Austin based filmmaker and DIY label maestro Nathan Christ’s 2011 documentary Echotone covers the toll that the gentrification of Austin has had on its massive population of work-a-day musicians. Austin is widely billed as the “live music capital of the world,” thanks not only to the countless venues that pepper the town’s landscape, but also because it’s home to festivals like Austin City Limits and SXSW–a massive annual music, film, comedy, tech and pretty-much-everything-else conference that, judging by what people say about it, gets worse every year. But the city is also home to huge population of musicians—70% of which make less than $15,000 a year.
The conflict between art and commerce is an old one, and it’s one that many Brooklynites will find familiar. While Echotone—thankfully—shies away from spotlighting Brooklyn as being patient zero for over-gentrified American wastelands, its stunning shots of Austin’s rising condominiums mirrors sights all along the western shore of the East River. To Christ, these buildings represent a kind of faceless corporate oppression—they’re giant monoliths that overshadow their creative play-pen and threaten Austin’s cherished weirdness.
Echotone is a far cry from a perfect portrait of gentrification in America—hell, even of a single city. There’s nigh a whisper of how Austin’s so-called creative class affects the city’s low-income population, or even if any of the town’s treasured venues are in any actual danger of getting priced out or shut down. And artists of all types scraping by through odd-jobs is a normal sight in any city, coast to coast. Even SXSW, a festival that pumps millions of dollars into the Austin economy every year, is shown as being an out-of-touch foreign invasion. It makes you wonder how much of Christ’s hand-wringing over gentrification and development as culture eating cancer is simply about tarnishing Austin’s image.
The image issue is one that’s bears weight in Brooklyn–especially Williamsburg. Are people in Austin afraid that, one day, their home will cause the kind of immediate, derisive eye-rolls that Williamsburg provokes today? Echotone mostly concentrates on striking images of Austin’s constantly morphing landscape and the dedicated weirdos and workaholic musicians that call it home, leaving little room for Christ to offer up any concrete solutions to Austin’s problems. How do you build an infrastructure for thousands of musicians when nearly 95% will never likely break out of Austin? Christ doesn’t seem to know, but it seems like those great big buildings have something to do with it.
Echotone screens Friday, March 23 and Saturday March, 24 at midnight. Tickets.