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Progress Report

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 29-95.com; 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.

What aspects of the scene are most improved?

Bishop: It seems like bands are touring more. I think that is a direct result of their having rec­ords and CDs available. It's the next step.

Medina: On the promotion side, I think it's great to see graphic artists and bands uniting on making posters. For a long time, it seemed like the arts community and the music community were separate entities; now it seems that they are more united.

Katial: Online reach.

Wettergreen: There are a couple more bands on the scene that are demonstrating the positive effects of leaving Houston for a bit. Wild Moccasins are a perfect example of getting it right from the start: put out an album, release it with a tour kickoff and go on a three-week tour. Repeat. Something Fierce was signed while on a show in the Northwest by a rep who was told by fans that he needed to attend the show. B L A C K I E is talking to Vice ­Records because he went up to NYC and playeda show.

Workman: Touring is getting better if you don't mind no-frills travel. Gas prices are back down, shipping is better. I've heard of guys who are FedExing their clothes and instruments to the venues so they can travel lighter.

What aspects could use the most improvement?

Bishop: Venues. There are many fine venues in Houston, but there are some gaps that need to be filled. On the lower-­capacity level, we are missing venues that are attractive [to] mid-level national acts.

Medina: Promotion. I think there is too much of an emphasis on Facebook and MySpace.

Katial: Hard to say. I think we are in the process of having a cultural shift. People are starting to go to shows again.

Wettergreen: We still have no national press, which is a personal point of ire when I travel up to Chicago and talk to national music reporters. I still chalk this up to not enough bands touring. I say to the bands, "I'm working on it, you work on it too." We've focused two of the Bandcamps on booking, one with a how-to manual for booking shows in Texas. I'm currently writing a guide to playing the Houston market for visiting bands.

Workman: We need to quit dicking around with our Facebook pages, our wardrobe and our musical gear and start writing better songs. Seriously. If Houston musicians just spent more time at our songwriting and storytelling craft, audiences would flock to experience their excellence. Designing a Web page, buying a better guitar or booking more studio time is dead easy compared to writing a compelling, magical song.

In your eyes, what makes our scene unique?

Bishop: Diversity. Always has been.

Medina: It's young, it's fun, it's not mean or exclusive. It's just a very friendly, inviting environment for bands and people to be in so you see more cooperation between bands than you do competition. Even when bands compete, as in the HPMAs, it's friendly and supportive.

Katial: That it's not a cakewalk. People are supportive, and we do not have a traditional"big city" atmosphere.

Wettergreen: Our bands' almost complete disregard of national music trends. For better or for worse, this allows us to innovate completely outside of the bounds of what's hot, what's not. It also makes Houston a great staging ground to incubate a band. Look at the dead tech releases this year [cassettes, 7-inches] or guerrilla shows — these things just aren't going down with such regularity in most places. Here, it's the standard.

Workman: We're teaching each other how to be creative and do business. At the studio, we have hit on a formula for making records that is totally unself-conscious, relaxed and unpretentious, which is leaving an indelible mark of "Houston-ness" in our sound. Our clients recognize what's going on, and their music sells. I hope that Houston hangs onto the humble self-confidence that seems to be built into all of our music. And yes, that includes the rap scene, although the humility has to be defined a bit differently :)

See y'all Sunday.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com


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