Reflecting on Free Week

It’s February. Days are getting longer and sunnier, but nights are still punishingly cold. I’m not concerned about exams yet, but my days are filling up with meetings and homework assignments. Spring Break plans are being made, but the calendar won’t stop reminding me that it’s still entirely too far away. It’s almost time to buy discounted Valentine’s Day candy. It’s almost time to renew my car inspection sticker (shit).

It is also one month after the end of Free Week.

Free Week is basically a week (I think it was more like 8-10 days, technically) in which venues all over town bring together mostly (but not all) Texas-based bands to play no-cover shows. It is a fantastic ploy to get some of the most cold weather-averse people on Earth to leave their beds and go to shows, where they will then proceed to spend lots and lots of money on alcohol, merch, and generous drunken tips. It’s also a killer way to introduce local musicians, both high- and low-profile, to new audiences who are lured in by the promise of not losing money on shitty bands. It’s kinda like the good part of South by Southwest- there are minimal out-of-towners and startups trying to disrupt the world, but there is music pouring out of clubs, bars, coffee shops, galleries, and just about any other space you could think of.

A selection of highly important Snapchats from Free Week

I had a lot of fun at Free Week and was privileged enough to add some stellar Austin acts to my listening rotation after seeing them live. If you’d like, you can scroll to the end of this post and check out my Free Week faves. But also, you could stay a while and enjoy (or disagree with) some of my reflections regarding this wonderful week of new music, nonexistent cover charges and a number of Lonestar tallboys.

So what’s the point of reflecting on Free Week all these not-free weeks later? Well, I started writing a post the day after my friends and I closed out Free Week at the Mohawk, but realized that, at the time, I didn’t have much to say other than “I saw some great bands and had a very good time.” That’s not an unfair representation of Free Week, of course, but it’s not really worth writing about. In addition to letting you know that Free Week was, in fact, fun, I wanted to give some more thought to Free Week’s place in the Austin music ~scene~, as well as its effect on my own show-going habits.

Remember how I resolved to check out more local shows this year? Well, Free Week was supposed to be that resolution’s noisy, epic kickoff; the introductory paragraph to a year of show after show, night after night spent traversing Red River in search of the newest, wildest, best bands in town. 

And then I started getting bombarded by buts (and not in a fun way): but I’m tired from work, but I don’t get paid ‘til next week, but it’s cold as shit, but I have class in the morning, but no one else wants to go- and so on. I blame school, I blame the weather, I blame my friends, I blame high beer prices, I blame CapMetro.

It’s pretty much just my fault, though. I simply haven’t followed through with my one solid resolution and can’t really justify that in a not-lame way. 

But, while it is fair to chalk my poor show-going habits to my own shortcomings, it’s also worth looking around you next time you go to an Austin club show. I’m not saying that every crowd is wealthy, whitewashed, or otherwise homogenous…buuuut, I think we can all agree that Austin’s mainstay venues (Red River’s clubs in particular) tend to be frequented by middle- and upper-class white folks who are in their mid- to late-twenties and thirties. Music industry folks aside, the ~scene~ is simply less accessible to those who a) live outside of Central Austin, an area that is prohibitively expensive to many and b) are operating on a tight budget- two groups that disproportionately include young folks and people of color here in Austin. Free Week mitigates these barriers by slashing cover charges, encouraging venues all over town (including those that may not feature live music very often) to host free shows, and including plenty of all-ages venues and events. It allows those who may not normally participate in the ~scene~ to get a taste of what’s going on in Austin music- at least in theory. I’m not saying that Free Week suddenly made Austin music an egalitarian utopia or anything- it just made it a little easier on those of us who tend to have somewhat lessened access to said scene. While I did see more young folks than usual engaging with local music during Free Week, I didn’t really notice a huge change in the racial demographics of Red River’s venues (read: everyone was white). The subject of race in Austin’s music scene is an interesting one, I think, but maybe something to discuss another day. There’s one more issue I want to touch on before I give you a nice list of good local listens (stay tuned; I promise it’s coming!).

Anyway…

Free Week, as a concept, is downright genius. The “free” part draws you in, making you feel like you’re getting a fantastic deal on fantastic music and therefore making you feel better about buying booze, tipping bands and bartenders, and grabbing some merch at the end of the night. Plus, Austin winters generally mean a fairly quiet bar scene, which can be remedied by offering free music as an incentive for dragging yourself off the couch or coming back from vacation a couple of days early. And if that’s not enough, Free Week is an Austin tradition in which every band who’s any band (douchey sentence, right?) seems to want to participate. In that sense, Free Week is good for artists.

But so are cover charges.

Consider Free Week in the context of the state of our city’s music, as recently outlined by the much-discussed Austin Music Census, which came out last summer. According to this study, the vast majority of working musicians in Austin have a yearly income significantly below what it takes to live comfortably in Austin. What’s worse is that even among musicians with day jobs, about half report incomes below $25,000. In total, about 75% of Austin’s musicians are living on incomes below the city’s Mean Annual Wage. Aaaaand most of that meager income comes from live gigs. So like, her cut of a couple nights’ covers can make a real difference in the life of the average Austin musician. However, focus groups conducted as a part of the census revealed that showgoers in our fine city don’t really enjoy paying cover charges. I mean, no one likes paying for shit. That’s fair. But in the larger context of the current dialogue around the monetary value of music- think controversy over streaming services, piracy, declining record sales and so forth- it seems a little tone-deaf to celebrate and reinforce the notion that great music should be free while so many of our local artists are barely getting by.

I’m as broke as the next girl, but I do believe that if we want to support a vibrant local music scene, we need to support our artists with our money as well as our presence. Dropping $5 or $10 at the door isn’t exactly enjoyable, but we have to understand that said music scene actually may not survive if we don’t all chip in a little- the census notes the threat of both venues and musicians being pushed out due to rent hikes. Plus, if we value local music as much as our social media posts and dropping of ~obscure~ band names in conversation suggest, we should be willing to put our money where our mouth is- and yes, I’m criticizing myself as much as anyone else. I think that covers should remain on the somewhat lower end- maybe $5 for relatively unknown artists or weeknights and $10-$15 for established bands or stacked lineups- in order to keep live music accessible to lower-income and younger folks, like I discussed earlier. And yeah, the occasional free show is a great way to get people through the door and listening to new voices- and Free Week is that x 10, which is a good thing for many people. But as much as I enjoyed discovering new music and saving some cash during Free Week, I understand that this barrage of cover-less shows is a special occasion kinda thing. I sincerely hope that the rest of Austin’s Free Week-goers can agree.

Alright, enough of that thinkpiece bullshit. Let’s talk Free Week faves:

Calliope Musicals

There was confetti shot from the stage at this show. That’s probably all you need to know.

Okay, I’ll add: this funky, eclectic group plays some really fun, upbeat ish that reminds me of a less-folksy-more-dancey Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes (with frontwoman Carrie Fussell’s lovely voice and excellent stage presence as the cherry on top) .

Quiet Company

Fun story: one time, I was musing aloud to a friend about the fact that there is a whole lot of Christian music out there, but simply not enough atheist music. Lo and behold, my friend told me about Quiet Company’s lovely album We Are All Where We Belong- and I was hooked.

Quiet Company is one of those essential Austin bands with a real staying power. They may not be the loudest, most envelope-pushing, confetti-spewing group in town, but these dudes seem to be pretty content casually scooping up critical acclaim and writing thoughtful, skillful, indie-dad rock (think Wilco, to some extent). I was pretty stoked to finally see them live- and needless to say, they did not disappoint.

The Deer

The Deer makes such beautiful, ethereal music that even those of us who aren’t super interested in country or folk music can’t help but be enchanted. This is also a super neat band for those of the “fuck your genres” persuasion, as their songs borrow from what may be every genre ever imagined (united by Grace Park’s folksy voice and the band’s dreamy string instrumentals). This was another wonderful, long-awaited show.

Black Balsam

My friends and I really enjoyed referring to this band as “Black ball sweat” because, well, “balsam” is kind of a funny word to say out loud (try it). Middle school humor aside, Black Balsam is a pretty traditional guitar-driven rock band- but I would say that they sound better than the average traditional guitar-driven rock band, so check them out.

Black Balsam does not have any discernable Soundcloud/Bandcamp/Spotify presence, so here’s their Facebook page.

Young Girls

Saw these dudes at a KVRX showcase with a nice selection of shoegaze-y bands playing the patio at Empire. Good, chill songs for homework-doing or nights in with friends.

Slomo Drags

A charismatic, somewhat pop-y guitar band that will make you break out some weird white people dance moves. One of the more memorable live experiences of my Free Week (but they sound great recorded, too!)

Far Far Future

Far Far Future played some really solid indie-rock kinda tunes, with just the right amount of synthiness to set them apart from the approximately 1 million other indie-rock kinda bands that played Free Week. They do some neat songwriting/vocal work too, something that this wannabe writer can always get down with.

Summer Salt

This Austin band is kinda Born Ruffians-esque, but better (in my humble opinion). They describe themselves as three best pals doin’ music together and that’s pretty much what their sound conveys. Good stuff, good stuff. Listen here.

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