We Are Houston, Hear Us Snore
Back in October, Racket wrote up a South By Southwest how-to in the hopes of improving our woeful representation at the biggest yearly event in the Live Music Capital of South Central Texas. He filled readers in on how to apply, and then clued them in on the game within the game, the politics that come after the official application has been sent in. Racket knew that we wouldn't come anywhere close to having as many bands represented as the host city, but in a fit of David Carr fever he hoped at least "we would do like the Texans and punk Dallas."
Well, folks, that didn't happen. Not even close.
Racket conducted a little unscientific experiment with the close-to-complete list of bands posted on the festival's Web site, www.sxsw.com. And the results were amazing. So far, 795 bands hailing from everywhere from the Congo to Tokyo have confirmed. Would you believe that 122 of the most badass bands in the world -- a full 15 percent! -- happen to reside right there in Austin? New York, Chicago and Los Angeles taken together only have about 120 on the bill so far, and as Austin's population is about a million, and there are 40 million people total in NYC, L.A. and Chicago, Austin bands have to be 40 times as good, per capita. Gee whiz, Austin really must be the Live Music Capital of the Whole Wide World.
Or perhaps Austin bands are cut a little more slack than bands from elsewhere. As former Suspect Bill Grady once put it, "How bad does your Austin band have to suck to not get invited to South By Southwest?"
Compadre Records secondary distribution head Greg Ellis takes a less militant tone. "It's who you know, to some degree," he says. "I would say that a lot of those bands are either South By Southwest volunteers or have friends that are staffers. There's the simple fact that the people who are choosing the music may have seen them five times in a year instead of having to judge them off of a demo."
South By Southwest's creative director Brent Grulke echoed Ellis's views. "We'll have a disproportionate number of Austin acts perform, but the reason for that is that they're in our backyard and we've heard of them, and we've seen them play live and we know that even if they've never made a terrific recording, they may be great live and they work very hard and are pursuing their music very seriously."
Behind Austin and the three largest cities in America comes not the fourth-largest city but Seattle, followed closely by our neighbor/rival to the north, Dallas-Fort Worth, with 22 acts invited for the short trip down I-35.
Way down the list, Houston chips in with seven acts. (Jesse Dayton is listed as hailing from Beaumont these days, and Chris Whitley is attributed to Houston even though he hasn't lived here since he was in diapers. Racket didn't count either of them in our tally.) That's right. As things stand now, according to our representation, the music of the largest city in Texas has about 6 percent of the music merit of that of the host city, and about a quarter of that of DFW. (To look on the bright side, Sacramento and Tulsa are represented by only four bands apiece, and we've almost caught up with Denton.)
So how much of the blame do we have to take for this travesty? And why does all of this matter?
Last question first. "I think it matters in that the artists that apply and get accepted can get a kind of validation, an acknowledgement that they have reached a point in their careers where they can hang with the big guys, so to speak," says Ellis.
Next, let's look at the bands that did make it: Clouseaux, Mando Saenz, Greg Wood, Swarm of Angels, Rusted Shut, Hayes Carll and Arthur Yoria. What most of these acts have in common is that they have some positive local energy going on: They've either just released an album and/or are touring or have a steady stream of local gigs. Also, all but one of them are just plain good bands (sorry, Don Walsh, but Rusted Shut's beauty lies elsewhere). "These are some of the best bands in town, so the selection process is not completely flawed," notes Ellis, who is nevertheless as puzzled as Racket by the inclusion of the cacophonous Rusted Shut.
Or as Grulke nutshells it, "Our belief is that the bands we accept are all excellent bands that have a chance to develop their careers. To the extent that acts are able to do that and sort of spearhead things in their region, then a lot of the time other acts can follow in their wake."
You couldn't call the Houston reps the hottest bands in town; conspicuously absent from this list are people like John Evans and Davin James (of course, those two guys are probably too busy and successful to sacrifice a weekend of higher-paying gigs). But they are bands who have worked hard and haven't been too proud to humble themselves before tiny audiences on the road -- even Rusted Shut fills that bill. Grulke says bands that don't play Austin are unlikely to get picked.
"Whether it's fair or not, the Houston acts that we tend to book are the ones that are working musicians that have toured and played Austin, or are attached to labels that we are aware of or whatever. Just because of the numbers, it's become less likely that we think, 'Oh, well, we have to make sure that the Houston scene is well represented.' "
So is it time for a Houston music affirmative action program? Grulke chuckles. "What you say has certainly made me more cognizant of the problem."
Unlike Dallas and Austin, Houston has very few labels, and that leaves musicians to lobby for themselves. "I don't get many calls from very many Houston labels that say they'd like to be involved," Grulke says. "That's a big part of it. If there's not a business infrastructure, we just get a press kit from a band and we listen to it and grade it, but that might not be a very good measure of where an artist really is. With Austin acts, we know where they play in town and we know whether or not they have audiences, and with Dallas acts we are increasingly aware of their management and labels."
Grulke is fascinated and amused by the regionalism perpetuated by alt-media types like Racket. He thinks the stereotypes are mostly outdated. "When I think of Houston in terms of a music business place, a music scene, the concept is still kind of amorphous," he says. "Whereas Dallas has traditionally been where you find these professional bands and labels, and Austin is the bohemian place where you make music for love and not money. None of these are entirely accurate -- certainly they are increasingly inaccurate. Houston hip-hop artists have been among the most commercially successful that Texas has produced in the last decade."
Ah, yes, hip-hop. Our thriving rap scene has no representation, nor does the Hispanic community, nor is there any local blues or zydeco on offer. (Yet another of South By's alternate names could be White By Whitebread ) "They've done hip-hop in the past, but logistically that's been very difficult for them to do," Ellis says. "A lot of the bands have been late or they haven't performed, and that's been going for three years, and maybe they've adopted a once-bitten-twice-shy attitude."
Grulke says that the festival is working hard to get more hip-hop on the bill, and somewhat disputes Ellis's claim about logistical problems. "To generalize, hip-hop acts tend to have a more specific audience and at times it's been difficult to create reasons for hip-hop acts to be here," he says. "In the past there's been a level of wariness -- they're like, 'Well, why are doing this showcase gig? For whom?' "
But sadly, too many local rock bands have a wariness of another kind: hipsteritis. Although it's impossible to know how many local bands didn't bother to apply to SXSW, it's easy to find anecdotal evidence that the old Public News too-cool-for-school ethos is still infecting musicians. At the Proletariat recently, Racket spoke to a member of a local popular indie rock band who was begging his bandmates to send their demo to The Texas Buzz, the Buzz's new local show. He was all for it, but another faction within the band thought they were too cool to have their imaged sullied by being placed in rotation with the likes of Bowling for Soup and Drowning Pool.
"That's traditionally an Austin disease, too," notes Grulke. "For a long time, everybody here was like, 'Why should we bother going to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville?' And obviously that kind of thinking is self-defeating. If you don't want people to hear your music, then why bother making it at all? If you make music and believe your music is worthwhile, then you should try to find an audience for it."
Once you do, Grulke says, then you can start talking about integrity. "You can have a lot more creative control over your career, once you have a career," he says. "If you can actually develop an audience, then you can have a lot more say over what you're able to do. Hell, yes, I have concern about integrity. But at the same time you must participate in the world, to give an audience an opportunity to hear it. If you're not willing to do that, then play in your garage."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.