'Not a band, an experience': Musician Pete Monfre pushes the boundaries of making it in the music industry
In a city where live music is heralded above all else, Pete Monfre was surprised to find local musicians working for free that he quit the industry for 10 years in 2006.
Local musicians tended to be underpaid before COVID-19 sent the music industry reeling, but the fallout from the pandemic exasperated the existing problems. Musician and marketer Monfre knows—he’s been behind that shaking tip jar, trying to turn a profit while doing what he loves. He’s tackling the problem with a unique brand of live shows, which go against the grain, mix business with pleasure and help bring home the bacon.
The shows, called Stories from the Road, are an informal storytelling jam session at The Saxon Pub that encourages interaction between the artist and audience.
After a brief hiatus due to ongoing woes of the pandemic Stories from the Road came back to The Saxon Pub on Saturday. It was the first of 23 consecutive shows that didn’t sell out, which Monfre attributes to the break of not having shows.
“We called it Stories from the Road—not a band, an experience,” Monfre said. “We're not going to rehearse, we're not going to have a list, we're not going to prepare, every show is a one-off and you will never see it again.”
His shows start early at 6 p.m., with a rotating group of musicians playing blues or Americana who need not rehearse. This time it featured Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff on saxophone and harmonica, bassist Mark Epstein, drummer Kevin Hall and Adam Pryor on Hammond Organ.
You’ll probably end up spending a bit more than the typical show at the Saxon Pub, around $30 per person, but each show goes directly to supporting the artists that made it.
“Part of the mission was to advocate for fair wages for musicians and to help musicians understand their economic value,” Monfre said. “Now I can afford to pay musicians a modest guarantee and we call that the Fair Play approach to live music.”
Monfre moved to Austin as a young adult with the intention of “conquering the music industry” in 1981, which he told Austonia he did not do but did meet “a lot of interesting people.” He left Austin to tour for a few years, then moved to Milwaukee, where he continued to play music.
After returning to Austin in 2006, Monfre discovered some musicians were playing shows for free.
“I'm playing in Chicago and Michigan and hardcore blues places, and we don't play for free,” Monfre said. “So I actually quit for 10 years. There is no reason to play for free whatsoever if you just get the model right.”
Having already tried to conquer the music industry once, Monfre took a business-forward approach the second time. The model also caters to what he believes is an underserved group: working professionals who want to meet like-minded individuals but also be home by 9 p.m.
Chief Technology Officer for Economic Transformation Technologies David Smith, who has been coming to other Monfre shows since they started in 2016, said he enjoys the improvisational nature of the shows because it reminds him of old Austin.
“The Stories from the Road get back to the root of what music is: the fact that you can sit and jam, make music with musicians because they understand music, and that's the soul of Austin,” Smith said. “It really is a celebration of music.”
Monfre said the informality is what makes his shows so popular—you’ll hear the musicians ask the key for a song, take a request from the crowd, make a lighthearted jab at one another or create a song from scratch.
“They want to see the sausage being made, it's really funny I would have never thought it,” Monfre said.
Price (right) said he was happy the show ended early so he could make it home to Lampasas. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
“I am knocked out. It just really didn't get any better than what we just had—this band was so good, the crowd was so good,” Price said. “That's what Austin in the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about, just everybody throwing it together.”
Stories from the Road is returning to The Saxon Pub stage on Dec. 18, with a completely new group of musicians. The show, like always, will start at 6 p.m.
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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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