[This is the second part of my review of the documentary “Echotone” (2010, dir. Nathan Christ).  For the first part, go here.]

Technically, no one in Echotone ever says the phrase “creative class.”  However, the filmmaker’s marketing materials invoke it regularly, starting with the DVD’s back-cover description: “Echotone is a cultural portrait of the modern American city examined through the lyrics and lens of its creative class.”

Of course, the creative class doesn’t just refers to the workforce of artists, musicians and other cultural/knowledge producers.  It’s also the title of the economic development paradigm advanced by Richard Florida that counsels cities, states, and other growth-promoting entities to build the physical, organizational and amenity infrastructures needed by this ascendant post-industrial class.  Florida gave a lectureas part of the city’s South By Southwest Arts & Music Festival back in 2003; more generally, he has long cited SXSW as the kind of synergistic, value-creating development that can arise when cities embrace and promote their creative advantages.

I have no idea how familiar the filmmakers are with Florida’s ideas, but certainly their attitude toward SXSW indicates they would take issue with his celebration of what by now is literally a block-busting event in Austin.  Echotone presents SXSW as a massive headache for most Austin bands, who regularly find themselves excluded from the official events and have to scramble together unofficial, off-site events in order to catch the attention from the thousands of attendees.  If the distaste expressed by local musicians and promoters isn’t clear enough, the film includes a surreal on-the-street segment at a recent SXSW that gives the impression of a garish college spring break event set up by music merchandisers.  Here then is another unanticipated hazard of Austin’s prosperity — the mega-event equivalent to the high-rise condominium construction on Congress Avenue.

Echotone thus emphasizes the conflict of interests between local bands and SXSW, as at least an implicit rebuke to the coincidence of interests that Richard Florida or other economic development planners would expect.  Surprisingly, no one offers the third view: that Austin musicians aren’t either (or only) the beneficiaries or victims of creative-city development, but actually (or also) comprise the very aesthetic landscape sought out by creative-economy employers, real estate investors, gentrifiers, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, and so on.  To be fair to Florida, his writings signal he’d anticipate anticipate this kind of ecological dynamic of creative-city development.  However, his work is generally so instrumental and growth-minded in mindset, he’d likely describe this pattern as a good thing, a virtuous circle.

Elsewhere, Echotone shows the political efforts by local musician Troy Dillinger and other music-scene advocates to push back against the noise and nuisance complaints made by a growing number residents.  These advocates find it strategic to embrace Florida’s kind of rhetoric: “Music is economic development and growth,” Dillinger says.  It’s uncertain whether these efforts, which in the film are made by folks in their middle or later age (possibly once their own music careers have slowed down), are shared by the 20-something musicians featured in the documentary.  What is certain, however, is that Echotone’s filmmakers seek to secure the connection between indie rockers and political advocates as a result of their film’s message and (in case the course of action isn’t clear to viewers) the “get involved” agenda presented as the last title of the end credits.

The number of new-economy buzzwords in this statement (at the moment, I couldn’t tell you what “aggregate your audience” means) suggests the differences between the creative-class agendas of Echotone and Richard Florida maybe aren’t that great.  Both seek to arm local musicians with a shot of careerism and a rhetoric of economic productivity to counter residents’ NIMBYism and other threats to the scene.  They also give political urgency to statistics such as the one Echotonereports: 70% of Austin musicians make less than $15,000 a year.

Look, no question it sucks when profit is extracted from musicians by corporate record labels, big festivals, or real estate developers.  (Not that any of those larger entities should be considered secure in the creative economy; what once was a smart investment five years ago is often an inevitable financial morass from today’s perspective.)  But for once, let’s ask ourselves: does urging musicians to treat their art like a business really help a music scene?  In almost the same breath that musicians’ advocates express alarm at the precarious balance that the Austin music maintains, they acknowledge that an economically vibrant scene will attract more musicians to the city — of both the touring and full-time migrant side.  How likely is ratcheting up this creative-economy agglomeration going to benefit any one struggling local band?  Musicians might think about that separately from the question, how likely will ratcheting up this creative-economy agglomeration benefit the scene’s professional services — the city’s music venues, promoters, graphic designers, lawyers, landlords, etc.  (Just because many musicians have a foot in both camps doesn’t make it any less of a contradictory position to be in.)  If we consider the latter question a little more carefully, then maybe the imperialism that SXSW exerts over the scene will start to appear a little overstated.

Here’s a timely thought.  Want to help the 70% of musicians who make less than $15,000 a year, in Austin and no doubt many other places?  Then go occupy Wall Street and join the fight against broader socioeconomic inequality and the weakening of the social safety net.

The point is that Austin musicians’ vulnerability isn’t fundamentally a consequence of their occupation; to believe so only naturalizes the neoliberal ethos that people are essentially defined by their contributions to the labor market.  (This is why the so-called dilemma between a day job and full-time devotion to one’s art, as depicted inEchotone and so many other creative-class manifestos, has always struck me as problematic.)  However, musicians’ vulnerability is, among other things, a consequence of their locality — specifically, of living and making music in an urban economy heated by creative activity, population growth, and urban development.  A city like Austin should make evident that local music is a force for “competitive” urban advantage and broader uneven geographic development.  These are political economic games that the creative class didn’t create, and that they can’t mitigate if they choose to play them.

It might seem a strange argument for a blog about musical urbanism to make, but the problems represented in and by Echotone suggest maybe we should rethink the “natural” relationship between musical activity and places.  Particularly if (as I discussed in pt. 1 of this review) the relationship is an aesthetic one filtered through indie-rock solipsism, with no genuine participation in the collective practice of a local style — maybe the musician’s creative relationship to place is primarily one for the extraction of inspirational inputs, analogous to a sampled found sound, the profits of which can follow the musician should they ever leave for another creative hotspot.  Treating music like a business doesn’t necessarily soften or mitigate this symbolic exploitation of place; it doesn’t necessarily make the city more livable for musicians either.