Everyone is bullish about Austin these days. The famed Silicon Valley VC Jim Breyer wrote this CNN piece recently (link) about his move to Austin and how it compares favorably to the Bay Area. Austin’s growth due to tech goes back to the days of IBM, Motorola, Cirrus Logic, and larger tech companies, which began setting up regional outposts before Michael Dell was hawking computers from his UT dorm room during the 1980s. Dell’s rise attracted hotshot startups like Trilogy in the 1990s. Since then, Austin’s tech scene exploded, with large enterprises (Apple, Oracle, etc.) and startups becoming commonplace. Attracting Jim Breyer and Elon Musk won’t be the crowning achievement for Austin’s tech economy. Holding onto them will help Texas stay attractive to the tech crowd.
Austin’s rise as a tech factory won’t erase its arts culture and musical history overnight. However, the social malaise from a single-minded tech economy that overtook Silicon Valley has made its way to Austin and touches all facets of life here. The wealth gap and affordability crisis chronicled brilliantly in Cary McClelland’s tome “Silicon City” portends the same for Austin. No matter how well-intentioned West Coast transplants are, Austin’s barometer of success will reward those who can optimize their tech magic based on global markets. It appears a safety net won’t exist to help artists and musicians who made Austin attractive in the first place. Money talks over everything else. The coolness and serendipity offered by the swashbuckling Austin music scene will play second fiddle to the transactional top-down business culture created by new tech personas and their startup groupies. Who knows, Austin might become the new home for Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, the ultimate gathering for geeks like me.
Is it possible by attracting the best engineers and financial wizards, Austin will drive out artists, musicians, social change-makers, and the type of homegrown talent behind SXSW and Austin’s libertarian politics? Trickle-down economics will undoubtedly help thousands of locals as they upskill for Austin’s newer industries, but it won’t be enough to save those who built this city on rock-and-roll. What happens to a city when fun people can’t afford to live in downtown? San Francisco and Seattle transformed themselves brilliantly in the last 20 years. However, the art and music scenes couldn’t compete with the tech sector. Thousands of talented people left those cities because they didn’t work in tech and realized the new transplants didn’t care if they made art or played guitar.
Austin is becoming home to the same geek brigade that chased away many people from Silicon Valley. Is it possible to preserve Austin’s arts and music scene when the economics don’t favor this possibility? I believe philanthropy, as alluded to in the Breyer article, can make all the difference. Austin could evade its tech ghetto fate by becoming more community-oriented and egalitarian versus other tech metropolises. I know one thing for sure. If Austin doesn’t sustain its hip vibe, its entrepreneurial carpet-baggers will head somewhere else after demystifying Austin’s allure.