Louis Black, co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and SXSW
Creating the Austin legend through two iconic brands
Written by John T. Davis
Photography by Leslie Hodge
This story, like so many stories, begins with a journey. In this case, it was a journey up a pothole-filled dirt road with cars parked along each side. After a quarter-mile or so, the road gave onto a parking lot and a low-slung building pulsing with music and neon lights.
Soap Creek Saloon, located at what was then the western edge of Austin, was a classic Southern honky-tonk roadhouse, the sort of place where Hank Williams or Howlin’ Wolf would have felt right at home.
Louis Black, newly arrived in Austin and not knowing what to expect, had come to Soap Creek that night to see Doug Sahm, the ferociously talented “King of the Texas Groove,” who could crank out western swing, Cajun waltzes, greasy rhythm and blues, organ-pumping Tex-Mex rock ‘n’ roll, and country two-steps with effortless mastery. “I got a rum and Coke, and Doug’s playing, and I felt at home,” Black recalls. “And I never felt at home. I said, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be.’”
And on that night in 1974, Black, a New York/New Jersey native who had been bouncing around the country “because I wanted to see America” drank Austin’s electric Kool Aid.
Two years later, he was back for good.
Today, a generic office building serves as a tombstone for Soap Creek, as is the case for many venerable Austin landmarks of that era.
But Black is still here, and in his 43-year tenure, the 68-year-old has been a pivotal founder, mover, and motivator behind two institutions that helped to transform the city in profound and unpredictable ways: The Austin Chronicle and South By Southwest.
He serves as one of Austin’s most enthusiastic and enduring (and occasionally exasperated) cheerleaders.
In 1981, Black, along with Nick Barbaro and Joe Dishner, started The Austin Chronicle, the proudly contentious alternative weekly which has given a forum to some of the best writers in Texas and irritated all of the powers-that-be at one time or another.
Six years later, along with Roland Swenson, the late Louis Jay Meyers, and Barbaro, Black helped launch SXSW. It was like hatching an Easter chick that grew up to be Godzilla. In 1987, 700 attendees and 177 bands and musicians showed up for the first conference. In 2017, according to the SXSW website, 2,085 artists played musical showcases, and that doesn’t begin to include the throngs who attended the film, interactive, gaming and comedy components that have grown up around the original music conference.
According to the City of Austin, the 2018 edition of SXSW pumped a whopping $350.6 million into the local economy.
Nothing else, with the possible exception of the Austin City Limits television program, has ever branded the city so indelibly to an audience so far-flung as SXSW has.
“Louis came up with the name ‘South By Southwest,’” SXSW co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Roland Swenson says. “One critical thing Louis did was utilize his relationships with other alternative weekly papers to bring them in as co-sponsors … So from the start, we were much more than another local event. Louis has always had a wealth of relationships.”
In addition, Black was an original board member and past president of the Austin Film Society, which was founded in 1985 by director Richard Linklater and helped lay the groundwork for the city’s vibrant film scene. (Black made his directorial debut in 2016 with a documentary about Linklater entitled Dream Is Destiny, which aired as part of PBS’s American Masters series.)
Music, film, journalism: Black’s fingerprints are all over decades of Austin’s cultural life. His influence is undeniable.
And each of those entities affected the city profoundly. Music first put Austin on the map in the mid-1970s via the “progressive country” movement that led to an influx of singer-songwriters from all over the state. The Austin Film Society created a welcome environment for filmmakers who would establish national reputations, including Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, and Jeff Nichols. South by Southwest Interactive exuded a vibe of high-tech coolness that proved an irresistible allure to young techies and other members of the creative class who have so notably transformed the city.
Black would tell you that this unique artistic and technological cross-pollination could have happened nowhere else.
“Austin, Texas, was the multiplier,” he says. “It [SXSW] was what went on here every day of the year. Any day in Austin you can go see amazing music, you can go see a movie by a local filmmaker or go listen to people get excited about ideas. We just kind of amped it up.”
And yet, to hear him tell it, none of his career trifecta was planned. “My whole life since I’ve gotten to Austin, I’ve been really, really lucky,” he says one unseasonably dreary, drizzly January afternoon, as he relaxes in the office of his comfortable house, situated an easy chip shot from the Hancock Golf Course and within walking distance of his old office at the Chronicle.
“People don’t like that word; they say, ‘You’re a hard worker.’ But I’ve been lucky. I had a skill set and I have tenacity, but I have been blessed in this town by who I’ve gotten to work with. It’s the most amazing community.”
Black can display a curmudgeon-like demeanor when the occasion or the company calls for it, but in talking to him, he waxes rhapsodically about Austin, the people in it, and how (yes) lucky he was to be the guy who happened to be carrying the bucket on the day it rained gold.
“I think Austin’s a miracle,” he says. “I really do. It’s collaborative, it’s cooperative. It’s a culture — going back to earlier in the ‘70s, in the ‘60s, and the ‘50s — if you were a beatnik or gay, you came to Austin if you wanted to stay in Texas. I think it really starts there.”
Black likes to refer to himself as “an inspired bureaucrat.” People came up and threw him the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland line: “Let’s put on a show!” And Black would jump in with both feet.
“Every time, I’d say, ‘Sure.’ And then I’m in 100 percent. Once I get started, I’m real logistically oriented, which came as a real shock to me.”
Black has never been a fan of business plans. It’s quite possible he’s never put one down on paper. What he accomplished, especially at the Chronicle, was less a business model than an exercise of sheer will, according to Swenson.
“My dad had an expression about stubborn people,” Swenson says. “‘He’d go up against Hell with a teacup of water,’ The force of will it took to launch the Chronicle was legendary. Louis was always ready to go to war with anyone or anything standing in the way of the vision.”
“I was scared to death through almost the whole run,” Black says of his time in Austin. “This had succeeded and that had succeeded, but would the next thing succeed?
“The metaphor for everything we’ve done is running off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. We actually succeeded on running on air for a lot of the time, but most of the times we fell. But we got up, and we didn’t die. So, then you took another chance.”
Black was born in New York City, but his folks moved across the river to New Jersey when he was two. By his own recounting, he wasn’t voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” A reading disorder held him back.
“Both of my sisters were stars [in school]. But that was before ADD was diagnosed, which meant I was an underachiever and lazy, and I failed at everything. I didn’t like sports, I was tone deaf, I had no artistic ability. I was expected to fail. But I fell in love with comic books and music and movies. And then I had this extraordinary life because I was passionate. And I grew up in this town, where being passionate counts for a lot.”
Michael Corcoran — whose smart, provocative, irreverent music column Don’t You Start Me Talking ran in the Chronicle for years — phrases it slightly differently: “His blowups are legendary,” Corcoran says of Black.
“I’ve been the subject of a couple of them, but I never took it personally. I just saw that anger as part of his process. He can also be the most charming person alive. We were a family and Louis was the dad you loved and feared.”
“I never actually punched Louis,” Swenson says. “But there were times when it was an option. Louis and Nick are like the older brothers I never had.”
Corcoran had an unusual dual perspective (shared by yours truly) of having both worked for Black at the Chronicle and covering South By Southwest, Louis’s baby, for the Austin American-Statesman. “The Chronicle is Nick’s baby, and SXSW is Roland’s,” Corcoran notes. “But Louis was really important in getting those to the next level.”
In doing so, Black helped take the city to the next level, where we reside today for good and ill. The Chronicle and SXSW both helped to create an image of a vibrant, urban capital filled with young, equally vibrant, creative people.
“I remember a couple of times during the boom period of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the Chronicle was railing against growth. And, on a regular basis, the high-tech firms would come in asking for 50 or 100 papers because they were using us to recruit and show how much was going on in Austin.”
With that growth and booming economy, of course, came traffic, gentrification, income inequality, jumped-up property taxes and all the other woes that beset residents on a daily basis.
“Would Austin have grown anyway (without the paper and SXSW)?” Black asks. “I really don’t know. Do I feel guilty? Not at all. For one thing I still love Austin. I hate the traffic. I get lost all the time. Pretty much everybody feels the same — the moment they moved here, they should have locked the door and let nobody else in.”
Black left the Chronicle last August after 36 years in the editor’s chair. “It had very little to do with the Chronicle and a whole lot to do with other stuff I was doing,” he told the Statesman.
Besides the Linklater documentary, the “other stuff,” includes serving as executive producer on Ethan Hawke’s acclaimed new film, Blaze, a biopic about the late singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. He’s formed a record label with musician Charlie Sexton (who also stars in the film) and Hawke to showcase the original material of actor-musician Ben Dickey, who stars in the title role.
He’s also finishing up a dissertation on his longtime friend, the late director Jonathan Demme. (“It was devastating,” he said of Demme’s death last year.) There’s also a couple of other pending projects he doesn’t care to discuss at the moment.
He continues to produce the annual Austin Music Awards, which will be held during the midst of SXSW. Black is still a senior director of South By, but the awards show is the main way he keeps hand in. “Nick and I get along great,” he said. “But once I left, I had to leave. You can’t be a little bit involved. I love South By, I really do. It’s gotten bigger, and it’s not as much fun for an old-timer, but I think the energy is still there at the heart of it.”
The unpredictable evolution of the entities that have shaped his life don’t bother Black unduly. “With both the Chronicle and South By, it’s like, you can’t control your kids. I love my son, he’s doing great, but you don’t really shape them.”
According to Swenson, Black should have graduated from UT and journeyed off to a career in film in Los Angeles. Then the Chronicle happened, and then SXSW, and then the bottom fell out when Black suffered congestive heart failure in 2011.
“He died on the table of the hospital and was revived,” Swenson says. He went through a long and difficult recovery, but he found the grit to return to his dream of being a filmmaker. So, he’s a good example of never giving up on your dreams.”
Still and all, he wouldn’t change a thing. As he walked a visitor to the door, he remarked once more on the extraordinary good fortune his Austin tenure has brought him.
“There’s a million schmucky Jews in New York who love music, and I got to wind up here,” he says. “right where I belong.”
Author John T. Davis was a writer at The Austin Chronicle in the late-1980s and was a member of the staff of the second annual SXSW festival.
Louis Black on taking a disruptive path to entrepreneurship
Given his eclectic career, Louis Black’s views on conventional business models might best be described as… unconventional.
“I’m a lefty,” he says candidly. “I believe in the social safety net, I believe we’re all in this together. And so, I get viciously attacked for being a communist or socialist, when I’m one of the most successful entrepreneurial capitalists I know. I love capitalism, it’s done very well by me.”
“But every time I did something because I thought it was the right thing to do, or because I thought this would be cool in this town, or someone came to me and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ then that worked. I followed my passion.”
“I used to be invited to talk to business schools. Once I’d get in there and give my lecture, and I’d say, ‘Do what you believe in, love. If you never make any money, you can wake up every day and do something you can live with.’ It sounds so stupid, but that’s really the truth.”
“But I’m also a Zen archery guy. As I said, every time I’ve tried to make money, it’s been a disaster. I have no skills in that direction whatsoever. But doing what I’ve wanted to do and believed in, a couple of times it’s come through. I’m definitely an entrepreneur.”
“I never did a business plan (at The Austin Chronicle or SXSW), and now it gets awkward sometimes, because I work on a certain level on some things, and people will ask, ‘Well, do you have a business plan?’ And I’ll say, ‘I gave up trying to write fiction a long time ago.’”
Black admits to having an inverse relationship with potentially profitable enterprises. “Every time I’ve ever done something I thought would make money, it was a disaster. Just ugly,” he says. “When Nick and I did a Fashion Issue (at The Chronicle) … Well, for one thing, our doing a Fashion Issue is THE stupidest idea. And it didn’t do well, and Nick got real pissed off and said, ‘If we don’t do another one, the first one meant we had no sense at all.’ So, we did a second Fashion Issue.
Even after five decades in music, film and journalism, Black still describes himself as an entrepreneur.