Sounds of the City

How Austin Artists Record, Release, Perform Music

Illustrations by Albert Lee and Melanie Westfall. Page by Tom Li and Amy Zhang.

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Gabriel Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Local studios help Austin musicians progress sound and success

By Chris Duncan | Daily Texan Staff

When local alternative rock band Vallejo found themselves with no money and the urge to create an album, they resorted to using their own bathroom as a recording studio.

Twenty years later, the band’s frontman Omar Vallejo has produced dozens of albums and currently runs his own studio on Lamar Boulevard called 512 Studios. However, when his group landed their first contract with a major label in 1997, he knew next to nothing about producing an album.

“I never went to college or anything for production,” Vallejo said. “When we got signed to Sony, we got to pick the producer of our first album with them. So, I just flipped over Appetite for Destruction and chose Michael Barbiero. I would sit with him and just tinker around, learning the basics and then later applying it on my own stuff.”

Austin musician Orville Neeley of the OBN IIIs learned production in a similar fashion, playing around with his band’s recordings to help find the group’s sound. Neeley said he recommends that aspiring musicians who are looking to record maintain a hard work ethic.

“It’s important to keep active with your work, whether that’s songwriting or performing live,” Neeley said. “Any improvement is important. Music is a bit exploitative, in a weird way, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of an opportunity.”

Neeley said artists should accept the ebb and flow of modern music, adapting their sound to what they want to hear rather than what fans might expect.

“People start off strong and go by the wayside,” Neeley said. “And then there’s others that change and catch on in new ways. Producers really help with that evolution. I don’t think I’m famous and I don’t think I’m particularly important. But what I do is important to me and my band members, and hopefully to our fans as well.”

Although he is a graduate of UT’s radio-television-film department, Austin producer Tim Gerron eventually transferred to a community college in Houston to get experience with production. Gerron now owns Gerron Music, his own studio in South Austin, to help provide Austin musicians with an all-encompassing studio experience.

“As a producer, it’s my job to take whatever is trapped in their head and bring it into the real world,” Gerron said. “I try to get into their head, what they’re all about, what their aspirations are and help that translate into the music. That usually involves me helping with arrangements and other things beyond just the sonic aspect.”

To find the right producer, Gerron said bands should find someone who shares their same vision, or lean how to produce themselves.

“Find someone who’s willing to listen to you and understand what your goals are,” said Gerron. “Get someone who can encourage a healthy environment, rather than try to take over the process.”

In terms of services provided by the city, Vallejo said Austin musicians have an abundance of opportunities, including free health care, recording spaces at universities and mentoring services such as Black Fret and Austin Music Foundation.

“Austin is one of the few cities, the only one I know of, that truly supports its artists,” Vallejo said. “So get out there and do everything you can. Success comes with time.”

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Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

Strange Brew promotes local artists through superior venue and record label

By Chris Duncan | Daily Texan Staff

Adjacent to the stage at Strange Brew Lounge Side hangs a large lit sign, simply reading, “Silence.”

Strange Brew is part of a dying breed — a venue that hasn’t given into youthful twenty-somethings looking for a night of loud fun. The coffee shop, founded by owner Scott Ward in 2011, has quickly evolved into the city’s home for singer-songwriters of any style, from folk to Americana, jazz and even orchestras. Ward might have started with a coffee shop, but said he always had music in mind.

“We always had a stage from day one,” Ward said. “It was what I wanted to do. But, I had no idea we’d end up where we are now. We hired some of the best sound engineers we could find and expanded our stage at any chance.”

Finding a happy medium between more successful artists and smaller local acts, Strange Brew has found several avenues to support Austin musicians. Whether it’s through their open mic nights, artist spotlights, weekly newsletter or residencies, Ward said he believes the key to Strange Brew’s success is not just its connections to talented artists, but its efforts to support Austin’s music community.

“As someone who’s been an entrepreneur for most of my life, I know what it’s like to have a trade and be expected to do it for little or nothing,” Ward said. “So it was important for me to try and pay the artist as well as we possibly could.”

To further support the independent music scene in Austin, Ward created Lounge Side Records in 2014. The label not only helps artists sell records, but works toward getting their music played in television and film for a more discrete form of revenue.

Austin based singer-songwriter Jeff Plankenhorn, who was one of the first artists to sign to Lounge Side Records, released several albums with other labels before settling with Lounge Side. From there, he and Ward worked together to develop a symbiotic relationship in which Lounge Side helped with pressings, and in turn Plankenhorn promoted the lounge.

“I’m a really happy guy,” Plankenhorn said. “This is the best time of my life. I’m married, make my living playing music; you know, I’m a lucky little shit. A lot of people have helped me along the way.”

As advice to up-and-coming independent artists, Plankenhorn emphasized the importance of staying humble in the beginning and capitalizing on even the smallest opportunities.

“Do everything yourself until someone wants to do it for you,” Plankenhorn said. “Word of mouth and packing clubs shows a lot more to people than a publicist can. I found that, at the beginning, I thought people would like the music and the audiences would grow. It’s not that easy — use a mailing list or something as simple as a Facebook page. Going on the radio or using flyers, things like that are incredibly priceless at the beginning.”

Ward said he recommends newer artists develop their live act as best as they can and to be reasonably persistent when booking shows. Although the process may be slow, he said building a following and circling back to venues shows bookers an improvement.

Even though Strange Brew has grown since its inception, Ward said that its goals are still the same.

“Since the beginning, we wanted performers to be valued,” Ward said. “Not just in terms of compensation, but from audiences. We don’t cater to one genre, we just want good music that people can appreciate.”

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Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Vinyl

By Megan Hix | Daily Texan Staff

When two of his musicians burst into tears the first time they heard their voices on vinyl, Austin Signal owner Jon Neiss’ theory was confirmed — music is always better on vinyl.

“When you finish [a record], they’re kind of like jewels — they’re beautiful to me,” Neiss said. “The response when people get them, especially artists who’ve never had their product on vinyl before, they’re so freaked out by it. It’s a really neat thing.”

Releasing music on vinyl is a landmark in many up-and-coming artists’ careers, but between high production costs, large minimum order requirements and a long waitlist for large vinyl presses, it can be a difficult goal for independent and local artists to achieve. At Austin Signal, Niess hand-cuts small batches of blank records with a diamond lathe stylus to accommodate those artists who don’t have the money or demand for a larger order. He said he is one of less than a dozen people in the U.S. who use this individualized method.

“I became interested in doing lathe cutting because there are so many artists out there who don’t want to buy 200, 300 or even 100 copies,” Niess said. “At traditional pressing houses, there’s a long wait these days, and some aren’t even taking new customers, so it’s a problem.”

Vinyl sales have grown by over 50 percent in the first half of last year alone, but unlike in digital production, there is no room for error in his craft — something he learned the hard way after being forced to toss records with even the smallest blemishes.

“When you screw it up at the end, it’s really a bummer,” Neiss said. “That’s why it takes a lot of focus, effort and practice, because there are a lot of mechanical things that can happen.”

Austin guitarist Kyle Ellison has played in bands including Pariah, the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers. He said he has put out albums through large pressing companies, but decided to release double album Friends of Sims on vinyl through Austin Signal in December. Traditional pressing would’ve cost too much and left him with a “storage unit full” of surplus copies, but Ellison insisted on having a high-fidelity vinyl format for customers, even if a digital release would’ve been easier.

“It’s so hard to get music out to people that you have to embrace [all formats], but the sad part of that is that a lot of musicians are embracing being broke,” Ellison said. “You support musicians better [when you purchase their album], and people take pride in their vinyl collections.”

Dan Plunkett, co-owner of End of an Ear record store, said he has seen vinyl become increasingly popular since his business opened almost 11 years ago. Now, he said, it accounts for about 70 percent of his sales. End of an Ear sells many local independent artists’ records as consignment, but for more well-known artists, Plunkett said the demand for vinyl means he sometimes has to wait up to six months before being able to re-stock a popular album.

“There are great records coming out all the time, things that have been out of circulation since the ‘70s, so it’s fun to see that blossom,” Plunkett said. “And it’s frustrating, because demand keeps going up, so certain things go out of print so quick that they have to re-press them. That’s kind of where the bottleneck is right now.”

Niess said he’s been so busy with orders from around the country that he’s planning to expand to using two lathes, doubling his production, in the near future.

“There’s just something about having [records] that people really like, I don’t think that’s going away,” Niess said. “It’s nice to have something tangible at the end of the day.”

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