In the opening scene of Echotone, a documentary about the challenges Austin musicians face, we see a man delivering boxes of fish to restaurants. And from all the cussing he’s doing, he doesn’t seem to be too happy about doing it. It’s not until a few more minutes that we learn that that man is Joe Lewis, better known as Black Joe Lewis of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears fame. When the film was shot in early 2009, the band was just on the verge of releasing its first full-length album and making a name for itself. But it had already been together for two years, playing regularly around Austin and elsewhere. And yet the face of the band still had to get up and deliver fish every morning to make ends meet.
That dynamic is at the center of Echotone, which will screen Thursday night at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as part of the Texas Independent Film Network. Austin has been one of America’s hot cities for as long as anyone can remember now, and that heat is largely fueled by the city’s music scene. That heat also continues to attract development – particularly downtown. Not only are the musicians not sharing in the spoils they helped the city to achieve, they’re actually being pushed to the sides to allow room for the shiny and new. As it turns out, the people living in those condos next to all the action don’t like being able to hear all that action right outside their windows.
Echotone director Nathan Christ will be in Fort Worth to take part in a Q&A after Thursday’s screening. But before coming to town, he talked during a phone conversation about the issues his film explores and what he learned from making it:
Art&Seek: Artists always have a difficult time making a living off of their work. But your film makes the case that Austin musicians have an especially legitimate case for sharing in the city’s ongoing boom.
Nathan Christ: The film, first off, aesthetically, is really not about talking heads and listing facts at the audience. But there are a few critical facts that we do bring up. One of them is that [musicians] bring in over a billion dollars a year to the city’s economy – and that’s outside of South by Southwest and ACL. So that’s just musicians doing their jobs – working, recording — and that’s people involved in the music industry. So that’s enormous, an enormous amount. And you put that right against the stat that over 75 percent of the musicians make less than $15,000 a year off their music. So I think those facts alone say quite a bit. I do think at the time, too, we didn’t want to make a film that was just all bellyaching or “The Man is coming in and building up our city.” Nothing like that – it’s just that the future is very, very uncertain for Austin and the creative class.
A&S: The reason that these developments are coming to Austin is that it has a reputation of being cool and people want to live there. And part of that cool is the music scene. And yet is seems like some of those developments are crushing the thing they’ve come to be a part of.
N.C.: I wouldn’t say that they’re all crushing it, but we’re starting to see some of the affects of the development – especially Red River District. There’s something called the Waller Creek Project. Waller Creek runs right through downtown Austin along Red River, and Red River is the street we focus on mostly. That’s a 100-year floodplain – it’s uninsurable for businesses, residences. The Waller Creek Project – they broke ground on that about half a year ago, maybe a little more – the purpose of that is to reroute the floodplain so it is insurable now. So it’s all completely bought up all along Waller Creek, so that means the property values are going to skyrocket. … In terms of the culture that we’re representing – the really gritty, street-level vision, the night-after-night culture on Red River – that is going to be seriously jeopardized by that.
A&S: Most of the film takes place in 2009. Have things gotten better or worse since then?
N.C.: You have a culture that is being pushed further east for better or for worse. For instance, Cheer Up Charlie’s is a venue and bar on E. 6th Street, which is where a lot of the culture is moving. The owner of that came up to me on the verge of tears saying, “This has already spread to my neighborhood. I’m battling noise ordinances and neighbors right now.” They’re forced to move into what are essentially neighborhoods east of 35, because we can no longer live in that central business district downtown. But if we’re pushed further east and we still can’t survive here because neighbors are complaining, what are we supposed to do? So it’s a real tinderbox situation.
A&S: Do you think Austin is still a good place to be if you are a musician?
N.C.: Oh yeah. The thing about it is: it doesn’t have an industry, it has a culture. … We’re all in it together – it has that spirit. Everyone’s propping each other up. … It’s not really a money-driven culture. So if you’re there as a musician and you want to go there and really show your chops and practice and get really good and form bands, you can just about do anything based on how badly you want it. But if your purpose is to sustain yourself solely off your music, it’s very, very rare that it’s going to happen in Austin. Maybe 3 percent.
A&S: The artists you spoke with had wildly different ideas of what success meant. Joe Lewis was clearly interested in selling lots of records whereas other artists like Belaire just wanted to make an album they were proud of. Were you surprised by the differing definitions of success?
N.C.: Everybody in the film completely challenged my notions of what success was. And there simply is not a right answer – to each his own. But I enjoyed cutting it as if it was an argument.
A&S: Now that you’ve made the film, have you thought of any solutions to the problems it explores?
N.C.: We’re working to expand it into a miniseries right now, and that includes Chicago, where I live now. We just filmed two weeks of a pilot shoot in Chicago. And then we’re going to do New York and L.A. I think the only way that I am going to answer any of these questions is to get even bigger and figure out similar issues that are plaguing other cities. And I assure you that they are there – you just have to look.