A Prickly Pair of Problems

It's been a bad couple of weeks for Cactus Music and Video. First, Weingarten Realty Investors, the company that owns the Alabama-Shepherd shopping center that houses Cactus, told Cactus co-owner Bud Daily that the store's giant saguaro-shaped marquee will soon have to come down.

Then the Eagles announced that they would be cutting all record outlets save for Best Buy out of the picture for the first 30 days after the release of the aging band's new DVD. Add that in with the 21st-century indie record store's other woes -- the iPod, Kazaa, street bootleggers and the like -- and it's little wonder that Cactus general manager Quinn Bishop can at times sound pretty apocalyptic in conversation.

First, about that marquee. If you've driven down Shepherd or West Alabama lately, you will have noted that the Alabama center is undergoing a complete remodeling project. Royal Tokyo steak house/sushi bar is moving into the slot closest to Alabama, and PETsMART has already unpacked its aquariums, catnip and dog Frisbees at the other end of the strip. And now Weingarten, speaking through property manager Andrew Kaldis of Kaldis Properties, has suddenly decided that Cactus's 27-year-old marquee just may be too "out of date" for the spiffy "new" strip mall, that it needs to be replaced with a more generic pylon-type sign.

Or at least that's what he told Daily a couple of weeks ago. In a brief, unpleasant conversation with Racket, Kaldis changed his tune. He gruffly told the Press that no decision had been made on the marquee's fate.

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If this were just another eyesore billboard, Racket wouldn't be so willing to kick up a preservationist fuss on its behalf. In this case, the marquee is the trademark of a Houston icon, one of the unusual successful small businesses that gives Houston its flavor. In its way, it's like the kitschy old gone-but-not-forgotten U-tote-M signs that once graced our humid landscape with so-tacky-they're-hip neon hints of the Pacific Northwest. Once those went, Houston became a little less, well, Houston.

Also, Racket can not count the times he has seen something intriguing, or even touching on the sign -- a new release he had forgotten about, an upcoming in-store, memorials on the deaths of Townes Van Zandt and George Harrison.

Not surprising, Bishop is concerned with what the destruction of the sign will do to his store's bottom line. "We routinely hear comments from our customers about their stopping in just because of what is listed on our marquee," he wrote in a statement sent to Racket on June 5. "It is our contention that this unnecessary change will have a devastating effect on our sales as well as attendance for our weekly events."

And so he's campaigning to save it. If the sign has ever meant something to you, if it's ever steered you toward a great performance or CD, or if you just like the look of the thing, e-mail your testimonials to Bishop at cactusmusicandvideo@yahoo.com.

Meanwhile, the ironies are rolling thick and fast in the Don Henley v. the independent record stores controversy. On one side, there's Henley, the champion of the underdog when it suits him, as it does when he's at war with Clear Channel radio. On the other, there's the independent music retailers, who by and large wouldn't piss down Henley's golden throat if his heart was on fire. Imagine the snickers that must ensue if someone requests the Eagles Greatest Hits at, say, Sound Exchange. Such a faux pas is the musical equivalent of ordering a Frito pie and a Mountain Dew at La Colombe d'Or.

Bishop himself is no Eagles fan, and it's a dollars to Krispy Kremes bet that none of his staff is either. For him, it's not about the band -- it's the whole principle of the thing. "This isn't about the Eagles or the quality of the music or anything like that," he says. "This is all about control of power. If Best Buy is able to set the price for a one-song CD-DVD at $6.98, Wal-Mart's next, and Wal-Mart's gonna go to artists and say, 'We want an exclusive,' and they're gonna cut the little guy out."

Along with more than 50 other store owners and managers affiliated with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Bishop has signed an open letter urging Henley to reconsider giving Best Buy the exclusive. The juiciest section of the letter reads like this: "While we understand the lure of working exclusively with huge corporations and the marketing clout this mega-venture affords your band, this seems like a serious compromise in principles. How is it that you, Don, can rail against the consolidation of power in the radio industry, and amongst large record labels, and at the same time make a conscious decision to stop anyone except the biggest of the big guys from carrying your single/DVD at the time when all of your fans will want it? We respectfully ask, where has your integrity and sense of fairness gone?"  

"We opened in 1975," Bishop adds. "I guarantee you we helped develop his career. At some point somebody that loved roots music had to have come in our store and had a clerk say, 'Man, if you like Gram Parsons or Poco, you should give the Eagles a try.' " (Yes, at one point indie record clerks did think the Eagles were cool enough to name-drop.) "We helped develop his career, and now he's gonna screw all the little guys?"

And Bishop believes that the little guy who would get screwed the most in the end would be you, the music-buying customer. "If other major corporations embrace this idea, then they may decide on how, when and where music will be made available, to the point where if you're signed to Warner Bros., they might tell an artist, 'Dude, your record's only gonna be available at Target.' "

Racket defies anyone with any disposable cash whatsoever to get in and out of Target without spending over a hundred bucks on essential nonessentials. Likewise, the suits at Best Buy price those blockbuster CDs low not because they're pinkos intent on sharing the music. No, they want to convince you that all your home entertainment gear needs upgrading right now, preferably on some kind of easy credit installment plan. Many's the Best Buy customer who sets out to pick up a cheap 50 Cent CD only to end up with a new DVD recorder, an Xbox, a handful of games and a couple grand in debt. It's Salesmanship 101: Once a store can get you to commit to that first purchase, it's infinitely easier to persuade you to fill up the rest of your shopping cart. Do you want to have to deal with that kind of temptation every time you want to get the latest smash CD?

"This is about the band that has the biggest-selling album in history not giving their fans a choice, and that's wrong," says Bishop, who adds that the Eagles will likely give Best Buy the same deal on their upcoming full-length CD later this summer should this scheme succeed.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

The 610 Arena, a sort of blue-collar Verizon Wireless Theater, opens in what used to be the Trader's Fair II on July 5 with Houston Caribfest, at which the slogan is "Big tings ah gwan!" Trinidadian soca diva Denise Belfon, Barbadian ragga-soca star Rupee, St. Lucian soca singer Gillo and many more are on the venue's first bill. Three days later, the 610 will begin "Tejano on the Loop," a weekly Tejano showcase, kicked off by a performance by Jay Perez, with performances by Ram Herrera, David Lee Garza, Little Joe y la Familia, Roberto Pulido and Tropa F coming up in the following weeks and months. In July, the arena will be host to a Colombian festival, and later in the summer Andean South Americans will be honored with El Condor Festival, while the Salvadorans' turn will come in September with the Central American Independence Fest. Not all the events on the summer calendar are south-of-the-border-themed -- the drum 'n' bass super tour Planet of the Drums, featuring Dieselboy, AK 1200, Messinian and Dara, will be coming through on August 9, while 311, G. Love, Something Corporate and DJ P will turn the mutha out on August 24. The 610 Arena will have a capacity of 4,000 and is located on the South Loop East at the Crestmont exit. For more info on any of these events, call 713-734-SHOW.

Super Happy Fun Land, yet another of Houston's litany of eclectic underground arts venues, has opened for business in the Heights. Occupying the former Ashland Street Theater space, SHFL offers an art gallery, a patio, a theater, and sewing and crafts on Monday evenings, a children's storytelling hour Wednesday afternoons, and movies on Thursday nights. Weekends are given over to experimental bands, among other things. On June 20, Nautical Almanac and A Pink Cloud will be appearing with others. On June 26 and 27, Übertoast will bring its "delightfully disturbing" sketch comedy to the stage, while the next two nights find jazz bands performing there under the auspices of KTRU. (All events are BYOB.)

"We wanted a venue that would be versatile and kid-friendly," says SHFL honcho Brian Arthur. "We have puppet shows there, and political meetings too, but basically we wanted a place that was geared towards artistic endeavors that doesn't take itself too seriously. We don't want it to be a place where everyone's in black and reading angst-ridden poetry. We want it to be a little more lighthearted."  

And with a name like Super Happy Fun Land, it's hard to imagine some sort of violent revolution fomenting on the premises. Find out for yourself by going by the joint at 2610 Ashland or visiting the SHFL Web site at superhappyfunland.com/index.html.

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