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David and Art - "In Search of Live Music"

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Musicians alone can’t call an art scene into existence. 

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Austin is widely regarded as the “Live Music Capital” of Texas and it’s an appropriate title. If live music — either listening to it or playing it — is your bag, there are few better places for it in the state.

But there is potential for vibrancy almost everywhere. Here in Waco, we certainly don’t lack for musicians of all kinds. But that’s not all that it takes. Not nearly. A few years ago, I was talking to a trumpet student at Baylor who’d moved to Waco from Tennessee to pursue a degree in music performance. We were talking about playing live, and he said that his first gig away from Baylor was playing with a jazz trio at an art gallery here in town, a perfect example of the synergies that can happen when an art scene is healthy. “As long as you are working hard, opportunities will come your way,” he said with admirable optimism. Maybe. But hard work is only part of the equation.

Before he left, he said the Waco live music scene was getting better, but while there were a handful of places that offered live music, they were still like pioneers out on a cultural frontier. It’s easy to just want to put on a CD or a recording to play for an event, he said, but having live music there is a much better experience. But unless you have an opportunity to experience live music regularly, it’s never even going to occur to you.

I knew a drummer who moved here from Austin years ago who was pretty perceptive about things like this, maybe because he was from Austin. He understood the larger connection between musicians and the local economy. The most important element in a music scene he said was actually NOT musicians. The most important elements are audiences and places to play. That’s what makes a music scene grow.

If Waco can continue to grow economically, he said “more people will stick around and the downtown scene will grow even more.” Well, Waco has grown economically. But I’ve come to think that just assuming people like live music is perhaps not always a safe assumption. They can’t really like it if they don’t have more chances to experience it.

There’s also not yet an area in town that has enough music venues within walking distance to be mutually supporting. No place in Waco is remotely like Sixth Street in Austin, the epicenter of that city’s live music scene. There will probably never be the numbers here to support an area that large, and that’s fine. But that shouldn’t discourage other cities, and the businesses in them, from making more opportunities for musicians to work. When you get a chance, go hear some live music, but remember, it’s a different experience from going listening to a CD. A big part of the difference is that you’re helping the local art scene, and the local economy, when you do it.