As the 2010s pass the halfway point, the Houston music scene is in a state of transition. The decade’s most successful local concert promoters are putting the finishing touches on a new multi-stage venue they hope will elevate the live-music experience to another level while retaining a uniquely local character. The owner of Dallas’s successful Kessler Theater hopes a similar business model will connect with Houston audiences in the Heights. On different fronts, a local rapper and a DJ hope to consolidate their hold on a national audience after breaking through last year; the city’s biggest music-scene booster maps out a plan for other acts to follow in the footsteps of his highest-profile clients; and a glance at Houston’s growing festival landscape reveals how fertile that territory has grown.
If these five narratives have something in common, it’s the idea that things will get bigger and better over the next year — but only after a whole lot of hard work. Luckily, Houston isn’t nicknamed “Hustletown” for nothing.
THE BIG REVEAL
Pegstar’s much-discussed White Oak Music Hall prepares to open.
Simply in terms of sheer square footage, it’s going to be difficult to top the opening of White Oak Music Hall as the biggest story in Houston music this year. The five-acre, custom-built concert compound going up now on North Main is going to be a monster, offering more than 30,000 square feet of space to the city’s live-music fanatics. Add the fact that the facility will be owned and operated by Houston’s largest homegrown concert promotion group, and it’s easy to understand why a brand-new, far-flung venue that hasn’t even opened yet has been the hottest topic in this town’s live-events industry for more than a year.
Ever since word leaked in August 2014 that Pegstar Concerts — the promoters best known for the annual Free Press Summer Festival — would end their five-year lease at Fitzgerald’s to open their own shop, anticipation has run high and speculation rampant about the company’s new music palace. But Pegstar head Jagi Katial says that talk about a venue north of downtown goes back even further than that.
“About three years ago, we were kind of contemplating the end of our arrangement at Fitzgerald’s and what our strategy would be at that point,” says Katial, calling long-distance during a trip to India. “One of the options was definitely trying to figure out if we could stay at Fitzgerald’s, but increasingly, that became a non-option. At the same time, Will Garwood, who’s now one of the operating partners at White Oak Music Hall with Johnny So and I, approached us with this idea of a venue on the near northside. He started to plant those seeds, and after extended conversations, it became more and more the best option that we had.”
Given Pegstar’s ambitious dreams for a bigger, better home base — indoor and outdoor stages, hundreds of parking spaces and easy access to the METRO light rail — building from scratch wasn’t just the best option. It quickly became apparent that it was the company’s only option. No existing sites or structures fit the bill.
“We really wanted to provide something that was unique,” Katial says. “When you have a vision for something you want to provide and there’s nothing that exists that will provide that, you have to develop it. The only way to do it was build it ourselves.”
Once fully realized, Pegstar’s vision should be spectacular. Two indoor stages, one larger and one smaller, will serve capacity crowds of 1,000-plus and 200-plus, respectively. The complex’s outdoor stage, dubbed the Lawn at White Oak, will host 2,000-plus-capacity events. The group’s press releases claim that the venue will host shows from many different genres of music, all nestled on the banks of Little White Oak Bayou with a terrific view of Houston’s skyline.
While work is now on schedule to open White Oak Music Hall by mid-April, getting there has been a bumpy ride. Katial says that Pegstar has worked hard to reassure the largely Hispanic near northside, where the complex is going in, that the new development won’t ruin their neighborhood with a massive influx of rowdy music lovers. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that the group agreed to build “sidewalks, landscaping improvements, street lighting and an upgrade to the public sanitary sewer line” as part of its attempt to be a good neighbor. And no matter how thoroughly Pegstar has planned, predicting the weather in Houston remains a fool’s game.
“We anticipated the venue opening at the top of the year when we broke ground, but the amount of weather we’ve gotten in the last year has been unanticipated,” Katial says. “We always knew it was going to rain, obviously, and we planned for that. But this summer, really heavy rains affected the [FPSF] festival, of course — everybody knows that. That had an impact on the construction of the venue as well.”
The completed development might still be a few months away from unlocking the doors. Hell, the doors haven’t even been installed yet. But we won’t have to wait much longer to get our first taste of the new complex.
“In early January, we are opening the first portion of this project,” Katial says. “We’re calling it the Raven Tower. You could call it a multipurpose icehouse/bar kind of thing neighboring White Oak Music Hall. Essentially, it’s just a hang, and we’re going to have bands playing there a few nights a week. We’ll have low-key local shows and free touring shows, stuff like that.
“The most exciting thing for me will be seeing the lights turn on for the first time,” he adds. “Whoever is playing, it’s going to be amazing.” — Nathan Smith
Kessler Theater impresario Edwin Cabaniss hopes to bring carefully curated live music to West 19th Street.
Owner Edwin Cabaniss has a vision of how he’d like the opening weekend of the Heights Theater’s reincarnation as a music venue, projected to open in early summer, to play out.
“If we had Kat Edmonson roll back in and do a really cool jazz set on Thursday night, almost set up cabaret-style; maybe Hayes Carll come back in and show us what alternative country is in his home city on Friday night; and then blow the roof off with the Suffers on Saturday night,” he says, “that would be an idea of showing the full range of who we are and what we do, and really highlighting the Houston music scene while we do it.”
He’s been there before. In the late 2000s, Cabaniss got out of investment banking just ahead of the global financial meltdown and bought Dallas’s historic Kessler Theater. Originally opened in 1942 and owned briefly by singing-cowboy movie star Gene Autry, the building had lain dormant since a fire in the early ’60s; its surrounding neighborhood, Oak Cliff, had similarly gone to seed. Since Cabaniss reopened the Kessler in March 2010, it has been named Dallas’s best live-music venue by the Dallas Observer three times, including this past year, and is widely admired within the industry as one of the top intimate concert halls in the region. Oak Cliff has likewise been revitalized and is now a hub of Dallas’s cultural activity.
Somewhat like the Kessler, which was damaged by a tornado in 1947 before that early-’60s fire, it’s been long time since the Heights Theater has been a movie house. Built in 1929 and given the Art Deco makeover that turned it into a Houston landmark a few years later, the theater lay fallow for years after a 1969 fire destroyed the interior. It was restored in the late ’80s under new ownership and had been leased out to Gallery M Squared for the past several years. Cabaniss bought the building in October for a reported $1.9 million and broke ground last month. He plans to bring the Kessler’s same exacting attention to detail to his new venue.
“We’re looking at nuances,” he explains. “Because we know that if your lead singer is standing at [the front] of the stage, the back wall/furthest seat in the house is 90 feet away, and we know that statistically if you’ve got 20/20 vision, you can still look at face recognition. We know what that means is there’s a feeling of intimacy. But we realize that if you get to 120 feet away, you start losing some of the nuances of facial impressions. So these are all the things that we’re looking at on the front end.”
On West 19th Street, Cabaniss will be moving into an area with plentiful retail and dining options but not much in the way of live entertainment. To introduce itself to the neighborhood, for a few months the Heights Theater has been filming local artists who align with its aesthetic — Craig Kinsey, Adam Bricks, Sara Van Buskirk — and posting the videos on its Facebook page in a series it has dubbed “Heights Reborn.” In this way, Cabaniss hopes to start cultivating a specific Heights Theater audience long before its doors even open.
“All that we’re trying to do is create an artist-and-audience connection,” he explains. “We’re just the group that’s putting it all together. Now, there’s a thousand things that go behind that. From the time the band checks in and the loader’s got a big smile on his face and helps them, and the artist is in a good mood and they start feeling it, like, ‘Hell, this is a venue that’s really gonna do their best to help me do my best.’ All of a sudden, and I don’t want to get too cosmos on this thing, but there’s this energy transfer that happens.”
After seeing the Kessler flourish these past few years, Cabaniss is confident the Heights Theater can bring the same kind of energy to Houston.
“We love Houston,” he says. “And we really love the Heights. And we feel like these type of buildings in this type of neighborhood — we’ve looked high and low — they don’t just come around all the time. And we want to be very, very, very pragmatic on how we do this.
“Because we’re in it for the long term, we’re not going to take any short cuts, and we’re going to build our audience one show at a time,” Cabaniss concludes. “That’s what we’re gonna do.” — Chris Gray
BeatKing and DJ Chose are taking over.
There is no single narrative about the Houston rap scene, but more than four dozen overlapping stories. Two of them belong to BeatKing, a large man with a strong appetite for life observations, and DJ Chose, a smaller man with a strong appetite for the rewards that hard work and dedication to the craft bring. Both cut their teeth as dominant figures in the ever-shifting club scene, both have ties to Prairie View A&M University, and both men have recorded songs and mixtapes together. In the dying days of 2015, the two of them joked like brothers about their near—simultaneous success.
“Big-boy moves,” BeatKing sums up his year.
“It was a blessing,” Chose echoes.
For BeatKing (whose real name is Justin Riley), 2015 stood as the year recognition from industry-wide blogs translated into national brand recognition. As a highly impulsive narrator of flashpoint viral moments, he joked about rappers getting into fights at the mall or church parishioners who claimed they’d been falsely “cured” of being homosexuals, while continually lambasting strippers, those who paid for sex and more.
His formula, as constantly repeated on record, involves discussing his worldly views using the shortest of words. Memes, his social-media accounts and even his parenting skills all merge into one overarching package. In one moment, BeatKing could offer “Club God Parenting,” discussing how his kids understood right from wrong. The next, he might be talking up the wings at Onyx, his favorite strip club, in Houston’s Uptown district. He’s so popular there that the club named a 20-wing dish after him.
“Every time,” he laughs. “I show up and I get me a plate.”
BeatKing’s Instagram account is littered with such excursions, captioned with twists on lyrics from Bryson Tiller, Drake and more. But Chose, by all accounts, keeps his debauchery low-key on social media, offering glimpses to the fans who’ve supported him, photo opportunities with musicians he’s worked with and more. If BeatKing operates like a constantly moving tornado gaining fans by his sheer existence, Chose is the opposite, slowly packing fans in by working behind the scenes.
The two of them previously worked on “Throw Dat Ahh,” a shout-and-response club track that was the lifeblood of their joint Club God vs Club Devil mixtape in 2013. A year later, “Stand Behind Her” surfaced on a multitude of BeatKing mixtapes before 2015’s “Fall” completed the circle on BeatKing’s proper debut album, 3 Weeks. As BeatKing saw “Keisha” circulate through radio airplay in New York and continue to feed his fan base in England, Chose left the style of his prior club releases in the wind, opting for something far more grounded.
Chose (real name Norman Payne) ventured back to northeast Ohio, his stomping grounds for the bulk of his childhood, and brought that centered idealism toward his chest-puffing anthem with MC Beezy, “Everywhere I Go.” The record broke through not only in Houston but globally as well, eventually cresting in the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100.
“‘Everywhere I Go’ came from me and the love for the city,” Chose said in an August 2015 interview. “To see it go as far as it did on the charts, writing and producing records for Akon (“Want Some”) and Trey Songz (“Used To”), just means that 2016 will be even bigger.”
To many, Chose’s ascent was supposed to occur five years ago with the success of “Pop That,” a horn-heavy sample of 2 Live Crew’s “Doo Doo Brown” that broke him and his Brook Gang imprint nationwide. But thanks to a similar single by French Montana, his progress was stifled though not completely erased. Chose continued crafting music for a number of artists, eventually finding far more value in being a solo artist and releasing simplified club anthems like “3rd Level.” But “Everywhere I Go” built an international following that led to a partnership with Think It’s A Game, the same independent hip-hop label that helped push Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex” to No. 1 on the urban charts.
When they’re together, BeatKing and Chose joke about the industry and how much of what they accomplished in 2015 was things they were already doing. Both of them had already hit on the idea of rappers using social media beyond going viral to instead become sustained, profitable stars.
“If you got a hit, it will grow,” BeatKing says. “But if you got money, it’ll hit that next level.”
Chose nods in agreement, enthused far more how about the groundwork the duo laid in 2015 is preparation for 2016.
“All we need is a million Instagram followers and we can push our own singles!” he says. — Brandon Caldwell
For even the hottest Houston acts, the funding to pursue their dreams can be hard to come by.
At a certain moment in our conversation, Mark C. Austin apologizes to people sitting a few feet away at Little Dipper’s bar. It seems he’s gotten loud while discussing Houston music. We’re in a booth at the bar next door to the Nightingale Room, where Austin spends lots of time as the venue’s booking agent. The other patrons seem nonplussed, suggesting this scene has played out more than once.
The pre-eminent band in Austin’s fold, better known as The Convoy Group, is the Suffers, who flooded the national consciousness last year with an appearance during the swan-song weeks of David Letterman’s Late Show. But even with Letterman’s gushing adoration and a host of large festival dates, the band had to rely on Kickstarter to finance its debut album, which Billboard just named one of 2016’s most anticipated.
Is there no one out there willing to bankroll a band with this much potential? Where are the music investors? It’s a critical subject if Houston is going to take the next step as a music city. Like it or not, there comes a time when art becomes commerce. There is still something quaint about art for art’s sake, but that’s a trope for the Keep It Weirdos. This is Hustletown; we gots to get paid.
Austin is probably better qualified than practically anyone else in town to discuss these matters. He abandoned the security of an accounting career to take on an insomniac’s hours and a spendthrift’s habits to manage Houston musicians, which he’s done for a decade and full-time for five years.
We suggest inviting privatized money to the party. At least two dozen Fortune 500 corporations call Houston home. Every car that rolls out of Gulf States Toyota comes equipped with Bluetooth or at least a CD player. Might it not be willing to produce an album or at least offer some high-occupancy tour vehicles as an official sponsor of Houston’s next big thing?
In some respects, on smaller scales, that’s already happening, Austin says. Saint Arnold Brewing Company is involved with Craig Kinsey and Splice Records. 8th Wonder Brewery devotes 90 percent of its festival budget to local acts. His own group is partnering with Anheuser-Busch for future projects.
“People buy the local thing,” he says. “It’s not just because they’re putting up favorites; it’s because these bands can draw numbers to their events. It’s a win-win and they feel really good about it.”
Austin is not against chasing those dollars. Every one counts. But instead of starting from scratch, he says, more Houston music entrepreneurs should tap into the frameworks established by the state and the city. He brought SXSW to town for a Q&A recently and is working with the Texas Music Office, the mayor’s office, and groups like the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and HoustonFirst to ensure they think Houston music first when booking events. Approaching events like the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl mean big opportunities await.
“If you can get the city or the governor’s office passionate about what you’re doing, then walls will fall,” Austin says. “When I met with [TMO director] Brendon Anthony, he told me, ‘There’s a line item in our budget that says there’s an office for someone like me that gets paid to go develop jobs in the music industry in the state of Texas, not just Austin, so I’ve got to know you. Let’s talk about how I can help grow your business for and with you.’”
Austin has booked thousands of bands the past few years and also oversees the business aspects of local buzz act the Tontons. He knows we can come together to educate those who write checks but says some acts still need to learn to help themselves. He was surprised to find out how many still lack the basics.
To combat that, Austin and Nightingale Room owner Mike Criss plan to expand to four nights of live music per week this year. Bands will get an open call to play one of two hourlong shows Tuesdays through Fridays. They’ll get a humble but solid guarantee, but they won’t be considered unless they have music on a platform like Spotify or iTunes, as well as a presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. If they can draw 50 people to their performance, they’ll have a chance to triple their guaranteed money and headline a Thursday show. The hope is to have hundreds of bands with the basics in place by the end of the year.
These are early steps. But, taken cautiously and with love, they could lead to a better-established Houston music scene.
“The Suffers-Letterman thing broke the ceiling for a lot of people because it made a lot of folks perk up and go, ‘That can happen. Holy shit, we didn’t even know who they were, and that happened,’ Austin says. “And so we hope to see more of that. We think that’s a door that’s swinging open and now we’re just gonna push through it. We’re gonna break the door off the hinges.” — Jesse Sendejas Jr.
PHASES AND STAGES
Houston’s reputation as a fertile and unique festival town continues to grow.
When it comes to its reputation as a hub for live music, Houston has been historically underappreciated on a national and even regional level. But the city has made great strides, especially over the past decade. Last year saw a new high-water mark as the city’s handful of festivals all experienced increased growth, indicating an upward trajectory that shows no sign of slowing. Looking ahead to the new year, these events can all push forward with what worked in 2015.
Each festival the city hosts had a landmark year. FPSF grew even more in its seventh year, overcoming a last-minute unplanned location change. Smaller festivals such as Houston Whatever Fest and Untapped continued to find success. The third year of Bad Ass Weekend, held each February, brought in international bands and rare reunions to become a travel destination for hardcore and metal fans. Finally, last month saw the launch of Houston’s most ambitious festival yet, Day For Night, a traditional fest mixed with a European-style warehouse party and a showcase of art installations.
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What makes Houston festivals stand out most, however, is how all of them focus on supporting the city’s local scene. While the main driver of ticket sales remains national touring acts, each Houston festival takes great care to put on local artists and break them to a larger audience.
FPSF has been the beacon for this and continues that tradition as it grows every year. More than 30 acts at FSPF 2015 were from Houston or other cities in Texas, much more than an average, similarly sized festival in a city like Chicago or San Francisco might bring in. Austin’s many festivals may contain a large number of locals, but still can’t touch the amount of pride Houston has for its own. With its “Welcome to Houston” showcase of rap all-stars, FPSF has turned showing off hometown legends into a focal point of the festival and a new tradition for the city.
But also last year, the second edition of Houston Whatever Fest had more acts from the city itself than from out of town. Bad Ass Weekend is as much a display of talented local punk and metal artists as it is a collection of international acts. In its first year, Day For Night created an environment in which locals like Future Blondes or Richard Ramirez could share a bill with Kendrick Lamar. The organizers of these festivals make it a point to give their lineups a distinctly Houston flavor; everyone involved knows that the key to success isn’t to ignore the local scene but to highlight it.
Judging from the successes of Houston’s festivals last year, it seems as if 2016 could be the year the city gets its due in terms of national recognition. With a collection of highly competent organizers and bookers taking risks and finding a blend between crowd-pleasing favorites and innovative lineup additions, these events have the tools in place to make 2016 even bigger than previous years. Furthermore, the teams behind each one have more than earned the faith of the city that they can pull that off. — David Sackllah