What is the Houston Sound? Until recently, it was a trick question. Although Houston has produced too many distinguished artists to name across a wide variety of genres from blues, country and jazz to psychedelic rock, noise and rap, the closest the city has ever come to having one signature "sound" is DJ Screw's slow-motion syrup beats.
Considering Screw music is derived from a substance illegal except by prescription and that scene's high mortality rate over the years (starting with Screw himself), it's hardly a marketer's dream come true. So earlier this year, SugarHill Studios co-owner/chief engineer Dan Workman and Ross Wells of local production company Zenfilm, who had previously collaborated on the Live From SugarHill online concert series, started The Houston Sound, a nonprofit organization with the goal of advocating the local music scene - not just to out-of-towners, but to Houstonians as well.
One of the first tasks THS undertook was booking and sponsoring the free Wednesday-night concert series in the newly refurbished Market Square Park, which returns at 6:30 p.m. tonight with glam-rock heroes Roky Moon & BOLT and catch-all classical ensemble Two Star Symphony. Rocks Off caught up with Workman Tuesday afternoon.
Rocks Off: Explain the genesis of The Houston Sound.
Dan Workman: That came as the result of Ross and I doing some work with the City of Houston. He had worked on this ad campaign featuring notable performers, people like La Mafia and Blue October and ZZ Top and Beyonce, some of the popular actresses I can't remember who are from here.
We just started talking amongst ourselves how it's such a shame that we have to market this to the world when we really should be trying to get people on board with the idea that the Houston music scene doesn't suck, because people sort of repeat what they've heard and learned for so long.
If you say it enough times, you believe it, or at least you're not thinking when you say it. So Ross and I thought, "We should do something about this." One of the things before the infrastructure could be better, before anything starts to change, we need to start changing the perception of ourselves.
We started kicking around the idea of having some sort of an organization that would call attention to the Houston music scene and label it with diversity being our strength. I think one of the things that may have hurt us as far as feeling proud of our music is sort of the "no zoning" of our music scene - we don't have just one thing that we are.
At various times we've been many things. We realized that Houston doesn't do any one thing long enough to become known just for that, and the corollary to that idea was that we do a lot of things really well.
RO: The Web site says one of the goals is introducing Houston to its music. Is this why you think that's necessary?
DW: Yeah. I do. I think that people here, even people that consider themselves immersed in the music scene, they think they know what's going on here when the fact of the matter is they really don't. It's just too big.
This happened to me two times in the last five days. When I was at [Rudyard's last Friday], "Animal," Wayne Turner, who was playing with Hilary Sloan, he's been on tour with Hank Jr. and done all these incredible records. I introduced myself to him - "Holy crap! I can't believe what a good job you did with Hilary. I'd love to have you come and play on some of my records."
He gave me his information, and I go home and start putting it in my phone book, and I already had it. I'd already seen this guy play ten years ago and forgot about it.
This morning, I got this email from this girl - actually she Facebooked me - and she says, "I'd love to talk to you about your record label. I just found out about you." Apparently this girl has been touring in Europe and Mexico and is like this goth-pop girl. I'd never even heard of her. I go on her MySpace and she's got ninety-something thousand plays on just two of her songs. Her name is Bianca Karina Montalvo.
RO: What are the advantages of this being a nonprofit?
DW: First of all, it allows us to operate without a big agenda. It's not like we're going to harness the music scene like Dennis Lange harnessed the cover-band scene for about 15 years - if you were a cover band in Houston and you wanted to get booked anywhere, you went through Dennis Lange, because he really sort of cornered the market.
We're not looking to have a commercial enterprise with The Houston Sound. We want it to be a banner we can do some good, effective PR work under. And then we didn't know - quite honestly, it was like, "Let's just do this thing, say we're doing it and see what happens."
What happened next was Angie Bertinot over at the Houston Downtown District said, "Hey, we're going to open up Market Square Park, and would you guys like to book the shows there for the fall?" I was like, "of course." We can run our diversity agenda and put some interesting shows together, and have a really good venue to do it.
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RO: Did the bands you're booking have to fill out any kind of application, or is it just people you've had your eye on?
DW: Yeah. To say that it was anything other than me and Ross and Matthew Wettergreen and Gina Miller sitting around and saying, "Hey, we could have this band and this band and this band"... we were too unsophisticated to have any sort of big list or strategic agenda. It was just like, "This would make an interesting show. Let's do this."
We're kind of in the midst of thinking in those ways because of Live From SugarHill and finding bands to do that. So we have bands contact us, and we have a little bit of scheduling and booking experience in the front office here at the studio because of that. So we just started to apply that.
We didn't have many shows to do for the Downtown District, so it was kind of a no-brainer. We just reached for whatever was on the shelf that we thought would make good shows.