Talk to Mee

A dialogue with a local indie punker about the cultural cringe

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the "cultural cringe" -- the ingrained belief that nothing from Houston is as good as stuff from other, more glamorous places -- and its effects on the local music scene. In response, local indie punk/hard-core musician and occasional Press correspondent Daniel Mee sent a very thoughtful and interesting letter, a portion of which is below in italics. (I've snipped a bit -- mainly his thoughts about the relative health of the local hard-core scene):

I think that the logistical problems that Houston artists face are far more important than the attitude of other Houstonians in limiting the prospects of local rock bands. The dynamics of the indie rock world are such that DIY is essentially dead; it's prohibitively difficult to tour effectively or promote a record without the assistance of a good publicist and booking agent, and since no band has the budget for those things on their own, they need a label.

I agree. It's true that we could use more of a music business infrastructure here, especially in the indie rock field. In all genres save for rap and perhaps gospel, our music industry lags far behind those of Austin and even Dallas, which, historically, was a regional hub for several of the major labels. Dallas and Austin also benefit from having larger numbers of traditional college students than Houston -- UH, St. Thomas, Rice and TSU are no match for UT-Austin and Texas State or the Metroplex's Texas Christian/Southern Methodist/University of North Texas trio. (That's a commonality of most provincial cities with thriving indie rock scenes -- as examples like Athens, Georgia; Seattle; Minneapolis; and the Research Triangle of North Carolina attest.)

But I would add this -- ultimately this is a chicken-and-egg argument. Do successful bands result from having a finely tuned infrastructure in place, or does a logistical system erupt when and where there are the bands to justify it?

The problem for Houston bands is that the decision-makers in the rock world are concentrated in New York, Chicago and California, none of which is closer than a thousand miles from here.

That's true, but bands can and do make it from places like Denver, Dallas and Austin. Not being close to the centers of power is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.

There are no successful rock record labels in Texas or any adjoining state outside of Austin. Even Austin has very few, and those are jammed full of Austin bands. There is no nationally distributed rock press closer than Athens, Georgia.

This is only a somewhat related issue, but I have major, major issues (pun, ha-ha) with the media here. Both the Buzz and the Chronicle are cultural cringers of the highest order. The Buzz refused to give even Blue October -- a major label band their demo loves and hometown heroes to boot -- the push they needed until they were validated by radio everywhere but their own hometown. Lesser local fry -- bands like LoneStar PornStar -- get even shorter shrift. It doesn't work like this everywhere, folks. In some cities, they really do play local bands on local commercial radio in the actual mix, not some midnight Sunday-going-into-Monday graveyard.

For its part, the Chronicle seems to bend over backwards to either marginalize or downright ignore homegrown talents. Sure, they've started running slapdash local band profiles in their weekly pullout Preview section, but these are turfed out to freelancers and look like token coverage at best. Elsewhere, the paper covers the scene with a local music blog, staffed by two freelancers. You can find it on their Web site, tucked away among the 9,194 other blogs, right alongside others including Ken Hoffman's travails managing a little league baseball team and the power-shopping adventures of Shop Girl.

Lately, the Chron has been paying some attention to the local rap scene, but that came only after guys like Mike Jones and Paul Wall started going platinum and getting awed write-ups from The New Yorker and The New York Times. While their ignoring of local hip-hop from about 1998 to 2005 was not pardonable by any means, you could easily see what they were thinking there -- some stodgy Baptist editor probably figured Slim Thug's fearsome mug might cause a Kingwood housewife to spill her decaf Frappuccino.

But one wonders why it took them so long to profile formerly local Texas folk-country songwriter Hayes Carll, a gentle, raffish soul from The Woodlands who would seem to be a dream fit with their readers. Carll had a major label recording deal, two internationally acclaimed albums, one overseas jaunt and several coast-to-coast tours under his belt before the paper got around to featuring him anywhere. (Anywhere, that is, other than in the Conroe-Woodlands-Montgomery County zoned edition, in which they ran a cutesy article about how proud Carll's parents were of him.) By the time they did get around to running a real-deal feature in the real-deal paper, in June of last year, the Chron had been scooped by not just the Press (twice), but also dailies in Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Boston, Nashville, several publications from Britain and Ireland, and a few national music magazines.

And, what's more, Carll had already moved to Austin.

At any rate, a month later, the Chron gave what was arguably even more extensive coverage to Idgy Vaughn, an inexperienced Austin singer making one of her first appearances in Houston, one in which she opened for Carll. (Carll was featured prominently in the Preview pullout; Vaughn was page one, above-the-fold in the Star section.) If that's not the cultural cringe -- newbie from Austin vaults onto page one, local veteran waits five years for roughly equal coverage -- I don't know what is. (Last summer there was a whole rash of stories in the Star section about how cool things were in Austin. Fine, Chron-sters, we get it. Send your rŽsumŽs to the Statesman already.)

I'm not bitching about this just to kick the Chron around. I'm doing it because I really believe the scene needs their coverage. To some degree, we here at the Press are preaching to the choir about local music. Our readers tend to be the people who already have a pretty good working knowledge of the scene. That's not necessarily the case with the Chron's readers. Those people tend to be more settled and out of the loop, figuratively and literally. And thanks to the Chron's woeful local coverage, they will stay that way, to their detriment as well as that of all our local bands.

Texas is just about the worst place in the country to launch an unsupported tour from, because you're talking about a ten-day commitment to even get to the people you want to impress, not to mention the problem of actually getting those people to your show, which is next to impossible for most out-of-town bands going to New York or Chicago, even if you can get a show. At that point, if you're really serious about having a music career, you might as well just move to one of those places so you can play there all the time, because even Houston isn't cheap enough to make that kind of travel pay off. That's why Jana Hunter and Indian Jewelry left, I know.

But the thing is, plenty of bands have made it out of both Dallas and Austin in the past ten or 15 years. Again, being based here is an obstacle but not a brick wall. If you can build up enough of a buzz in the major cities of Texas, some label or other will come knocking.

Finally, I don't know who you talk to about these things, but I haven't encountered many serious musicians (i.e., in a non-joke act) who think that "regular rehearsing and showing up both on time and sober to gigs is somewhat bad form," other than the guys in [Brian] McManus's own band -- nothing against him or any of them personally of course.

Maybe that kind of stuff doesn't afflict the indie rock scene here as much as other subsets of the rock milieu, but I have seen plenty of examples of it.

Spain Coloured Orange and Million Year Dance come in for their share of mockery, but in my experience that's been from people who think their music isn't very good. I don't think it's reasonable to expect people to cheerlead for music they don't even like, and I don't hear people calling Insect Warfare or the Octopus Project or Satin Hooks sellouts because they're successful, although Satin Hooks has taken shit in the past for adding people to their mailing list without permission, as well they should.

Fair enough, but I do believe that, especially in the case of Million Year Dance, a lot of people are as turned off by the band's image and stage show as the actual music. And the Octopus Project reps A-Town, not Houston, at least on MySpace.

Regardless, if bands like SCO and MYD succeed, that's great, and I hope they do. If they don't, it may not be from their lack of effort, but it probably also won't be because they didn't get enough support at home -- it'll be because there's too much competition and too many logistical obstacles to what they're trying to do.

I would say that the easiest logistical obstacles to fix would be these: The Chronicle should give better and more extensive coverage to the local scene, and the Buzz should play more local music. Put these bands before more eyes and ears, and the rest will follow. Our ostensibly local mainstream media needs to quit cringing from our authentically local culture.

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