Band Suicide

Why so many Houston music groups self-destruct right on the brink of having it made

Not that Varley wants to claim this as an excuse. "To be honest, my overarching philosophy is that the only thing really worth focusing on is making your music better," he says. "If you do that, and you aren't a total moron when it comes to the business side, the wind will eventually blow the right way for you to break out and be known by people everywhere. John Vanderslice once told me that there's one thing all the agents and managers and labels in the world can't do for you: They can't create demand. Only you can do that, by making your music awesome."

Tom Bunch would likely agree wholeheartedly. From 1976 to 1997, Bunch saw all the bands on Houston's rock scene. By the time he was 13, he was already going to club shows and clerking in a record store. Before he had reached his twenties, he was videotaping most of the now-legendary punk rock bands that passed through, and soon after that he opened the TAB Concerts promotion company, which also operated regionally, and then he graduated to owner-operator of local venues the International Club, the Unicorn and the Vatican. And last but not least, for much of the '90s he managed the Butthole Surfers and the Toadies.

Tom Bunch, former manager of both the Toadies and 
the Butthole Surfers, wanted to roll the dice  on some 
local talent.
Daniel Kramer
Tom Bunch, former manager of both the Toadies and the Butthole Surfers, wanted to roll the dice on some local talent.

In a town crawling with music business pretenders, Bunch is that rarest of rarities: the real deal, a guy who was deeply involved with two of the most important rock bands ever to come from Texas. And when he got back to town after a few years of living in L.A., he was impressed with how much Houston's rock scene had developed.

Bunch says that from 1976 to 1997 he saw "hundreds and hundreds" of local bands, all but a couple of which were mediocre. "The Houston A-bands were all C- and D-bands in other cities," he says. "But when I moved back here about 18 months ago, I was pleasantly stunned and amazed. Before I left for L.A., there were lots of people going to shows to see bands like Sprawl, who were just okay. Now there's all these great bands, but nobody goes out to see them. In the 1990s, there was a scene with no bands, and now there's bands with no scene."

Encouraged, Bunch started to dream big. He spent the next two months putting together a business plan for an entertainment company that would combine a record label, a publishing concern, event promotion and artist management. He thought to himself: All of these guys have made their own records and they're touring -- why have them sign to little labels all over the country? Why shouldn't he raise some cash and start a company that could create a stir in Houston at every level of the music scene?

He cooked up a 40-page business plan and then spent the next six months or so trying to stock his company's roster, all to no avail. "Every one of them had some major quirk that made them unable to be involved in it," he says. "Not one of them would bite. So far nothing's come of it. About five months ago I just finally said, 'Man, I'm beating my head against the wall.' "

Bands frequently whine that Houston lacks business infrastructure and that they wish they could find an experienced, well-connected manager to take them to that proverbial next level. Bunch would seem to be that guy -- after all, among other things, he did help shepherd the Butthole Surfers and the Toadies to gold and platinum success, each with their artistic credibility still intact. Why wouldn't these struggling but talented locals want to have a guy like that working for them?

Bunch sighs. "Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of turning over what little business they have to someone else. How many of the music business stories that go around are about a record label or a manager screwing a band? So with the outside chance of that happening, they would rather not do anything and be the guy who never got the shot as opposed to the guy who got screwed or the guy who got the shot and blew it."

Michael Haaga didn't want to be the guy who never got the shot. He knows how rarely they come around. He'd come close to hitting it big before with dead horse, one band Bunch excepts from his comments about Houston's mediocre talent in the '80s and '90s. (He managed them for the last five months of their existence.) "They were the first local band that I saw that I 'got' and I saw that the audience completely got and that I thought really had a chance of making it on a national basis," he says. "They just made a series of bad business decisions and had personnel problems."

Bunch saw the same promise in The Plus and Minus Show -- or at least he saw potential in the album. Like Haaga, Bunch was underwhelmed by the live shows, and he wasn't willing to take Haaga on based on just the fact that he had made a truly great record. "It doesn't matter how good your record is," Bunch says. "You've got to get people behind it to make sure it's seen and heard. There are tens of thousands of records that come out every year, a sea of them. To get your nose above the water is a hell of a lot of work and time."

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