A knockout music scene and thriving technology sector have helped to make Austin the fastest-growing city in the US, writes Michelle Harbi

Eminem, Pearl Jam, Outkast, Beck, Calvin Harris, Lana Del Rey, Paolo Nutini, Jimmy Cliff, Erasure… oh, and Ringo Starr. Whatever kind of music you’re into, you’d be hard pushed not to find someone you like taking to the stage in Austin this month.

That eclectic roll-call of acts forms part of the line-up at the Austin City Limits (ACL) festival, taking place across two weekends in the Texan state capital, and at ACL Live at the Moody Theatre, where the eponymous TV show is filmed.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Austin City Limits is the longest-running music programme in the US, having launched in 1974 with a gig by Willie Nelson.

Now, the road on which the Moody stands bears the country legend’s name, while acts that have played over the years include the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton, Etta James, REM, Radiohead and Arcade Fire.

“Music is the core, the heritage, the roots of this city,” says Vanessa Claspill, director of sales and marketing for the W Austin hotel, which opened in 2010 in the new Block 21 development that also includes the Moody Theatre.

The city styles itself as the “live music capital of the world”, with more than 250 venues – the most per capita in the US.

These range from the state-of-the-art, 2,700-seat Moody auditorium to the rollicking clubs and bars along tourist drag Sixth Street, the laid-back converted house bars on revitalised Rainey Street, and all manner of other café spaces, jazz joints and holes-in-the-wall. Even Austin-Bergstrom International airport, 13km from downtown, has six stages set up in the terminal for passengers to take in some rock, folk, soul or blues.

Claspill says: “You could go out every night of the week and hear a sound that was completely different from the night before. I think that’s where the creative, artistic vibe of Austin comes from.”

The most politically liberal part of Texas, and a Democrat stronghold – “the blueberry in the tomato soup”, as a well-known saying puts it – Austin prides itself on its independent spirit.

“Keep Austin weird” is a popular slogan, and while it was coined to encourage residents to shop local – and, refreshingly, you will see many more one-off boutiques and eateries than familiar brands downtown – you can see a little of that attitude on its streets.

While I dined outside on South Congress Avenue – or “SoCo”, lined with all manner of weird and wonderful shops – a rather old, very skinny, almost naked, deeply tanned man sauntered past with his bicycle, with only a G-string to cover his modesty. The following evening, while enjoying a drink on a balmy city-centre balcony, I noticed a man riding a horse down the middle of the otherwise empty street. As you do.

As my tour guide put it: “You can be who you want to be – nobody judges you. That’s the reason people come here.”

People are certainly coming. In February, Forbes named Austin the fastest-growing city in the US for the fourth year in a row. Census figures last year showed that 131 people were moving here every day.

Julie Chase, vice-president and chief marketing officer at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, says they are being drawn by its “average temperature of 70 degrees [21ºC], plenty of entertainment, lower cost of living than in many US cities, outdoor activities and friendly vibe”.

They’re also attracted by the strong economy. Last year Austin’s GMP (gross metropolitan product) rose by 4.6 per cent, more than anywhere else in the country, and it is expected to top the list until 2020, according to the United States Conference of Mayors’ latest US Metro Economies report.

Chase calls the city “an incubator for entrepreneurs”, a number of whom originally came to study at the well-regarded University of Texas at Austin and ended up staying.

One of the most notable is Michael Dell, who dropped out in 1984 to focus on his computer business – Dell is now the largest company in the area, employing about 16,000 people at its Round Rock headquarters.

Entrepreneurs such as Dell have helped to make the Austin region one of the biggest technology centres in the US – leading it to be dubbed “Silicon Hills”. The sector generates US$21 billion for the economy per year, according to the Austin Technology Council, and companies that have corporate and regional HQs here include Apple, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Oracle. Samsung Electronic’s only semiconductor plant outside Korea is located here too.

Chase says: “We’re seeing companies move in on a daily basis. Some are the start-up, entrepreneurial creative industry types. Apple has been here for a while but is now expanding and bringing in additional jobs, Google is opening here – so we’re seeing that mix of creative and technology bringing in a very different demographic.”

Perhaps nothing typifies Austin better than South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, film and interactive festival and conference that brings more than 310,000 professionals and visitors to the city every March.

By day an opportunity for budding tech entrepreneurs to learn, network, swap ideas and gain funding for their projects, by night more than 2,200 musical acts perform all over town. This year’s headliners included Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Blondie, while whistleblower Edward Snowden gave a keynote speech via video link.

Foursquare launched at SXSW in 2009, two years after a little-known start-up called Twitter placed two plasma screens in the hallways of the Austin Convention Centre to stream live tweets to delegates. The site went from receiving 20,000 messages a day to 60,000 during the event, and by the following year it had hit 100 million per quarter.

As the W’s Claspill says, the benefits for Austin of staging the event are far-reaching. “When you look at the power and influence of a festival like SXSW, not only does it have a strong economic impact for the time that it’s here but as the start-up companies begin to grow, they come back to Austin and want to have offices here, so it’s great for business.”

Film, the third strand of SXSW, is also big business in Austin.

Chase says: “We’ve been one of the number one film-making cities to live and work in for many years running. Multiple films are shot here, and one of the reasons is we have the workforce base.”

Directors who live and work here include Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. As a whole, the creative sector contributes more than US$4 billion to Austin’s economy each year.

Whole Foods Market, which now has more than 300 stores in the UK, US and Canada, was founded in Austin in 1980 and points to the focus on good-quality cuisine in the city – the culinary scene is thriving, with continual openings of both bricks-and-mortar venues and food trucks.

Try No Va (novaonrainey.com) for superb sharing plates and inventive cocktails, Second Bar and Kitchen (congressaustin.com/second) for great burgers, or Lamberts (lambertsaustin.com) for upmarket barbecue.

In 2012, Austin gained another event to draw the crowds – the Formula One US Grand Prix, which takes place next month at the new Circuit of the Americas and is set to attract 300,000 spectators.

International airlift has until recently been via the major US hubs, but in March the UK gained Europe’s first direct link when British Airways launched a daily flight from Heathrow using one of its new B787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Chris Rankin, the airline’s head of consumer sales for the UK and Ireland, says the route had “been on the radar for a while” and that “we’ve seen really good loads since it went on sale”.

The coming year will also see a flurry of new hotels. Joining the W – the outdoor terrace and pool of which are great spots to enjoy the city’s 300 days of sunshine – are several more international brands, with 2,000 guestrooms to be added by next year.

More than half will come from a 1,012-room JW Marriott opening in February. Kimpton, Westin, Hotel Indigo and Holiday Inn Express are also due to launch in 2015, with Aloft and Element to follow in 2016, and Fairmont in 2017.

Chase says: “By the time we finish with everything that’s proposed, we’ll have covered pretty much the gamut on brands.”

Will the increase in footfall change the character of Austin? Well, the skyline is already transforming, with a number of high-rises going up in recent years, and more planned.

Still, spend a few days checking out the local scene here and you’ll be inclined to think Austin will be “keeping weird” for years to come.

Click here and here for reviews of BA’s London-Austin service. ba.comwhotelaustin.com, austintexas.org