Interview: Catching up with Pecan Street Festival Music Director Ryan Cano

The 41st spring Pecan Street Festival (PSF) takes place this Saturday and Sunday on Sixth Street (formerly known as Old Pecan Street). The twice-yearly event boasts hundreds of artisanal vendors, food stalls and a ton of local, live music on three stages. The PSF is the largest, and longest-running Texas’ music festival of it’s kind.The festival is free for all ages.

Organizers encourage attendees to leave their cars at home and take public transport, ride share, bike or carpool to the event. Capital Metro just announced extended hours from 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday during the event. Attendees are strongly encouraged to explore the live music offerings. Some of our picks include; Blushing, Lola Tried, Los Coast, Ex Romantika, The Gary, Jane Ellen Bryant and El Tule. The entire lineup and set times can be found on the PSF website.

We talked to Ryan Cano, the festival Music Director about how things have changed since he took the helm four years ago. As a music manager, booking agent and former musician for over 20 years, Cano possesses both the experience and intelligence necessary to carve out a career in the Austin music industry. He has operated music booking and management company, The Loyalty Firm for almost 15 years.  That is no small feat as you’ll learn below. 

Photo: Will Taylor

365 Things: You’ve been booking Pecan Street Festival for few years now. How long has it been? How has your approach to booking the event changed from the first one until now?

Ryan: It’s been close to four adventurous years with the Pecan Street Festival! I’m not sure my process has changed too drastically since I became the Music Director & Talent Buyer here. I’d say I just fine tuned my processes as I went along. I was pretty well-served by creating and producing hundreds of smaller concerts over the years before earning this role.

I first started at the festival back in June 2014 so there was not a lot of time to book and deliver a Fall lineup. Mentally compartmentalizing my new challenge with the festival allowed me to relax and face booking the festival confidently. I told myself this is much like booking and producing 10 concerts at once except there will be a staff of people ready to assist me if I needed help. I quickly found my groove here and was able to organize and tackle my responsibilities fairly well. It shouldn’t be too surprising that my first festival at PSF was largely booked with artists I had prior experience working with in some capacity.

I manage My Education and Built By Snow and they’ve played with a lot of very talented artists over the years so there were alot of prior relationships I was able to reach out to. There was some initial first time’s bookings outside the scope of my knowledge in that first fest and I leaned on artist suggestions from other concert promoters and journalists in town who were curating or covering scenes I wasn’t as experienced in. I would then listen to the suggested music and then see the artist live and just go from there. Before I started booking my second festival at PSF, I did some professional self-evaluation, focusing heavily on filling in the gaps in my knowledge and learning more about our community’s music scenes that I felt I didn’t know intimately enough. This process really opened up my eyes to the extent that music talent surrounds all of us in Austin. It’s pretty astounding. I have a wishlist of artists I would like to have at Pecan Street Festival that could fill the next several years of lineups fairly easily.

Over the years I have definitely grown more comfortable in the Music Director & Talent Buyer role and I’ve made a few changes along the way that I felt improved the audience experience. For instance, I will only book an artist once in a calendar year so our Spring fest will look completely different than our Fall fest. I’ve learned to easily pivot from one vision to the next as well. Sometimes you start with an idea in mind of how a stage will be thematically and it turns out differently than planned due to a myriad of possible reasons. There tends to be magic moments in that phase of booking as it makes you alter your perspective and consider something you have not been focused on. I’m proud of what’s been placed on stage over the years. I feel the festival is showcasing the most diverse musical offerings of any festival of our kind. We give artists of all ages and genres a chance to showcase their talents to a curious audience that shows up in droves. We had record attendance both seasons last year and I hope we continue with that trend. This is the 41st Spring season of the Pecan Street Festival and although a lot has changed in Austin, this festival feels like a step back-in-time. This is classic Austin. I’d add that for new residents who feel overwhelmed about where to start in Austin’s music scene, the Pecan Street Festival offers a chance to explore many acts for free! Walk around and find the sounds that speak to you.

What artists are you most excited about this Spring Pecan Street Festival?

I definitely have some intrinsic happiness about how well-balanced the music is this Spring. There really is something for everyone. We have some incredible R&B, Soul & Hip Hop artists like Los Coast, Melat, Alesia Lani, Zeale and Fort Never on Saturday performing on our Neches Main Stage. We have really awesome Americana on Sunday on the Neches Main Stage from Striking Matches, The Watters, Miller Campbell, Jane Ellen Bryant and Scott Collins. We offer many styles of rock n roll from shoe-gazers like Blushing to the whip smart indie from Lola Tried or legendary punk rockers Terminal Mind. We have u18 artists RIIL Chemistry, the Austin Children’s Choir and Midnight Butterfly.  Electronic and bass heavy music from Bassline Drift, Emme, NGHT HCKLRS and Glass Cannon will also perform. We have latin artists on both days across many stages and genres of sound including Cilantro Boombox, El Tule, Chulita Vinyl Club, Ex Romantika, Slowly Grace and Ley Line.  Rock, Americana, Dance, Country, Folk, Punk, Funk, Singer-Songwriter, multi-lingual music are all represented. The bill is 98% local. Our stages at PSF are a reflection of the talent our community contains. These are our neighbors on stage.

Photo: Kat Alyst

You get to hear a lot of great new music. Beyond submissions to Pecan Street Festival where do you go to find new music? Why do you prefer those channels?

I have an old-school tactic that dates back to being in a band, learning my scene and who to play with when I first moved to Austin. I study the entire venue calendar in the Austin Chronicle every week. I study what bills are being curated across the city and what artists are playing where. You start to see themes emerge and you can even see an artist progressing this way. It’s pretty handy and I find myself doing this out of habit. Whether an artist was pitched to me or suggested, I spend a lot of the time discovering new artists that I am unfamiliar with using streaming services. These days, I’d rather take my initial spin of a new (to me) act through a Soundcloud or Bandcamp link. I like to make playlists of artists I need to research more in depth and Soundcloud is an especially great option for that. You can get a mini-sneak peak of a stage lineup you’re building this way. Sometimes I’ll check if an artist is on Spotify or Amazon Music and listen there too.  

I’ll also watch live music performances on YouTube or preferably see the artist live. Seeing an artist play a show in Austin is a still a wonderful way to spend an evening. The number of small businesses you can support by going to a local show is impactful. I love it when I accidentally catch an act while I’m out. This is probably more of a step two for me if I’m not familiar with an artist….ultimately I am hiring a live performance for the festival so that’s my focus after listening to the music

Related question… if streaming music is the primary way music is being discovered and listened to, how does that model benefit artists? Where do you see this sector headed given the low profits for both platforms and artists thus far?

Streaming is the most efficient and often, the initial discovery option. As a consumer of music, streaming is incredibly convenient. A streamed track can follow you from your laptop to your phone to your car without much interruption. The streaming music industry is still trying to figure out what its business model is so it’s hard to put faith and trust that this new way of distributing music can support an artist any time soon. Most of these companies are simply trying to figure out how to sustain themselves and keep the lights on. I’m not sure the health of the artist community is a significant factor of these companies. I think that is largely because they don’t know where [the industry] will end up and that’s because the sector is still evolving. Using a device like Alexa to call out music you want to hear is a game changer in a lot of ways. We are shortening the timeframe between thinking of a track we’d like to hear and being able to command that thought into reality. We’re interacting with music in new ways that challenge the notion of what streaming music is. Streaming from cloud-based sources and the idea of access to music libraries versus owning your own private music library seems to be the new norm. 

Ultimately to trickle down to the artists and songwriters, it will likely take government regulation to see something better than what is in place now. In my estimation, there needs to be a readjustment in how royalties are accounted for with music streams, much in the way the industry adjusted their royalties with the CD when it took over for vinyl and cassettes sales in the 80s.

In terms of how I see the sector progressing, I think we are going to see the major players push into areas that aren’t quite their core competencies to deliver a richer customer experience. For instance, there’s no reason Spotify can’t begin playing select music videos from an Artist’s album and thus increasing the capacity to do visual ads on their platform. They are largely focused on audio but I can see Spotify expanding into that user experience. In truth, the audience likes consuming music both ways: audio-only and with visual accompaniment. This is proven by YouTube remaining one of the main music discovery websites for younger audiences. Apple Music probably offers one of the more seamless digital experiences. The iPhone and iTunes work well within the Apple ecosystem.

There’s no doubt that indie artists benefit far more on the financial end from Bandcamp than almost any other platform.It might not be a fair comparison as I view Bandcamp as more of an artist’s digital/physical catalog with a streaming player and merchandise offered direct. I would like to see Bandcamp move into artist ticketing and pre-sale tickets for tours much like Music Glue.

Amazon is moving into ticketing. There’s going to be a push into ticketing with Alexa.  Personally I think if Amazon made a big push into having artist pages and letting artists set up their custom digital and physical stores at their website, it might an be undeniable experience for all parties:  artist, fan and Amazon. Amazon Music is interesting  because they are hiding in plain sight and yet they aren’t first to most people’s minds [when they think about music] even though they have the infrastructure to support an artist’s online and physical music and merchandise easily if they desired. We’ve seen a version of this with artist direct deals Garth Brooks signed with Amazon. This program should be expanded. Much like Amazon does with authors, financially investing in musicians and offering direct and exclusive digital deals would be smart. How many great artists do you know that could use $3000 for their album? I know plenty. Instead of exclusively doing direct deals with superstars, there’s a huge market to be had working with lower-tier artists much like Bandcamp does.  I think there is a way for all artists involved in the streaming world to be happy but we have yet to find that balance. Currently, there’s almost no way for an indie artist to survive within the streaming business structure. 

Photo: Kat Alyst

The good news is there are ancillary ways streaming can help an artist, even if it is as simple as a guy like me researching the music of someone I end up hiring for an event. There’s indirect benefits to be had for some artists that aren’t quantified. 

Last time we did an interview we talked about the state of the Austin music scene. Some things have changed for the better like one extra hour of outdoor live music in the Red River Cultural District (RRCD) during the weekend. What else has improved locally for the music industry since then? What challenges that remain are most critical in your mind?

The extra hour for RRCD venues was pretty huge in my opinion. I’m hoping this is the kickstart to garnering some real momentum (changing the music business) in Austin. An extra hour is a big deal because live music is the stickiness that keeps patrons inside a venue. An extra hour every day over the year could be the difference in a venue surviving or not. This city still has more venues and stages to play on than I can ever remember so that is ultimately a great thing for the working musician. I like that the music community has more sectors to play in other than downtown. New or mostly new music venues like The Little Darlin’ or The Electric Church are curating great music in sections of town where that experience was previously absent.

There’s still critical challenges ahead. We are the Live Music Capital of the World yet outside of live music, we don’t have a major music industry employer in town that extends beyond that realm. Recently there were rumors of Austin city leaders recruiting a BMI office here and that is absolutely the step in the right direction. I mentioned in our previous chat that I would like to see the city go after a larger music business in the way we have for Apple or Samsung in the past. The amount of income the music industry earns for the city justifies exploring further investment. It would be great to have a major music publisher or music streaming company open an office here. There’s plenty of qualified people here  to work for those businesses. There’s many small business owners in Austin and the surrounding area managing music artists and putting out records. We could leverage their entrepreneurial skill sets amid a larger music companies’ missions. The city will start to lose talent if we don’t offer a way for people to expand upon their careers outside of  live music. We truly need to diversify.

Affordability still feels largely unaddressed, for artists and citizens alike. My concern when we last talked was, “The developments that dampen our ability to afford living in Austin move a lot faster than our discussion on helping artists and helping affordability.” This still feel true. How many new hotel and condo developments have been propped up since we last talked?

This past weekend the only daily live music venue on Rainey Street, The Blackheart closed and has a gigantic development looming behind it. There feels like a cycle that isn’t ending here in Austin and there should be real concern and action in helping venue owners succeed. When you lease a place to start your business, the idea is you’ll be working for your customers, not your landlord. Catastrophic rent increases are all too common. Real estate speculation is leaving most of us behind, artist or not.

The City of Austin been more open to helping the music community than any other administration that I can remember. I have faith that Mayor Adler will find good solutions to our community’s challenges. To be frank, there’s an element of “promise fatigue” as it relates to the city. I think we all know government moves slow but I’m hungry for more action. I was ready for action two years ago and we’re still having the same conversations! It’s much like trying to jog our way out of quicksand. Each time we delay conversations about what to do, the processes that are already developed and in place, like real estate projects, cruise on by. We need to ensure the Austin music industry does not get left behind. We need to move faster and in sync as a community.

What are you listening to lately?

It varies wildly from day-to-day. There’s moods I’m trying to illuminate sometimes and other times I’m just merely checking out stuff and exploring. I’m still a big fan of the album format so I still love to check out the vision or statement being made by the group. I have been listening to many artists more in-depth or even for the first time lately. I’ve been wanting to expand my music knowledge about certain genres that I don’t feel I have explored enough. Lately, I have been diving into Country and Americana sounds but I still mix it up. I’ve recently gone deep with Bill Callahan, Gucci Mane, Mono, Willie Nelson and Mala Rodriguez’s respective catalogs.

What 2018 records would you recommend to our readers?

Austin’s Soul/R&B and Hip-Hop scenes are having a real moment right now. The spotlight should be much brighter on what is happening in those Austin music scenes. The music that Alesia Lani, Mélat, Los Coast, Tameca Jones, Magna Carda, Mindz of a Different Kind, Cha’keeta Banita, Abhi the Nomad, Zeale or Pat G is making right now is nothing short of amazing. Many of those artist I mentioned you can catch this weekend at the Pecan Street Fest.  

Below are a few albums released in 2018 that I have had on repeat since hearing them:

A Place To Bury Strangers: Pinned (2018 Dead Oceans)

Beach House: 7 (2018 Subpop Records)

Honey and Salt: S/T (2018 Spartan Records)

J. Cole: KOD (2018 Roc Nation Records)

Melat: Move Me II: The Present (2018 S/R)

Some albums that came out last year that I still listen to quite often include:

Alesia Lani: Resilient (2017 Keyzstreet Music)

Cloud Nothings: Life Without A Sound (2017 Carpark Records)

Golden Retriever: Rotations (2017 Thrill Jockey Records)

METZ: Strange Peace (2017 Subpop Records)

My Education: Schiphol (2017 Headbump Records/Golden Antenna Records)

The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding (2017 Columbia Records)

Anyone that knows you, knows you’re a big fan of gourmet pizza. What are your favorite spots in Austin?

My favorite spots include Via 313, Bufalina, and 40 North. These places make pizza perfection consistently and it’s hard to not enjoy yourself at these restaurants. I also love a cheese slice from Stoney’s after a show. There’s many more places in the area that are great in town like Backspace, Pieous, Homeslice, Pinthouse, 600 Degrees. The pizza in Austin and the surrounding area is legit. Pizza is truly the perfect food. I’m pretty much always in the mood for a slice!