After co-founding Keeled Scales Records with a friend in 2014, Tony Presley essentially ran the label away from home for its first seven years. Every night he had to navigate a maze of boxes full of vinyl records to get from his door to his bed. But he is committed to making the label financially solvent. With an emphasis on lean money and a tireless work ethic, Keeled Scales recruited some of Austin’s top talent, like Sun June and Julia Lucille, as well as up-and-coming artists from across the country like Buck Meek (Big Thief ) and Katy Kirby.
Then, in 2021, the label’s success caught the eye of Polyvinyl, a major Illinois-based independent label, who expressed interest in a partnership. Presley jumped at the chance, knowing it would undoubtedly mean increased opportunity for the label and the bands he represents. The parties reached a deal in which Polyvinyl bought a 25% stake in the label while remaining majority-owned by Presley. A third partner, Bri Aab, owns 25% of the company.
The joint venture is evident among a few growing trends in the capital’s music business. First, longtime industry players have an eye on what’s going on in Austin. Second, that its much-criticized music business infrastructure is finally showing signs of maturing. And perhaps more importantly, alliances between small entities can provide increased leverage against newcomers. In the past two years, South by Southwest has sold half of the business to a larger corporation, Live Nation has bought Stubb’s and the land it sits on, Block 21 (which contains ACL Live) has been sold to a Nashville-based group, and an array of out-of-state entities partnered with the University of Texas to create the Moody Center. These moves portend a new era for the music industry in Austin, adding both legitimacy and an increased cost of doing business.
Last May, Polyvinyl and Keeled Scales opened an office together in East Austin, which gave the latter access to resources such as accountants and managers who have decades of industry experience, a direct benefit. for local artists. “This situation allows an Austin label like Keeled Scales to level up and become something that’s going to last,” Presley says.
Resound and Heard, two of the city’s leading independent gig promoters, followed a similar game plan in merge in may. Resound owner Graham Williams, who previously ran Transmission and Margin Walker Presents, said the newly formed entity is “stronger together and able to tackle more and compete on a wider level”. Providing strength in numbers, the larger team can promote more events and now have additional venues in their network. They are also serious about building local artists, for which Resound has created a registry. “You can register online, and it helps us identify new bands to consider for support while touring or creating local events,” Williams says. “We want to be more of a platform for Austin acts when we can.”
The growth of music industry infrastructure – businesses like labels, management, licensing and publishing companies, and recording studios – also makes the capital more capable of retaining emerging artists who might otherwise jump ship in favor of New York or Los Angeles. (Artists such as Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, Jess Williamson, and Taméca Jones have all made such a move in the past.) While Keeled Scales’ roster isn’t limited to Austin artists, the label’s presence here offers local bands the opportunity to get on the radar of entities that act as gateways to the music industry as a whole.
At its core, this freelance business is the kind of business that earns money for neighborhood cafes and restaurants that employees frequent during their workdays. Sure, a $300 million project like the Moody Center boosts Austin’s economy, but independent businesses like Keeled Scales and Polyvinyl are essential for the city’s rising class of musicians, while maintaining the distinct philosophy of ‘Austin. “It’s cool to see institutions dig deeper and say this is legitimately something that brings money and cultural value to our city, and we need to find a way to support that,” Presley said.
While it’s easy to think of big corporations as monolithic behemoths, they’re actually groups of people who have pooled their resources to generate enormous economic success. If local Austin businesses are to compete in this brave new market, behaving like corporations can create a path to longevity.