200 Years of Musical History: How Austin, Texas, became America’s music capital

It may feel as if Austin came out of the shadows to snatch the prize as the world’s top pop music city, but this journey has spanned over 150 years.

Austin concert
Image via Flickr, CC 2.0.

AUSTIN, Texas, March 2, 2016 — It may feel as if Austin came out of the shadows to snatch the prize as the world’s top music city. But this city’s journey to the top has spanned over 150 years. Expanding from the small German bars on 6th street to encompass over seven districts dedicated to live music, the slow and steady rise of the music industry within the city limits of Austin has been the key to it winning the title of “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Today, Texas is known for many things, including its love of pick-up trucks. Outside of the music industry, Texas has made a name for itself in the automotive industry. On the manufacturing side, it makes the top 10 list for percentage of national automobile workers and producers.

According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, the state has the second highest number of registered automobiles in the country with over 23 million. It can be assumed that the majority of these vehicles were purchased with car loans, as 84 percent of new vehicles are purchased with loans or auto refinancing. Fortunately, Texas boasts some of the lowest car insurance comparison rates in the country (below 4%).

Yet even with the top rankings the city has received across multiple industries, nothing has become more prevalent in the mind of its citizens than Austin’s music scene.

Let’s take a look at how Austin came to dominate the music world.


Austin, Texas was officially founded in 1839 as the state’s capital, much to the objection of many government officials. The unpopularity of this decision would later escalate in 1845, when the capital was temporarily moved, resulting in what was called the Archive War. Bullied by its peers, the city served as the “geek” of Texas cities — underestimated, unwanted and often overlooked.

But such treatment would eventually allow Austin to grow into Texas’ version of Bill Gates, ruling the music world without losing its authenticity that brought it success. The city slogan’s, “Keep Austin Weird,” may make a bit more sense now.

Image by Wikipedia
An early ancestor of Austin’s original beer gardens. (Image via Wikipedia.)

The early years of music in Austin can be linked back to Scholz’s Garten (or Garden) and Hall. The restaurant and bar was opened in 1866 by a German immigrant named August Scholz. Such establishments as his offered a place for social congregation without journeying to the disreputable brothels and casinos that had overrun the town.

Austin’s beer gardens came together in 1879 to create the “Saengerfest,” the first musical festival in Austin. That event was the beginning of what would eventually become the world-renowned Austin music scene.

Early 1900s

The beginning of the 20th century marked the end of the German social club era. Although some were later resurrected, many died out with their owners. Those that survived were hit hard by the wave of Prohibition that overtook the country during this time. Although federal prohibition didn’t go into effect until 1920, Texas had long had county-specific prohibition laws dating from the late 19th century.

Such laws ended the reign of the beer gardens, leaving a hole in the city’s social and music scene, allowing the emergence of speakeasies and back-door clubs that operated in secret. These establishments attracted blues and jazz musicians into the city, further diversifying the city’s country and folk landscape.

Even after Prohibition ended in the 1930s, jazz and R&B took center stage in Austin’s growing music scene.

Yet during this time, the racial segregation of the south was also reflected in the city and its music. Clubs on the east side of Austin hosted famous acts like Ray Charles, B.B. King and Tina Turner, all of whom were banned at the time from entering and performing at music establishments in other areas of town.

1960s & 1970s

Image by Flickr
Image via Flickr, CC 2.0.

Austin’s reputation as a music lover’s oasis made huge strides after the middle of the 20th century when a diverse array of genres were welcomed and embraced by the city. An influx of progressive-minded, music lovers that emerged out of the hippie movement took over the Austin art and music scene. This included acts like Willie Nelson and Janet Joplin.

1974 marked the beginning of the PBS network’s televised concert series, dubbed Austin City Limits. The series, which is still on the air, began broadcasting in 1975 and can take considerable credit for sharing Austin’s music scene with the masses.

Current Landscape

The now world-renowned South by Southwest Festival first appeared in 1987. A 10-day festival, it is host to music, films and conferences on a wide range of subjects.

Inspired by the PBS series, the Austin City Limits Music Festival began in 2002. Today the annual festival hosts a number of prominent, indie and up-and-coming musicians and artists for two weekends in early Fall.

Austin started out as the outcast, doing its own thing and inviting people to do theirs. By retaining this mind-set over the years, the city has grown to attract like-minded individuals over the past two centuries, resulting in a motley collection of “geeks and weirdos” who grew up to run the world they helped invent. This includes taking over the music industry, allowing their city to become the go-to destination for new and established artists alike.

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