The State of the Local Live Music Industry

Bayou City band bookers serve up a how-to on packing the house

As temperatures soar and the season for the Houston Press Music Awards rolls around again, it's time to think about big-picture questions. Which local bands are doing particularly well now at their local shows? Is there as much passion for local music as there has been at some times in the past?

To find out, I put a series of questions to band bookers and club managers or owners at a stylistic variety of nightspots from Midtown to the far north side, including Dunnock Woolford at the Mink, Pete Gordon at the Continental Club, D'Neta Cavazos at the Meridian and Michael Kelley at Javajazz.

Their answers were as varied as their clienteles.

Here are the questions I asked:

Which local band in your experience has the biggest local draw? How do you explain their success?

Are there great bands with draws that are unaccountably small? Why do you think that is?

Finally, how do you assess the general state of the local live music industry as compared to five, ten or 15 years ago?

And here are their answers:

D'Neta Cavazos, Meridian: Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Necrofaith, Will To Live and the JonBenet are her top draws. "On an average, they sell around 200-plus tickets, except F.F.G. who are worth more like 100-plus." She believes it's a shame that more people don't go see Whorehound, Poor Dumb Bastards, God's Temple Of Family Deliverance (who she says might be defunct now), Golden Axe (whom she describes as a "medium draw") and Austin band Honky. Cavazos believes that some local bands don't work hard enough promoting themselves, while others "spread themselves too thin, by playing too much." Cavazos believes today's music scene "sucks."

"People don't go to shows anymore," she writes. "They'd rather stay home or make a trip to Austin. When the original Emo's and Axiom were around, the Houston music scene was at its prime ('80s-mid-'90's). I've been in Houston my whole life, and I can't tell you what happened to make that change, besides that a lot of people moved to Austin and/or are now domesticated, working and have kids.

"Also, Emo's was an exception, because ever since they closed down, there are no local venues that are bars/venues that are open daily to the public, with the exception of Rudyard's, whose capacity is rather low. Also, the bigger venues' production/house costs are larger than a small-­capacity venue like Rudyard's or Walter's on Washington, and Fitzgerald's is just plain tired."

Pete Gordon, Continental Club: "Felipe Galván y los Skarnales are the biggest local draw for us," he said in a phone interview. "They've been doing it for years, and people who go to see them know they are going to see a great show."

But Gordon believes that Skarnales are an exception here, that by and large the art of crowd-pleasing has all but disappeared. "There are too many bands here that are more committed to entertaining themselves than they are to entertaining a crowd," he said. "That kind of stuff might work on a record, but it doesn't work in front of people. People want to be ­entertained."

There's also the migrant musician problem. "Too many bands move to Austin or Nashville or wherever when they get a little bit of success," he said. "If all of those people came back to Houston, we'd have the best music scene in the whole country."

And yet he is sanguine about the future. "Overall, I think things are looking good for music in Houston," he said. "[Recently] I helped back Archie Bell at Discovery Green, and while that's not a perfect venue, it is a nice place downtown, and it's free, and the more people you get out doing anything music-related, the better it is for all of us. House of Blues opening downtown [in October of this year] is gonna be good, too."

Dunnock Woolford, the Mink: "This is a tough one," he writes in an e-mail. "There are four or five local bands that come to mind almost instantly because I've had very successful shows with them at either the Proletariat or the Mink. However, I've seen those same bands play to an empty room. Why does X band draw 100 people one night, but only five or six on another? There's a few reasons so the answer is rather complex. For time's sake, I'll ditch the philosophy and give you my easy answer.

"The less complex answer: The Sideshow Tramps. Hypothetically (thank God), if they were to announce that they were breaking up and that they were going to play one last show, the place would be turning away people before they even got onstage, more so, in my opinion, than any other local act."

What they have done is unprecedented in Dunnock's experience. "They've built an actual scene around their band," he writes. "Not many bands can pull off a weekly residency, and their residency at Helios was consistent and beautiful. They never played a song the same way twice, or even in the same order, but the crowd wouldn't miss a beat. It was hard to tell who was controlling who at their shows. Their crowds range from ages 18-60, so they're obviously not just for kids who party. They're for retirees who party as well."

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