago at Antone’s… just an amazing. you know… sort of historical figure. He can…blows harmonica like never before. So, actually, I happen to own a little building next door to Emo’s, down on 6th street. So…
AD: You listen to that!? I never would have guessed. That is great…
WW: …poke my head into Emo’s occasionally. So…
AD: What do you see in the future of Austin? Like, we’re definitely on the up and out, but, we’re getting a lot of new buildings… a lot of new businesses. Where do you see the future of Austin going?
WW: I’m very bullish and optimistic about it. While recognizing growth brings a lot of challenges. And I just think fundamentally, we have a good perspective on growth. We recognize that it has to be managed both, you know, sort of geographically and environmentally. But, also growth has to be managed in a context of how we not commercialize music venues out of our downtown. You know, from a root standpoint. The reason why…South by Southwest is far and away the largest…has the largest economic impact of any conference, any show…anything in town. South by Southwest. I like the fact that first and foremost, economically, music is number one. Of all the other trade shows that come to town, and big conferences we have at the conference center, the convention center, ultimately, SXSW is the biggest. The only reason why SXSW,…the main reason why SXSW is so successful, is because within say, a two mile radius of Sixth and Congress, there’s probably a hundred live music venues. And / or spaces where people can buy a wristband and can make six shows in an evening, because they’re walking to all of them. So, as much as I’m the big proponent of moving downtown and having more vibrancy here, the more high-rises and well-designing and all that…that’s great as long as we keep the live music venues here. I argue that by the way, so why not bring more customers to live music venues. So, high-rise buildings don’t scare me…
WW: Why not have a live music venue in many of the first floors of high-rises. That’s just more bodies to come down and frequent and patronize the fun.
AD: That’s beautiful, that idea. I was going to ask you about the noise ordinance. What do you feel about that? Like, for me it’s sort of ironic that we have a noise ordinance in the live music capitol…Where people who buy space downtown should realize that…
WW: They’re coming here because of the vibrancy…
AD: …and they live down there because they like the vibrancy.
WW: Unfortunately, we haven’t done a good job on both fronts. It begins with the fact to pay less rent because it’s so tough to make it as a live music venue. Oftentimes they’re in these sort-of crummy little buildings. So that the structures themselves aren’t worth that at all. It’s like, there over at Liberty Lunch…you know, it wasn’t even a structure per say. You know, you started the same way. And so, one…the real estate hasn’t helped any. That is, you know, you’ve got these cheesy railings with no insulation, and single pane glass, and yada yada yada…that’s a fundamental start. So then, secondly, as we rebuild our downtown, let’s build it with that in mind. In New York City for god sakes, millions of people live on that island and there’s live music, there’s shows, there’s performances…there’s everything imaginable, inside the same buildings that they’re all in. They’ve matured in that standpoint and have delivered the products. There exist the perspectives and the mindsets about how you all live in the same space. And we will get there, down here.
Actually, I think you have to have a noise ordinance. I think there has to be some measurable, objective, sort of mitigating perspective. But, fundamentally you address it with better venues. We help with you know, with your level playing field. We have… for instance, also, its not fair for somebody to all of a sudden put an outdoor music thing on top of their roof you know, recognizing that it does have an impact on society.
The music…the sound ordinance that ultimately was passed, I thought, came together in a good way. I mean, it came together; it was actually chaired by Charles Attal at Stubb’s. He was the chair of the whole tour de force that pieced it together. The guys from like, the downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, the new people that are moving in downtown. I thought, for the most part had a very good perspective on recognizing they’re here because they like the vibrancy also. So, I thought, you know, the process and the people involved in the task force crafting it, was as good as we can do. You know, enforcement is always a tricky issue and we want to make sure that’s sort of consistent and objective and all that. But, you know, most of the venue owners that I know don’t have a problem with there being a sound ordinance. They want it to be you know, evenly and predictably enforced. I think residents and next door neighbors and hotel owners…you know, they just want to have the knowledge of okay, it’s at eleven p.m. on a weeknight…yeah, things will quiet down.