Progress Report

Taking stock of the Houston music scene on the eve of the annual Houston Press Music Awards Showcase.

Pardon us while we get all Bill Cosby for a second. Ya seeeee, the Houston Press Music Awards showcase is this Sundayyyy — 52 nominees (including four DJs) spread over nine downtown venues and 11 stages for ten bucks. Musically speaking, for our money, there's not a better (or a hotter) day all year. It'll make ya smile.

Plugging aside, the HPMA showcase also highlights a fundamental and persistent defect about the local music scene — namely that there are many more talented performers than there are places to put them, especially places to put them within reasonable walking distance of each other. Sunday's performers represent about half of the total HPMA nominees. However, there are more places for local artists to play than last year, notably Mango's, the reopened Super Happy Fun Land and (if they luck onto the right bill) House of Blues.

Remember, Houston has only relatively recently decided it even wants a scene — previously, it was just a big city where some musicians happened to live and a lot of people went out to bars. And a lot of people still do, which explains why the bands making the most money in town continue to be cover and tribute bands. More power to 'em.

But the infrastructure it takes to support a music scene in the Chicago/Brooklyn/Austin/Denton sense of the word — a complicated, hyper-connected matrix of fans, benefactors, promoters, marketers, managers, venues, media, Web designers, engineers, graphic artists and, last but not least, bartenders and bouncers — is only now beginning to emerge. None of those professions are new to town, but this hive-mind mode of thinking is, and it's still at a pretty developmental stage. Fragile, but fertile.

None of those people would be doing what they do (and gainfully employed at it) with no musicians, of course, and to call this year's local output a "bumper crop" might not be going far enough. Born Liars, Buxton, Zin, Wild Moccasins, Leela James, Little Joe Washington, Something Fierce, McKenzies, Tontons, Robert Ellis, Kristine Mills, Chase Hamblin, Muhammadali, Homopolice, Rusted Shut, Cop Warmth, Springfield Riots, Glasnost and Ben Wesley have all released worthy recordings — and that's since January, y'all. Artistically, it might not all be your cup of tea, but collectively, you can't deny that's a helluva list.

So how are we doing? Not bad, not bad at all. But now is no time for Houston to start patting itself on the back, either. Noise reached out to a few insiders from every stratum of the Houston music hemisphere and asked them a few fairly straightforward questions.

Our panel: Quinn Bishop, owner of the Little Steven-sanctioned Cactus Music; Ramon "LP4" Medina, Linus Pauling Quartet guitarist and writer for Free Press Houston and; Jagi Katial of the Pegstar booking agency (Free Press Summerfest, Los Campesinos!, Secret Machines); Dan Workman, co-owner of Sugar Hill Studios and local rep of Grammy sponsors the Recording Academy; and Caroline Collective founder Matthew Wettergreen. They know what they're talking about.

Is the local music scene better or worse than at this time last year?

Bishop: Better. There are so many great records out. In the recent past, there have been noteworthy bands, but so much of what has gone on was not documented on record. In 2009 alone, there have been at least a dozen or so really fine releases. Records that could be released nationally. We're seeing new artists making records early on instead of taking forever to record. And they have sold really well.

Medina: Well, the music is still as strong as ever. It's been a banner year in terms of output. We're seeing some great releases. The downside is that Skyline [shuttered Houston music blog The Skyline Network] is sadly missed. While there are great blogs right now, I don't feel there is any particular one place that really captures the fun of the scene as well as [Skyline founder] ADR did.

Katial: In my opinion and vantage point, the "local scene" is not just what's going on with the local bands. It includes, and is heavily weighted by, what's happening locally on a national level. I think things are moving in the right directions in both areas. There are more successful local shows these days than I remember, and there are a lot more tours and one-offs in town than before.

Wettergreen: The local scene is much stronger and much more productive than last year. Seems like everyone listened to Ryan Chavez of Super Unison when, at the first Bandcamp, he said, "just start recording and releasing as many records as you can." This is the "Year of the Album" in Houston, with most of the heavy hitters dropping either an album or an EP.

Workman: I think that it is definitely better. First of all, the national music scene has officially crumbled under its own weight. The pursuit of new music now follows a distributed processing model: local scenes, in general, are where we focus our attention. Corporate record labels and corporate FM radio are so busy trying to eke out the last cent earned the old way that they are simply unaware that the focus is on regional artists, venues and labels.

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