Austin has seen some legendary musicians rise to fame in its embrace—none other than Janis Joplin, Roky Erikson, Willie Nelson, Gary Clark Jr., Bob Schneider and Shakey Graves have called the city home.
Austin’s live music scene has rivaled those of much bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles, earning the title “Live Music Capital of the World,” in 1991 when it was discovered that the city had the most live music venues per capita in the nation.
The reputation is so strong, it continues to draw up-and-coming musicians from all over the world to this day. So what makes Austin worthy of holding the Live Music Capital of the World title?
According to these artists, who all come from outside city limits, there are layers to Austin’s “magic.”
Mike Melinoe: "Embrace the struggle” and lean on your friends
Mike Melinoe started making music at the young age of 7 in Detroit, Michigan. He had a musical family and grew up listening to jazz and gospel music, influenced by the “mecca for so many different sounds” that was his hometown.
Though he would visit to promote his hip-hop music, hand out CDs at SXSW and visit his girlfriend at the time, Melinoe never had any intention of moving to Austin until one day he just never left. He was struggling to get gigs in Detroit and moved with less than $150 to his name.
“I was really living check to check,” Melinoe said. “If I never came here, I feel like musically I would have never taken myself as seriously.”
That’s not to say it wasn’t a rocky road to make it in the music industry—Melinoe openly became homeless for a few weeks in 2019 after some gigs got canceled and he couldn’t make rent. While sleeping in parking garages and performing gigs where he could, Melinoe said it was the friends he had made in the last three years that pulled him out of that place.
Specifically, it was local artist Adrian Armstrong that gave Melinoe a temporary roof over his head. It was Human Influence cofounder Christopher Omenihu who introduced Melinoe to many of his good friends, including Armstrong. It was Black Pumas keyboardist JaRon Marshall that helped push Melinoe’s talents outside the box. It was nonprofit Black Fret that helped Melinoe retain his footing and land gigs during the pandemic.
“Sometimes you have to embrace the struggle because ultimately, there's more beauty and pain and survival in the struggle than you actually getting everything that you feel like you deserve,” Melinoe said. “Austin is a beautiful place. Sometimes, it feels like a fairy tale. I've never seen so many people be so supportive or so accepting of art.”
Melinoe is able to work on his music full-time while watching his one-year-old son gain some of his family’s musical talent every day. Be on the lookout for an upcoming art show alongside Armstrong in the spring, a short film release with Marshall in February and a new album in the works for 2022. In the meantime, Melinoe’s newest album, “Puu,” was released in November and “Mike Melinoe Day” is on Nov. 14.
David Ramirez: Home is where the “homies” are
Singer-songwriter David Ramirez was drawn to music through friendship and the connections he made in Austin that kept him in the business.
When Ramirez was attending a new school as a high school senior, choir and theatre kids gave him a place at their lunch table and took him in. Sharing their love of music with Ramirez led to him to ask his dad for an acoustic guitar, which he used to learn the newest Radiohead songs with his friend Eddie.
Austin wasn’t his first choice when he decided to go pro—Ramirez headed from Houston to Nashville in 2007, “to be very famous and successful.” Ramirez left just 10 months after arriving, bewildered by the corporate, competitive and business side of the music industry with which he had come face-to-face.
“It wasn't the city's fault, it was just my motivation,” Ramirez said. “After I left Nashville in 2008, I made a decision that I wouldn’t live in a city just for what it could do for my career.”
From there, Ramirez hit the road for six months and learned the art of the tour, living in his car and playing shows all around the continental U.S. Austin was one of his stops, where he rekindled some pockets of friends and family, and decided to stay on a whim.
A week or so after moving in, Ramirez was invited to a joyful backyard party full of music that reminded him of his high school jam sessions.
“The people I met initially were musicians—their motivations were just to bring people together and I thought that was the most beautiful thing,” Ramirez said. “It was just about the love of singing songs, of being together.”
While the business aspect of music still remained, Ramirez said the community that surrounds it is inclusive, uplifting and inspiring. Ramirez said he credits his friends’ influence for the diversity of sound on his album, “My Love is a Hurricane.”
“My love for Austin is the people that I hang out with on a regular basis…That's why I call this place home,” Ramirez said. “That in itself is inspiration enough to come home and put pen to pad because it's not about what that song is going to get you, it's about ‘oh wow I just got done hanging out with some homies and they loved it. That made me love it even more’.”
Ramirez is announcing a new EP in February, along with some exciting local collaborations, and has an upcoming show at The Far Out Lounge on March 5.
Chief Cleopatra: Austin is a "one of a kind place."
Jalesa Jessie, who goes by the stage name Chief Cleopatra, grew up singing in her Corsicana church choir, playing piano and drums when she was very young. She had a brush with fame when her former band was noticed by Pharrell Williams in 2009 but the group crumbled before anything came of it.
Jessie first “got a really big feel” for Austin when she visited for her 21st birthday and moved into the city shortly after. Austin left her feeling like a small fish in a big pond as she grappled to make a name for herself, so she went back home a year later to regroup.
“All the music and the vibrancy of just the city itself—I just fell in love,” Jessie said. “I was 21 and I got spun into the real reality of trying to make it in the city.”
Her Austin hiatus gave Jessie time to focus on herself: she worked on her own music, got accepted into Texas State University in San Marcos and then took a break from music while she worked in H-E-B’s bakery.
Moving to Austin and pursuing music were put on the back burner while Jessie found her rhythm as bakery manager. The music came back to her when she got a call asking to record some of the demos she had out there in 2017. Soon after, Jessie and guitarist Leonard Martinez would release their first EP, “Lesa x Lenny Vol.1,” under her new moniker Chief Cleopatra.
“I realized, ‘you know what, I still want to do this. So let me just go for it,’” Jessie said. “I've always wanted to make my way back here, it's just a magical city, so I'm glad I did.”
Jessie credits the help of producer Walker Lukens for getting her in the door and sticking his neck out for her. Since she came back to music, Jessie has played shows all over the city, including opening for The Bright Light Social Hour, and continues to release music regularly.
Though getting her foot in the door was hard at first, Jessie said she’s starting to feel the love of Austinites.
“Once you're in there, it’s a big family, like people are looking out for you,” Jessie said. “I've just naturally seen the genuineness and the good hearts of people in this industry here in Austin, maybe it is just a one-of-a-kind place.”
In the new year, Jessie said she is preparing to release a new EP in March, with an LP later this year. As for her goals, Jessie said she’d love to land a show with Houston-based band Khruangbin or an ACL set in the next few years.
Austin homebuyers have been through the wringer in the past year—tales of offers well over asking price, sales in under an hour, and months-long supply chain shortages have become commonplace in the city's cutthroat housing market. So it's perhaps no surprise that many homebuyers are looking for greener pastures as they stake out large empty lots along the city's outskirts.
After casually searching for a home for years, Austin influencer and blogger Jane Ko experienced the pandemic housing surge firsthand when she found an empty lot near the airport in the summer of 2020. Stretched thin by high demand and limited supply, Austin's median home prices had already reached a then-record of $435,000 in August of that year, while new inventory grew by just 0.1% in that month.
Due to seemingly ever-increasing demand, Austin's homebuilding market has been busy—if not strained. New listings were up 6% in November 2021, while median home prices had cooled ever-so-slightly to $470,000. The area was ranked the fifth-busiest metro in the country for single-family homebuilding permits in August 2021, according to a National Association of Homebuilders report.
Austin influencer Jane Ko build a semi-custom home on an empty lot near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
"I think for those of us that have been here, we've seen prices rise in the last five years and I kind of figured if I don't buy now, then I probably won't be able to," Ko said. "I kind of stumbled upon it and I think for a lot of people that's been really the only way to find real estate since the market is so hot."
Austin's inventory has remained somewhat low, especially in the center of town, leading some to believe that homebuyers are being "priced out" by the city's limited options. Area suburbs are reflecting that—the Kyle-Buda-San Marcos region saw 2,900 new home starts from September 2020-21, more than any other Austin submarket.
But with new developments working to keep pace with demand, 2021 Austin Board of Realtors President Susan Horton told Austonia the trend just reflects customer desires.
"I don't think that folks are being pushed by any means," Horton said. "Folks that want to buy out in the rural areas are buying for personal reasons and they're buying because they want the land and privacy. Folks really, truly want to be out. If you want a big lot, it's there."
Like many homebuyers during the pandemic, Ko was happy to scrap Austin's downtown for more space. Because she works from home, she said she and many of her friends are looking for bigger homes and bigger lots in hot areas like Dripping Springs.
Ko had the option of moving into already-built homes within the neighborhood but opted for a custom-built home instead—something that Horton said is another draw for prospective homebuyers.
Austin influencer Jane Ko remodeled her kitchen after building her semi-custom home. (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
Ko's kitchen remodel took months due to supply chain delays/ (Jane Ko/A Taste of Koko)
"The desire to be away from the person next door is really most of the time the deciding factor," Horton said. "And then there are those that want to have a house simply because they want to design it themselves, and so those are the aspects that make buying that raw land and building a house really important."
But building a custom home has its drawbacks. Horton said construction loans, land surveying, zoning restrictions and road access are all hoops that can be jumped through with an experienced realtor.
But even through the tedious and stalled homebuilding process, Ko said it's been worth it to create a home made just for her.
"This is a place that I'm hopefully going to stay in for a very long time," Ko said. "And I think because I do a lot of entertaining at home and shoot photos at home, it's really important that my space looks the way I want it to."
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In earlier phases of the pandemic, people took it as the perfect moment to uproot their lives to the newest boomtown. Many, particularly Californians, found a fit with Austin, enjoying the Texas weather and lower cost of living. But for some, it may only be a pitstop.
Melaku Mihret, who works remotely in Austin for a Meta office in the Bay Area, thinks some of the Californians who have moved to Texas in the pandemic may just move here temporarily, save money and then head back. Others have also speculated a possible reverse migration, but it may be too early to tell.
According to the Kinder Institute at Rice University, Texan migration to California has remained steady for years. And when it comes to Californians leaving, the institute says it's less about a pull into Texas and more of a push out of California driven by home prices.
But they're not all staying in Austin. U-Haul data shows departures from Austin were up 18% even as one-way arrivals were up 22% in 2021.
Melaku Mihret, a remote worker a Meta office in the Bay Area, is now living in Austin. (Andrea Guzman)
For Mihret, the biggest driver behind his move was the squeeze of costs in Northern California. If the cost of living wasn’t an issue, Mihret said he’d live in the Bay Area. So if Austin continues to become less and less affordable, would Californians go back?
For Mihret, not many places come close to what California offers. He points to the nature, such as the mountains and lakes, in California and the massive tech hub it is. Austin is “not even nearly close to California,” Mihret said, after acknowledging Austin's growth as an emerging tech hub.
Meanwhile others like Ian Davies, who grew up in Austin and left in 2011 when he was in high school, much prefer living in Austin.
His family had moved to Philadelphia, years passed and he eventually landed a job in financial operations at NBC Universal in Los Angeles, California. When the option of remote work during the pandemic came around, he longed to return home.
“I couldn’t wait to move back to Austin,” Davies said. “Not that I didn’t enjoy my time in LA. But LA is just a whole other beast than Austin.”
Ian Davies does remote work for NBC Universal in Downtown Austin in early January. (Andrea Guzman)
But a downside he says is it's become more expensive in the past year and half since he returned. The Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown metro area had the 12th highest change in a recent study on cost of living increases across the country. And among the nation’s top 10 tech hubs, Austin saw the largest year-over-year increase in average rent this past September, with an average of $1,647.
It's a cost of a growing city. Davies sees a positive in all the growth, as he enjoys living in a city with a diverse population, like when he was in LA.
“There’s a group of Austinites who are very against people moving here, and I’m definitely not part of that crowd. I want to share this city with other people. I think it’s awesome.”
He says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I hope that Austin can keep its soul and keep its weirdness. Like blues and rock and live music,” Davies said. “I haven’t seen much of that change. I hope people that move here can adapt the spirit of the past and carry that.”
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