Houston Has a Bad Reputation with Touring Indie Bands

They'd just as soon give us a miss.

And getting beyond the indie music bar scene, if you look at the big picture, Houston's doing pretty well. Hip-hop and zydeco are thriving here. In the larger economy, the post-real estate bubble, post-cheap oil economies of many American cities are in free fall, while Houston's is doing (relatively) fine. In a recent spate of "Places Rated" polls from business magazines, Houston's rankings have been more than respectable.

In bottom-line terms, why does a lively indie scene matter?

It's hard to quantify. One who has tried is Dr. Richard Florida, an author and urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto. Florida has studied the economic value of music scenes in 31 North American cities (Houston not among them), and concluded they are a major component in attracting and keeping creative young people in town, and that often those people go on to create lucrative businesses.

Hands Up Houston went a long way toward promoting Houston as a tour stop.
Hands Up Houston went a long way toward promoting Houston as a tour stop.
Sound Exchange's Kurt Brennan says music isn't as important as it used to be for kids.
Aaron Sprecher
Sound Exchange's Kurt Brennan says music isn't as important as it used to be for kids.

"Music combines with technology and business trends to put these places on the map," Florida writes in his study's conclusion. "It reflects their openness to new ideas, new people and new sounds. If you really want to see entrepreneurs in action, go talk to local musicians."

Florida's study further contends that successful music scenes signal "the rise of regional ecosystems that are not only open to new sounds and new ideas, but have the size, scale and commercial oomph to retain key talent and turn their ideas into global commercial successes. Once music scenes of this scale get going, they produce a logic and momentum of their own and signal that more entrepreneurship is on the way."

While Florida's data, methodology and conclusions are debatable, and his focus somewhat blindered in that it was focused on indie rock, the exodus of a certain type of creative person from Houston is not. For decades, Houston has exported musicians to cities with livelier scenes at a depressingly steady clip, with almost none moving here from elsewhere in return.

As Florida points out in one of his studies, Win Butler founded the Arcade Fire in Montreal after moving from Houston. We also lost Greg Ashley and Jolie Holland to San Francisco, where their recordings have won attention from fans and critical notice all over the world. We lost Mando Saenz to Nashville and Hayes Carll to Austin, and each of their latest recordings made at least a dent in the national psyche this year. And those are just some of the more famous ones — every band in Austin seems to have a couple of exiled Houstonians in it.

And then there are the people who are simply music fans. How many one-time fixtures at places like Rudyard's, Mary Jane's or the Proletariat have now decamped to Austin, San Francisco and New York? Maybe most of them were just slackers, but surely at least a few have gone on to prosper.

On the flip side, how many recent college grads from other parts of the country turn up their noses at even the prospect of coming to Houston sight unseen? In many of their minds, Houston is a cousin city to Coketown in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a town populated by and solely for Gradgrind-like engineers and scientists where facts and statistics must always trump fancy and the spirit of bohemia. Given a choice of moving to, say, Seattle, or Houston at the same salary adjusted to local cost of living, how many would choose Houston? The question answers itself.

Music matters, and, like it or not, the music that matters most to a great many young, educated new entrants into the workforce is indie rock. And that scene in Houston is definitely ailing.

Like Chavez, Erik Carter is one of those rare Houstonians who both work in the indie rock industry and have a certain degree of national clout. Carter helms the Houston office of the Kork Agency, a booking company with offices here and in the San Francisco Bay Area and with a roster comprised of more than 100 of the nation's top indie rock bands. (Among them: Of Montreal and locals such as Fatal Flying Guilloteens and Indian Jewelry.)

"For a town of four million people, we have one of the weakest scenes in terms of people going to shows, which perpetuates bands not coming here," says Carter. "I just routed a band a day off instead of playing here. Most of that was because 50 people came to their last show here while they were doing 400 in similarly crappy markets. We took the cake as the worst show in a seven-week tour. I proposed Houston to one of my other bands and the immediate response was, 'Houston! God no!'"

Right after the fateful Two Gallants show, several other national booking agents echoed Carter's complaints in the Houston Chronicle. One asserted that Houston is not as musical as Dallas or Austin. Another pointed out Houston's unlucky geographical setting. East along I-10 there is only Baton Rouge and New Orleans, both third-tier markets. Beaumont is not even on national bookers' radar, and to the south and southwest of Houston, there is nothing beyond fourth-tier markets.

Then there is local radio, or the lack thereof. Houston's dial — even in the best of times, never the beacon of glory that some nostalgists would have you believe — has been unbearably stale for this entire decade.

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