At first glance, Austin, Texas, is a strange place for Rob Ford to come for pointers.
A latte city in a Red Bull state, it is so liberal that other Texans sometimes call it the “People’s Republic of Austin.” Its electorate went 60 per cent for Democrat Barack Obama in the last election, 36 per cent for Republican Mitt Romney.
Its downtown streets are alive with tattooed hipsters, food-truck line-ups and shops selling merchandise bearing the proud local slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” The city boasts an ambitious network of bike paths, including the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, named after the local hero before his fall from grace. It even has (gasp) an LRT line, which happens to run right past Mr. Ford’s hotel.
But in one way, at least, Austin does have something to teach Mr. Ford and his city. The Toronto delegation he led to Texas this week came to study the wild success of the city’s live-music scene. Austin’s many music festivals, concerts and bar spots are estimated to have generated $1.6-billion in 2012, three times the figure for the Toronto-area music business, even though Austin has a third the population.
It is not just Texas big talk when Austin calls itself the Live Music Capital of the World. Country star Willie Nelson made his name playing here. The Austin City Limits festival alone is expected to draw 75,000 people a day this weekend and bring in $100-million. South by Southwest (SXSW), the March festival that has run since 1987 and inspired Toronto’s North by Northeast (NXNE), has been rated the largest in the world by number of performers and venues.
The Sixth Street strip downtown has dozens of cavernous bars and barbecue joints to lure music lovers. “It’s one of the reasons I love Austin. You can go anywhere, any time and find music,” says Lissy Angelo, 27, who has donned a tight skirt and heels to see New Zealand alternative-rock band The Naked and Famous in the huge outdoor yard at Stubb’s bar.
Her friend Patsy Samiec, 24, a hotel worker who moved here from Ohio, says the sheer size of the music scene makes it unbeatable. “When you have all these people enjoying good music and being outside, it really brings a lot to the table.”
To foster the live-music scene, Austin sponsors free concerts in the parks, helps musicians find housing and health care, and even mediates potential band breakups.
A share of the city’s hotel tax goes to city hall’s music office. The city lures convention business by promising to entertain visiting organizations with their favourite performers.
“Music is the heartbeat for these guys. It’s in everything they do,” says Renato Discenza, head of Invest Toronto.
Weekly meetings of Austin city council feature live music performances. When Mr. Ford visited, he was serenaded by a rock band, the Peterson Brothers. Even the music the city government plays when it puts callers on hold features a variety of material from the Austin musicians, from rock to jazz to Tejano.
Toronto already has a strong music scene. Can it learn from Austin’s example and take it to a higher key? Michael Hollett, the editor and publisher of Toronto’s Now magazine, a left-leaning alternative weekly, is an unlikely member of a mission led by Rob Ford, but he thinks city hall can take inspiration from the way that Austin helps musicians and organizers do their thing.
When Mr. Hollett first tried to organize a concert at Yonge-Dundas Square, he says he had to deal with a groups of 30 to 40 officials, from permit issuers to the fire department. Austin, by contrast, finds ways to permit music everywhere from empty industrial spaces to parking lots to city streets. “The city really knows how to say yes, and Toronto could learn from that.”
Graham Henderson, president of the industry group Music Canada, says Toronto should copy Austin by setting up a music office in city hall to help musicians and event organizers navigate the thickets of city government, mediating disputes with other departments over issues such as noise and parking.
Mr. Ford seems to be on board. The way he tells it, he is coming to Austin to learn how to create jobs in Toronto – and creating jobs is a big part of his pitch in the approaching election year.
Whatever his motives, Toronto can learn from Austin’s flare for drumming up one of its most valuable assets: the power of music.