A significant shift is underway, explored by Kaya Yurieff with The Information, A Reckoning Arrives for Creator Economy Startups , “ Two years ago, Dmitry Shapiro and Sean Thielen were so optimistic about the booming creator economy that they pivoted their startup to a new product: a simple tool called Koji that lets influencers more easily link to their online tip jars, merch and other services in their social media bios. Sure, there were already dozens of other startups offering a similar type of product, but that didn’t stop the two men from raising $20 million for their company, GoMeta.”
“Now,” Yurieff adds, “Shapiro and Thielen want out of the creator economy.” Now, I’ll add, if you’re privy to mediatech as I am, you know that those investors should be questioned, because there were at least 4 “tip” startups based where I live, in Austin, alone, and it was already evident from that that no one was using them, there was no IP to be had, and any other platform in FinTech or payments to creators, could easily add the feature.
Not the best way to start an article praising what I consider the Creator Economy Capital, is it? I share that though, because it highlights the desperate and tremendous opportunities in media innovation, for creators throughout the world, as countless entrepreneurs are trying to make a difference, often the same difference; we must start reflecting on how and where we are likely to make founders more successful.
There is a reckoning for Creator Economy Startups, you’re likely in the wrong place.
As startups and creative talents incessantly seek new opportunities through innovation, I want you to shift the long-held identity of Austin, Texas from a mere Music Capital, while remaining distinct as a hotspot for startups (well beyond being just another Silicon Valley). What is Austin? What is Austin really? What happens when entrepreneurs and artists converge as they have been, here, to thrive? The culture of Austin is what makes it ideal to startups and in particular, the ideal place for Creators. The city is transforming into a beacon, attracting a diverse pool of talents who are seeking opportunities beyond the traditional hubs. This shift denotes a broader movement where barriers are dissolving, and a new wave of creation and collaboration is taking root.
Austin, The Live Music Capital of the World
Austin’s historic legacy as the “Live Music Capital of the World” is rich and vibrant, putting it on the map for music aficionados and artists alike and yet, as long as I’ve been here, it felt lacking in some way. This city, nestled in the heart of Texas, has been a cradle for many celebrated musicians who have left indelible marks in the annals of music history. Icons such as Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan have epitomized the city’s spirit, weaving a tapestry of music that resonates with both passion and heritage.
- Early Music Scene (19th and early 20th century): Austin’s musical heritage began with the influx of immigrants who brought their musical traditions to the area in the 19th century. German, Czech, and Mexican influences played a significant role in shaping the city’s music culture. Dance halls and saloons featured live music performances, including polka and conjunto music.
- University of Texas and Jazz Era: The University of Texas at Austin, founded in 1883, brought a diverse student population to the city. In the early 20th century, jazz music became popular, and Austin’s venues started hosting jazz bands. The Victory Grill, a historic venue on the East Side, became a prominent hub for African American jazz musicians during this period.
- Rise of Country Music: Austin’s country music scene started to gain prominence in the 1930s and 1940s. The city was an essential stop for touring country musicians and became known for its honky-tonk bars and dance halls. Venues like the Broken Spoke, still operational today, became iconic in the country music world.
- The Armadillo World Headquarters: In the 1970s, the Armadillo World Headquarters played a pivotal role in shaping Austin’s music culture. This music hall and cultural center hosted a wide range of acts, from country and rock to blues and reggae. It attracted a diverse audience and fostered a sense of community among music enthusiasts.
- Willie Nelson and the Outlaw Movement: Willie Nelson, a Texas native, moved to Austin in the early 1970s. His presence and the emergence of the outlaw country movement helped solidify Austin’s reputation as a hub for innovative and progressive music. The Outlaw Movement challenged the Nashville establishment and brought national attention to Austin’s music scene.
- Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival: In 2002, the Austin City Limits Festival, inspired by the iconic PBS television show, was launched. This annual event has grown into one of the country’s premier music festivals, attracting top-tier artists and music lovers from around the world.
- South by Southwest (SXSW): SXSW, an annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival, began in Austin in 1987. It has become a global platform for emerging artists and music industry professionals. SXSW helped Austin cement its status as a music destination.
And yet, Nashville is known as the Music Capital, an assertion I’m not really challenging; I’m challenging Music City, while producers and artists alike still make their way to Los Angeles to be discovered. In fairness, Austin be the Live you to explore and appreciate the circumstances such as they are.
Austin’s music scene is a melting pot of genres, where traditions meet innovation, nurturing an environment where musicians, creators, can grow and thrive. This legacy is not just confined to the past; it is a living, breathing entity, continually evolving and inspiring newer generations to tread the path of musical exploration.
But is it enough to be the Creator Capital? Appreciate that it is enough to have the spark of an identity that celebrates the creator, in this case, the musician, and evident in Shapiro and Thielen’s experience, innovation requires problems with which to work. My partner in Chicago, John Zozzaro, grabbed my attention years ago when he pointed out that Austin has hundreds of non-profits in the music sector, and around 60% of musicians living below the poverty line — why so many non-profit efforts to help if there aren’t problems to solve (and intentions to solve them)?
Los Angeles: The Presumed Creative Capital, But Is It?
While Los Angeles has long been hailed as the world’s creative capital, its crown seems to be wobbling. According to Brian Regienczuk via LinkedIn, the city stands as a beacon of creativity, “There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers, and musicians living and working in LA than any other city at any other time in the history of civilization.”
However, a report from ZDNet questions the longevity of its reign, Andrew Nusca , “A lack of recognition, insufficient government planning and support, lacking K?12 school curriculum in the arts and tightening school district budgets are otherwise detracting from the city’s creative talent pool.”
We know what’s going on with the writers’ strike, and we have to appreciate that things like Spotify and Netflix, Pandora, and even Amazon, in streaming, are not there but from elsewhere, as innovation of the entertainment industry understandably is coming from without rather than within — places determined to fix what Los Angeles won’t, or can’t? I’ve even surmised frequently that while Silicon Valley broke and forced a change to New York’s news media and advertising industries, it too has failed to solve the new challenges inherent in those.
The escalating costs of living and global competition, as the world goes through the digital transformation that Silicon Valley experienced decades ago, are sparking creators everywhere to thrive while many, as we well know, are leaving California for other horizons; Austin stands as a prominent choice and not just in Music but, perhaps, with that Live Music identity revealing the potential to everything else.
Austin, A Melting Pot of Creativity
Upon relocating to Austin, I was greeted with more than just melodic strains. A rich WordPress community burgeoned here (careful that link, I wrote it 12 years ago so it’s out of date) here, with bloggers and writers crafting narratives that resonate globally while the infrastructure to do so was being improved upon here. This vibrant convergence of music with tech might be best illuminated in how Warner Music and Maya Arguelles intentionally chose to develop their site on Austin-based WP Engine — not only choosing it but then turning to video to promote the fact.
The creative canvas of Austin is colored with yet more than just words and melodies.
The city is a living gallery, adorned with intricate murals that tell stories more vivid than a thousand words, with the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, Austin Parks Foundation, and the Downtown Austin Alliance, frequently working together to paint the town far more than red. “Most murals appear suddenly, in places you wouldn’t expect: on a downtown high-rise, against the back side of a coffee shop, in an abandoned alleyway behind a dumpster,” Jackson Prince with The Austinot. “It’s part of Austin’s murals’ mystique and glory. No descriptions, no special lighting, no rules against touching. Which makes me wonder…How did you get up there, frog? Who made you? What are you trying to tell me with those big, kind eyes?”
A haven for the gaming industry, major video game companies have also planted roots in Austin, merging technology with artistry, crafting experiences that transcend boundaries. I couldn’t be sufficiently grateful to people like Frank Coppersmith, Michael Lubker, and Adam Creighton, for guiding our early days from the perspective of their work in the gaming industry. More important to the premise here, it’s hardly well known that Austin is home to… hang on, I’m going to need another list:
- Bioware: A subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA), has a studio in Austin. They have been involved in the development of various online games, including “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”
- EA: Not headquarters but yeah, EA employs a lot here.
- Riot Games: Known for the immensely popular game “League of Legends,” has an office in Austin. While the company’s headquarters are in Los Angeles, they have multiple regional offices, including one in Austin.
- Certain Affinity: Specialized in multiplayer experiences has worked on titles like “Halo: The Master Chief Collection” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.”
- Aspyr Media: Aspyr specializes in porting and publishing video games on various platforms, including macOS and Linux. They have worked on bringing popular titles like “Civilization VI” to different platforms.
- Portalarium: Known for the development of “Shroud of the Avatar,” a fantasy role-playing game, has a studio in Austin.
- LightBox Interactive: A game development studio that has worked on titles like “Starhawk.” While their main office is in Austin, they also have a presence in California.
- Bethesda Game Studios: A subsidiary of Microsoft with a studio in Austin. They have been involved in the development of various games, including “Fallout 76.”
- Enduring Games: Doing a lot of the work for Nintendo Switch and PS5
And film, it’s here in Austin that people like Chris Debiec, founder of the Texas Media Association and Jennifer Hutchins, who runs Austin Entertainment Business, are leading not just Austin’s film industry but the future of Texas Film. Debiec, who recently has headlines reading, “Ex Californian Says Texas Must Do More To Attract The Film Projects,” sounds similar to how the Austin Business Journal positioned me a years ago, “Paul O’Brien is determined to turn Austin into the Hollywood of media-tech”
In less than a month, Dennis Quaid, native Texan, joins Matthew McConaughey, Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, and other Texas actors in the #goodfortexas promotion, joining Debiac at the “Why Texas” Summit in (alas, not Austin), Arlington, Texas. There, increasing the pressure to increase and celebrate Texas film production.
Here’s the thing, the loosely concerted effort is working…
Austin, Comedy Capital of the World
Austin has experienced a remarkable surge in its comedy scene, reshaping its creative landscape once again. Esteemed figures in the comedy sphere such as Raza Jafri and Andre Ricks have taken the initiative to open spaces that offer diverse lineups catering to different groups including the LGBTQ+ community. The East Austin Comedy Club, comes to mind in evidence; a splendid venue housed in a rugged building, epitomizes this new wave, resonating a vintage lounge vibe that embraces everyone with open arms.
“ Embracing everyone with open arms,” hopefully you noticed my highlight above of immigrants, in recognition of all the musicians who moved to Austin in the early 20th century. Again, reflected in what *made* California thrive, what makes Austin next should be assessed through the immigration — change makers who bring culture, ideas, and communities from their experiences elsewhere in the United States or beyond.
“Joe Rogan began singing the praises of Austin and discussing creating a comedy scene like New York and Los Angeles,” shared Lorena Reyna and Chris Orozco, owners of Austin’s newest Rozco’s Comedy Club , “One of the hallmarks of those scenes is being able to do several spots per night and really test out your material in front of different audiences. We felt that there was space for a smaller venue that offered an elevated experience that was completely focused on comedy. That way comedians aren’t having to get stage time at a brewery.”
Lorena and Chris, natives of Austin, embraced that immigration just as those who made a difference have before, “For years, Austin was known as the Live Music Capital of the World. Many of those venues closed during the pandemic but they left behind an audience hungry for live entertainment. Comedy fills that gap. There’s also a natural partnership with comedy and music that our venue and others are incorporating.”
“ While most comics found themselves in a purgatory of Zoom shows during the pandemic, L.A. stand-ups, including Rogan, began dipping their toes into Austin. Although Texas had looser restrictions on live events, many native Austin comedians stayed home to prevent the spread of COVID. The caution of locals opened up a lane for those in L.A. and New York. Stand-ups began flying to perform at old-school Austin venues such as Cap City Comedy Club (which opened as the Laff Stop in 1986 before changing its name a decade later), the Velveeta Room (opened in 1988) and historically music-only venues like Antone’s (opened in 1975) and Vulcan Gas Company (opened in 1967).”
- Nate Jackson with LA Times
An impressive feature of this blooming scene is the inclusivity and participation it encourages. Comedy clubs are fostering an environment where comics have a say in their work environment and can work fluidly across different platforms, crafting a cohesive and cooperative community.
In the latest prospect of revitalizing what’s become known in downtown Austin as “dirty sixth,” glowing neon lights now light the marquee of the Comedy Mothership , where Rogan’s praises became intentions, and add to the immigration of creator culture to Austin. Bringing a taste of LA whether we like it or not, the sign shines on the city like a nightclub in the heart of the city where UT students collide with SXSW crowds.
As you stroll down the lively streets of Austin, you might stumble upon the vibrant and more accessible Sunset Strip Comedy Club , a venue that attempts to revive the magnetic spirit of the ’80s Hollywood, where comedians and rock stars rose to fame in harmony. This establishment, which found a home in the former music venue the Parish, pays homage to a golden era while embracing the new wave of comedy, becoming a testament to Austin’s resilient spirit and aptitude to change — critical aspects of a culture wherein entrepreneurs thrive, and startups emerge.
The inception of Sunset Strip is a testament to Austin’s burgeoning potential as the new epicenter for comedy. Co-founded by Anthony Hashem and the late Adam Hartle, the club navigated through tragedy and transformation, emerging as a beacon of hope and laughter in the Austin comedy scene. The collaboration with Brian Redban, a figure intricately connected with the Joe Rogan Experience, propelled the club to new heights, embodying the spirit of collaboration and community that Austin now represents.
Let me pause here to highlight something… controversial people? Yes, that’s in large part my point in recognizing Austin as I am. Creativity thrives in controversy and entrepreneurship requires risk tolerance and disruption — none of which is possible if that controversy and disruption isn’t embraced whether for inspiration, provocation, or yeah, laughter.
“Comedy is what connects society together. The ability to poke fun at the issues of the day is the common ground. No matter how controversial the topic may be, a good joke opens your eyes to a different point of view,” remarked my friends at Rozco’s. “Comedians taking the risk to find the funny out of those controversial subjects is a risk worth taking. The right joke at the right time brings people together whether they want it to or not. Laughter is involuntary.”
And it is among that immigration, that controversy, the fun, the risks, and the different points of view, that our economy fuels change by inspiring entrepreneurs to do the same. Ironic perhaps, that we solve problems and find unity by embracing our differences and disagreements rather than alienating or dividing ourselves over what makes the world so rich.
“Comedy is all about grit and determination,” continue Lorena and Chris (sound familiar startup founders?). “You have to stay consistent and be very focused. You have to pivot when things are not working out. Comedians are tiny companies doing it all to make it and to be in position to take advantage of opportunities. You have to show up every day and not get discouraged. The comedy scene in Austin in particular feels very supportive and encouraging. Comedians are cooperating and putting each other on shows they produce.”
Comedians being tiny companies sounds exactly like what John Zozzaro says about musicians, “you’re either running a business or it’s just a hobby.” And his observation is what drove us to start MediaTech Ventures, through Austin, to change a Live Music Capital full of non-profits trying to help, into a hub of innovation for media, recognizing that entrepreneurs and artists alike need to learn how to start ventures. And the experience of creators in media is exactly parallel to what it takes to be a successful startup. It’s the creator culture of Austin, the history and the risks taken, that have evolved Austin from a tech capable city to an entrepreneurial startup hub.
“I know people are complaining about a lot of California people coming here, but our city is becoming hotter — so you win some, you lose some. What are you gonna do?” Again, , with the Times, “I’d been doing comedy in this town for eight years, and for a while, I felt like a stranger in my own town. At the same time, what else could you ask for really?” While to the South Austin Comedy Club , another significant addition to the Austin comedy circuit, has become a vibrant hub, harboring the artistry of seasoned and budding comedians alike. Arielle Isaac Norman, a prominent comedian, encapsulates the sentiments of many when she expresses the bittersweet evolution of Austin, a place witnessing an amalgamation of new talents mingling with the locals, shared with LA Times editor Nate Jackson , Amidst the boom, many local comedians have felt that same sense of estrangement, like Taylor Dowdy, who has been a part of the Austin comedy scene for nearly a decade. exactly paralleling the shift of attention and people from Silicon Valley. “I pushed back against it a little bit,” share Dowdy, who is also general manager at the 6th street club, Velveeta Room south is new, we can look north for that sense of Austin’s history in comedy, the city’s 30+ year epicenter took their shows to the Domain; Cap City Comedy Club simultaneously reminding us of Austin’s history and the fact that a vibrant city means things change and grow.
As Austin stands on the cusp of a new era, I have hope that this influx of fresh perspectives and talents will cement Austin’s position not just as the Live Music Capital nor merely a hot spot for comedy enthusiasts but that Austinites see all of this for what it is — that our emergence as the tech hub or startup hotspot that cause angst for many, is merely a positive aspect of the fact that we’re leading the way for the Creator Economy; of which, among writers, artists, actors, musicians, and comedians, we find the entrepreneurs and technology professionals determined to improve the economy for and because of those very people.
In this vibrant and evolving milieu, artists from varied backgrounds are converging to create a space of mutual respect and creativity. Caitlin Benson, a new entrant in the city, highlights the reciprocity that the city offers, a place where creators are not just takers but contributors to a culture that is warm, welcoming, and ever evolving. She too shared with Nate Jackson a sentiment that sounds like what I’ve said on behalf of our startup community, “I think a lot of people who moved to Austin are those people from L.A. who were giving and giving without any reciprocation. We didn’t come to this town to be takers. We came to this town to give people a taste of what we do well, and the reception has been overwhelming.”
From ACL Live on Willie Nelson Blvd, where I’ve seen Blondie, Kenny Chesney (and Matthew McConaughey), and , I now catch Tony Hinchcliffe and Brian Redban, Joe Rogan when he drops in to say hello, William Montgomery, David Lucas, Michael Lehrer, and Hans Kim. Kill Tony has too found a home in Austin; and it’s from those ACL seats that the parallels I mentioned really occurred to me… music, thanks to the Kill Tony Band, livestreaming a podcast, because America wants to laugh and Austin loves the weird, where everyone has a chance to get on stage for 1 minute — exactly what we teach startup founders to limit the pitch of their venture to, when seeking to effectively reach people and change the world.
Before I wrap, one more observation that is critical to appreciating all of this; how media technology makes this article possible, makes your engagement possible, and serves as a catalyst for this awakening of comedy. I did mention that involved are some controversial characters and it’s notable that Hinchcliffe was canceled in 2021, ironically, given Hans Kim being a regular, for choice words at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company. Still, Tony is arguably the one who started the migration from LA, getting Redban (Sunset Strip and co-host/producer of Kill Tony and initial Joe Rogan producer) and then Rogan to Austin. Through what medium? podcasting; and here in Austin…
- Lex Fridman artificial intelligence researcher with an amazing show, moved to Austin recently
- Tom Segura and Christina Pazsitzky host Your Mom’s House with a new house in Austin
- Adam Curry (the godfather of podcasts), who I’ve mentioned many times before as an early pioneer of Austin’s creative class
- Sam Parr bought a house in 2020 bringing My First Million to Austin and launching The Hustle
- Jason Scharf hosts the incredibly popular Austin Next
- Lindsay Patterson and Marshall Escamilla host Tumble from Austin, among the incredibly important shows for kids
Rogan, with his extensive experience in broadcast (MMA), podcasting, and comedy, is helping the comedy industry rethink the economics of comedy and the venues that serve them; something the music industry desperately needs to do. And precisely how we work and think as entrepreneurs and in startups.
Austin, Texas, Creator Capital of the World
Instead of, or rather, , perhaps we should launch the in addition to our incubators teaching founders how to start companies in media, and convincingly pitch Kill Tony Incubator working with comedians, as well as the musicians and other artists, to learn what Rozcos’ Lorena and Chris shared, that you have to build a business, or it’s just a hobby.
Amongst this growth and change, the Austin scene hasn’t lost sight of the significance and importance of its roots in music, doing just that. Huston-Tillotson, this week, launched a music business education program, the first of its kind in Austin , “ Music Business Foundations ,” led by Philip Payne, a local musician-turned-music manager. Meanwhile, UT Austin, as though our minds were all wired to move us in the same direction, announced that Texas-based musician and artist Darden Smith has been named the first recipient of the new songwriter in residence program as the University looks to become an “ incubator of new music .” Even beyond but nearby, Texas State, in San Marcos, has shifted from mere Innovation, with our media aptly named, Future Maker Studios program, while in College Station, near Texas A&M, the incubator/accelerator for entrepreneurs isn’t a tech hub, but the new “ DesignSpark .”
All this because Texas, despite what the news media or partisan politics often portrays, is incredibly diverse, immensely accepting, incredibly creative, and embracing the critical role of creators in the future of our economy. As such, it’s Austin, the Creator Capital of the World, inspiring everyone to take a chance.
I made the Portage, Michigan, local news not long ago, where I grew up, because of how I grew up. What struck me was the photo they shared, from High School; reminding me of why I moved to Austin, that it’s the weird, the misfits, the artists, creators, and the performers who are drawn to Texas now, just as it was the misfits, artists, and creators drawn to California in the 20th century. We know what that creative immigration to California did for the entertainment and startup communities of the west coast; expect the same now in Texas.
With so much, you might ask when we’re running our next startup incubator cohort for founders in Austin, and that, my friends, depends on you. With the demand upon what we do for other cities, to help them develop startup ecosystems, and how much we do around SXSW with things like Funded House, Austin is rather more our inspiration and home to much of the team, than where we’re able to even work as much as we’d like. If you want to capitalize on or support the future of Austin’s creative economy, let me know! I need you to help me keep up with how incredible Austin continues to be.