The State of the Local Live Music Industry
As temperatures soar and the season for the Houston Press Music Awards rolls around again, it's time to think about big-picture questions. Which local bands are doing particularly well now at their local shows? Is there as much passion for local music as there has been at some times in the past?
To find out, I put a series of questions to band bookers and club managers or owners at a stylistic variety of nightspots from Midtown to the far north side, including Dunnock Woolford at the Mink, Pete Gordon at the Continental Club, D'Neta Cavazos at the Meridian and Michael Kelley at Javajazz.
Their answers were as varied as their clienteles.
Here are the questions I asked:
Which local band in your experience has the biggest local draw? How do you explain their success?
Are there great bands with draws that are unaccountably small? Why do you think that is?
Finally, how do you assess the general state of the local live music industry as compared to five, ten or 15 years ago?
And here are their answers:
D'Neta Cavazos, Meridian: Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Necrofaith, Will To Live and the JonBenet are her top draws. "On an average, they sell around 200-plus tickets, except F.F.G. who are worth more like 100-plus." She believes it's a shame that more people don't go see Whorehound, Poor Dumb Bastards, God's Temple Of Family Deliverance (who she says might be defunct now), Golden Axe (whom she describes as a "medium draw") and Austin band Honky. Cavazos believes that some local bands don't work hard enough promoting themselves, while others "spread themselves too thin, by playing too much." Cavazos believes today's music scene "sucks."
"People don't go to shows anymore," she writes. "They'd rather stay home or make a trip to Austin. When the original Emo's and Axiom were around, the Houston music scene was at its prime ('80s-mid-'90's). I've been in Houston my whole life, and I can't tell you what happened to make that change, besides that a lot of people moved to Austin and/or are now domesticated, working and have kids.
"Also, Emo's was an exception, because ever since they closed down, there are no local venues that are bars/venues that are open daily to the public, with the exception of Rudyard's, whose capacity is rather low. Also, the bigger venues' production/house costs are larger than a small-capacity venue like Rudyard's or Walter's on Washington, and Fitzgerald's is just plain tired."
Pete Gordon, Continental Club: "Felipe Galván y los Skarnales are the biggest local draw for us," he said in a phone interview. "They've been doing it for years, and people who go to see them know they are going to see a great show."
But Gordon believes that Skarnales are an exception here, that by and large the art of crowd-pleasing has all but disappeared. "There are too many bands here that are more committed to entertaining themselves than they are to entertaining a crowd," he said. "That kind of stuff might work on a record, but it doesn't work in front of people. People want to be entertained."
There's also the migrant musician problem. "Too many bands move to Austin or Nashville or wherever when they get a little bit of success," he said. "If all of those people came back to Houston, we'd have the best music scene in the whole country."
And yet he is sanguine about the future. "Overall, I think things are looking good for music in Houston," he said. "[Recently] I helped back Archie Bell at Discovery Green, and while that's not a perfect venue, it is a nice place downtown, and it's free, and the more people you get out doing anything music-related, the better it is for all of us. House of Blues opening downtown [in October of this year] is gonna be good, too."
Dunnock Woolford, the Mink: "This is a tough one," he writes in an e-mail. "There are four or five local bands that come to mind almost instantly because I've had very successful shows with them at either the Proletariat or the Mink. However, I've seen those same bands play to an empty room. Why does X band draw 100 people one night, but only five or six on another? There's a few reasons so the answer is rather complex. For time's sake, I'll ditch the philosophy and give you my easy answer.
"The less complex answer: The Sideshow Tramps. Hypothetically (thank God), if they were to announce that they were breaking up and that they were going to play one last show, the place would be turning away people before they even got onstage, more so, in my opinion, than any other local act."
What they have done is unprecedented in Dunnock's experience. "They've built an actual scene around their band," he writes. "Not many bands can pull off a weekly residency, and their residency at Helios was consistent and beautiful. They never played a song the same way twice, or even in the same order, but the crowd wouldn't miss a beat. It was hard to tell who was controlling who at their shows. Their crowds range from ages 18-60, so they're obviously not just for kids who party. They're for retirees who party as well."
Dunnock says things have changed since the Helios days. "It's kind of hard to break old habits and routines, and now you have to actually do a little research (go online) to find out when/where they're playing next," he writes. "You can't just show up somewhere and expect [the Sideshow Tramps] to be there."
Dunnock believes more locals could possibly attain that level of success if they stopped cannibalizing their own draw by playing too often locally and worked even a little bit as hard on their commerce as on their craft. "[Some bands] are a hundred percent art and zero percent marketing," he contends. "They think that promoting themselves outside of a MySpace profile is either lame or not worth their time. Some of them rely primarily on the promoter to get the word out about the show, and I guess I can kind of understand that, but it's like... 'Dude, you live in Montrose! You're already at a hipster bar on a Tuesday night; why not mention to a couple people that you're playing on Friday night!?'"
Michael A. Kelley, Javajazz: Kelley reports that his top draws are Novista, Zap Em Dead Bartholomew and Unlikely Heroes. "They actually promote themselves well and treat each of their shows like special events," he writes. "They are also fun, talented bands that have made a real connection with their fans."
Kelley's list of underachievers included Better Luck, Barely Blind and Thea. "They don't have poor draws; I would never categorize them that way. They just haven't quite nurtured their potential followings."
In Kelley's view, the general public is to blame. "Houston music crowds are less interested in seeing and supporting local music than the MTV and Fuze crap that is spoon-fed to them daily."
Luckily for him, his audience has a damn-near insatiable appetite for touring bands. "[Turnout is] better than ever when it comes to seeing and supporting touring bands, worse than ever when it comes to clubs and promoters supporting the local scene," he writes.
But there's something you can do about that, he believes. Kelley contends that too few local bands get opening slots when national bands pass through town. "And that's not because the touring bands or their agents and managers won't allow it, as some would lead you to believe. Ninety-nine percent of the time they will, if only you just ask," he argues. "We book around 90 percent touring shows at Javajazz, and we almost never ever book a touring show here if we cannot put at least one or two local bands on them."
Kelley says it's not only a good way to give back to the locals but also a boon to the bottom line. "If other clubs and promoters practiced the same philosophy, they might actually find the numbers at their touring shows increasing the way ours have."
And since this is my column, I'll stick my oar in too. I'll echo Kelley's lament about there not being enough local bands on touring bills. I also strongly agree with Cavazos and Dunnock that far too many bands think that pimping their shows on MySpace is sufficient promotion. It isn't. It's barely a start. At the very least, you also have to flyer-bomb club bathrooms and parking lots.
I think that there are not enough residencies. Residencies are the lifeblood of any scene. The tangible result is that they mushroom the budget of a club lucky enough to host successful ones, and thus it can attract better bands the rest of the week. Less tangibly, successful residencies get more people in the habit of going out in general. People start building their weeks around going to shows instead of the movies.
So the key question becomes how to build a successful residency. Promote the hell out of it, and then, as Gordon says, be entertaining. I'm not sure that Medicine Show/Sideshow Tramps had to do all that promotion in their early days (if they did not, they are a very rare exception), but they damn sure made certain that each and every Monday at Helios was a memorable event. Their shows were just that — shows, not public rehearsals.
If we start getting more shows like that on a night-by-night basis, the exodus to Austin could end or even reverse.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.