Musicians Off the Record: Nick Barbaro

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One of the most enduringly influential characters in Texas music is Nick Barbaro, co-founder and publisher of the Austin Chronicle and co-creator of South by Southwest. A quiet, reflective man by nature, his watchful eye, acute observations and his nurturing of creative talent have helped define the music community and arguably, the character of Austin.

Though steeped in world history, Barbaro’s distinctively modern sensibilities were cultivated in a childhood spent in turn between Dallas and California while his mother worked in the film industry. Following in her footsteps, he attended her alma matter, U.C.L.A., where he happened upon an Italian cinema class that would foreshadow his destiny.  His interest in movies fixed, he moved to Austin in the mid-1970s to attend graduate school in the University of Texas’s Radio, Television and Film department. Once rooted in the state capital, there was no going back, “it just stuck,” states Barbaro.

His RTF degree was finished in six years, much of which was spent listening to live music and filing stories in the Daily Texan newsroom where he served as film critic. “I don’t think any of us realized what freedom we had there as compared to most places where you might have to start. It was a good period. To be at the forefront of that critically in town was a great experience, which is why I would up doing it for six years.”

The Texan was at the time crowded with grad students “in their late 20s (who) figured it was a little old to be continuing their career at a college newspaper.” Thus, a few of them decided to create a bi-weekly tab and named it the Austin Chronicle. “The Dallas Observer’s advice was not to do it . . . It was six of us who basically pledged a year of labor for being in the ownership of the thing.

“We had an actual formal mission statement which was really pretentious. Media in Austin at that point was really conservative,” states Barbaro.  Yet, from the outset, the role of the Chronicle in the community was foremost in the publisher’s mind.  A quarter century later, its staff continues to consistently defend causes of civil justice, support burgeoning artists and help shape Austin’s identity.  “We try to bring a different slant to our coverage in various areas in politics and arts, music, film and other cultural things. What we manage to actually put out each week aren’t always the same; but what we try to do is present viewpoints that aren’t presented elsewhere.”

With like determination, Barbaro and his Chronicle cohorts successfully organized the first SXSW music and media conference in 1987, bringing in 550 more attendees than expected. The rest, of course, is music history. “Those kinds of things . . . are the best things that happen.”