Musicians see uphill climb in storied ‘Live Music Capitol of the World’

Sunny Sweeney (KXAN Photo)
Sunny Sweeney (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A country singer who got her start in Austin says it’s now much harder for musicians to make a go of it here. Despite a history of attracting musicians eager to play in the live music capital of the world, some of them feel like they’re being priced out of town.

Sunny Sweeney moved to town in 1996 for college. “My dad, the day I graduated, was like, ‘You can do anything you want,’ and I said, ‘OK, well I’m going to start a band!’ He said, ‘That’s not what I meant.'” Sweeney’s parents came around, though.

Sunny at The Poodle Dog (provided / Sunny Sweeney)
Sunny at The Poodle Dog Lounge (provided / Sunny Sweeney)

They supported her during the early days of her music career and showing up to all her gigs. Eventually she realized other people started coming besides her parents. “I thought, ‘Oh, I have made it!’ Like there’s people that I really honestly don’t know that are showing up at my shows,” recalls Sweeney.

In the beginning Sweeney was a regular at places like The Poodle Dog, Chaparral and The Carousel Lounge. “Every place that I used to play at… has changed names or changed ownership or whatever, but Joe has always been here,” she says referring to Joe Abels who owns Saxon Pub on South Lamar Boulevard. Sweeney has now played on some of the biggest stages in country music, but she still makes a point of stopping by Saxon.

Saxon Pub (KXAN photo / Sydney Benter)
Saxon Pub (KXAN photo / Sydney Benter)

“I feel very strongly about this bar and it’s one of the best places in town to hear music and the choices of music are always really great here,” says Sweeney.

Things have changed a lot in Austin since Sweeney got her start. She thinks it’s now much harder for budding musicians to give the “Live Music Capitol of the World” a shot. “To me a lot of musicians have had to move now out of town because the pricing of apartments and houses is just running musicians out of town,” says Sweeney.

There are efforts underway to help some musicians find homes in Austin. Last year, Foundation Communities opened Bluebonnet Studios, an affordable housing community on South Lamar Boulevard.

The units are reserved for people who make less than $27,000 per year. Foundation Communities partnered with the All ATX advocacy group to reserve 10 apartments at Bluebonnet specifically for musicians. Mayor Steve Adler introduced a resolution last year featuring measures to help keep music venues open in Austin. That resolution is still a work in progress.

As for Sweeney, she’s still living the dream. “I’ve already exceeded so many things in my mind that I ever though — never thought would happen.”

Sunny Sweeney at the Grand Ole Opry (Christina Feddersen)
Sunny Sweeney at the Grand Ole Opry (Christina Feddersen)

This story is part of a series KXAN’s Sydney Benter is covering on the changes happening in Austin from music to development. Read the rest of her stories here.

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