The World's New Culture Meccas

Article excerpt

Austin, USA: Southern Sound Factory

Hank Stringer has no doubt who butters his bread. Two years ago he moved his recruitment company, Hire.com, to the old Austin Opry House. He kept the stage intact and named all the conference rooms after the musicians who once played there. On Mondays at 3 p.m., executive staff meetings are held in "Stevie Ray Vaughn." Weekly sales updates take place in "Talking Heads." And the product-steering committee convenes every Wednesday in "Muddy Waters." "Back in the early '90s, it wasn't so easy to attract talent to Austin. But I found a common theme of interest in the candidates," Stringer explains. "They all wanted to hear about the live-music scene. So I made it part of my pitch to take them out to clubs and expose them to the great artists in town. People loved it. And they fell in love with Austin."

Austin, Texas, is not the first place you'd expect to find a flourishing creative enclave. It's surrounded by cities with gaudy high-rises, towns inhabited by Bible-banging revivalists and miles of scrub brush. Yet the town is home to some 1,500 musical acts--part of a music scene that supports 14,000 jobs, generates $616 million for the economy and produces $11 million in tax revenue. "I came here in 1989 and saw the blues scene, and I just flipped," recalls Toni Price, a singer from Nashville, Tennessee, who has developed a huge local following. "Three months later I packed my kid and my little cat in my car and I came here. And I'm still in love with it."

Music is not the only creative enterprise in town. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of creative entrepreneurs settled in Austin to take advantage of an atmosphere that nurtures experimentation. Dell Computers is headquartered there, as are scores of others, ranging from computer-chip manufacturers to Web designers. The wealth their businesses have generated has only increased demand for local music and visual arts.

Austin's creative boom has been building for decades. University of Texas students have long provided a ready audience for music acts. Then, in 1970, a man named Eddie Wilson purchased a huge National Guard Armory and converted it to a cavernous music hall capable of holding thousands. The Armadillo brought all of Austin's music fans together under one roof for the first time. "Redneck cowboys in from the ranch, starched-collared [University of Texas] law-school students, hippie dropouts, they all drank together in the same place," recalls Terry Lickona, producer of the TV show "Austin City Limits." Willie Nelson moved to Austin in 1972, and many more followed.

Things have only grown since. With the decline of Seattle and the popularity of Austin's annual South by Southwest music-industry conference and festival (started in 1988), the city came into its own in the 1990s. Now it's getting ready to take another step. This year it will host its first Austin City Limits Music Festival--a huge extravaganza, based on the popular television series. City leaders hope it will eventually compete with the New Orleans Jazz Festival. The biggest question now is whether the arrival of the entrepreneurs will drive prices so high, the starving artists will flee the scene. Many already complain that the new arrivals have forced them to move to the outskirts of town. Yet so far few musicians have left the area. "It's hot as hell and the rent is through the roof," Price says. "But as long as I have breath in me the music scene will continue." For now, there's no reason to believe it won't.

--Adam Piore

Tijuana, Mexico: Hybrid Happening

It's well past midnight in a vacant lot outside Tijuana and Sal Ricalde, 27, is dancing behind the controls of his veejay station. On a nearby screen, he projects a swirling, psychedelic image of an altar to the infamous local narcotics trafficker Santa Malafama. "We collect imagery by roaming around the city," says Ricalde. …