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Echotone – Starz Denver Film Festival 2010

“This is like in Colorado where they build developments and suddenly people are being eaten by mountain lions.” This quote is from the beginning of “Echotone,” a documentary that spotlights the conflict between art and commerce, between musicians who have lived and worked in downtown Austin for years and the rise of residential dwellers, i.e. progress.

What Austin has been going through in “Echotone” reflects a huge gripe for those of us who live and play in our given downtown neighborhoods across the country: people moving into a downtown area to buy “cool”, and then complain about what goes on there, mainly the noise (that damn rock ‘n roll music) and people out at late hours. You know. Downtown city shenanigans. Or, if you’re a mountain lion living and doing your thing and real estate developers come along to take over your land, someone eventually gets bitten…or worse.

The other art-versus-commerce take in “Echotone” also spotlights the starving artist aspect of musicianship in a way I’ve never seen before. The film delves deep into their strife to make music for a living without sacrificing the essence of who they are and what they create. This includes the decision of staying DIY or going the route of a record label.

Black Joe Lewis, sans his Honeybears, is lugging seafood by day and performing as an amazing blues musician by night. It’s the reality of most musicians to have that day job even thought they may be signed to a record label (in his case, Lost Highway Records). But when the sun goes down and the stage lights go up he’s a whole new person, with his Honeybears, killing it with a modern take on vintage rhythm and blues.

The film also tells the post-label story of Sound Team, mostly narrated and relived by one of the founding members, Bill Baird. He’s contemplative and complex, which is reflected in his former band’s folkish and warm sounds and lyrics that began in 2000. The band’s talent eventually made its way to the ears of an A&R rep at Capitol Records, which was the beginning of the end for the band.

I couldn’t help but laugh at one memory a band member recalls where the group was sitting with their record rep in a club ordering Dom Pérignon, and he got the sinking feeling that “there’s something wrong” going on.

Two years later the rep was gone, the band was dropped by EMI after poor sales of the album…which Capitol had priced at $18.98 (who does that?).

Then there’s Belaire, an abstract indie rock band I fell in love with during the course of “Echotone,” not only for their unique and atmospheric sound but for their sheer level of creativity, from the way they handcrafted their band T-shirts and CDs, to their adamant position about only making music in way that makes them happy.

Baird, who has gone on to form Sunset, sees it this way. “What constitutes success? Is it a guy alone in his bedroom who makes his masterpiece and no one hears it? Or is getting your music out to the world and selling out stadiums?”

“Echotone” reflects a number of contrasts throughout the film, like the fact that Baird now works in a print shop that provides services to high rise condo builders; the ones who continue to make it harder for musicians and club owners alike to support Austin’s moniker “Live Music Capital of the World.”

As of the making of the film there were approximately 8,000 working musicians in Austin that bring over a billion dollars in revenue into the city and $25 million in tax revenues. On the flipside (another contrast), those musicians who work in print shops or deliver fish during the day, over 70% of them make less than $15,000 a year from their music.

Having gone to SXSW for many years I remember a few years back, seeing more instant-cool “soft lofts” showing downtown and the Red River Districts that’s home to some of the more popular clubs including Mohawk, Stubbs, Club Deville, Emo’s, Beerland and Red 7.

There’s nothing wrong with commerce, capitalism, or a city growing and evolving. It’s happened in Mahattan neighborhoods like the East Village or the Bowery, and right here in Denver, where new condos in a warehouse district caused nightclubs to abide by curfews and noise ordinances.

What “Echotone” does is present the backstage story about how this is going down in Austin, along with a spotlight on the lives of those on stage who put their blood, sweat and tears into making music.


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