Color-Coded Rodeo

Take a quick glance at the entertainment calendar for the 2002 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and you might think it's color-coded.

The acts are grouped according to musical genre, which even in the age of rampant crossover musics pretty much translates to race. There was Go Tejano Night, which featured Los Tigres del Norte, Ramon Ayala y sus Bravos del Norte on Sunday, February 24. The other "heritage" night was Black Go Texan, which featured Mary J. Blige and Brian McKnight on February 22. This programming practice is the result of community outreach mixed with sociology and marketing science. But of course the most important color involved is green.

"We appeal to absolutely all facets of the population," says assistant general manager Leroy Shafer, who has been with the Houston rodeo for 28 years. "It's our history, we've always done that." Entertainment at the rodeo has had to move with the times. The earliest days saw Western favorites such as Gene Autry and Dale Evans & Roy Rogers. In the '60s, it was the shoot-'em-up heroes of the small screen that roped in the fans, in the form of the stars of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Lone Ranger. It wasn't until the rodeo moved from the coliseum to the Astrodome in 1966 that programmers realized big concert acts were the way to go.

Stars of movies television in the '40s through the '60s reportedly had "a very broad appeal," bringing in all ethnicities. According to Shafer, "The rodeo never had a segregation policy. There was never a need to desegregate the rodeo." Charlie Pride, the African-American country star, made a few late-'60s appearances, although his sound never particularly appealed to a broad section of the African-American community. But by the 1970s, Motown acts, so crucial to the mainstreaming of African-American music, were essential to a gradual diversification of the rodeo.

But the rodeo couldn't keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of African-American music fans. "We really rode the Motown sound too long," claims Shafer. "Into the '80s we found we were no longer appealing to black audiences."

That decade also saw the rodeo reaching out to Latino audiences. At first the rodeo struck out. Focusing too heavily on acts from northern Mexico brought concerts with abysmal ticket sales. Latino community leaders suggested that the rodeo try to instead appeal to Houstonians with Mexican heritage. Out of this, the Go Tejano committee was formed in 1990. Subsequently, seven of the 15 top-selling concerts have been Go Tejano heritage shows.

The founding of the Black Go Texan committee followed in 1993, with its first heritage night showcasing Frankie Beverly and Maze, the Isley Brothers and Angela Winbush. After more than a decade of existence, both committees play pivotal roles in choosing the entertainers for heritage nights; submitting a wish list months in advance, promoting the activities of the rodeo and, most important, reeling in the black and Latino populations to the show. The advisory and community outreach elements are important, but it is equally vital that the committees fulfill their commitment to fill seats by selling blocks of tickets to workplaces, schools and church groups.

In booking mainstream country performers, very little is left to chance. Far from being mere expressions of the cultural zeitgeist, much of the hardest work is done by a computer.

For mainstream country acts such as George Strait and Clint Black, the computer program, which takes in "random phone surveys, written surveys and previous sales data," easily predicts the sellout concerts. It's about as cut-and-dried as the laws of physics. The science for heritage programming, on the other hand, is inexact, though becoming less so every year.

Shafer notes that the rapidly shifting African-American music landscape presents special difficulties for their computer programmers. In the past, the rodeo gave the heritage committees plenty of leeway in selecting the bands. Today they may still lean more heavily on the committees' opinions than they do with the country and rock shows.

But Shafer and his programmers are working on it. They collect more demographic data every year, mostly through entry surveys of heritage night attendees. While Shafer claims the canvassers don't profile based on race, the surveyors are later asked to note what race they "think" someone is. The computer model is also designed to estimate the race of respondents depending on their zip code and phone prefix (the fact that this is even possible is a disturbing testament of Houston's continued segregation). The data collected is used to build next year's computer model, and Shafer hopes that the day will come when his heritage night computer programs have as little margin for error as those that target Anglos.

Says Shafer: "Our goal is to have the majority of the population for heritage nights be the targeted ethnicity. That tells us we are appealing to the community." He cites as relative failures those early heritage concerts where the audience was mostly white.

And herein lies the rub: Does an initiative that originated as a gesture to include ethnic communities now result in a sort of de facto segregation? Or even self-segregation?

Leroy Shafer would say no. "This year it's hard to tell which of our shows is the heritage show," he says. The advent of multiple slates featuring Latino and African-American artists suggests the extreme success of the Go Tejano and Black Go Texan nights. Depending on how you see it, it might demonstrate that the idea of ethnic-specific programming may be a dated one.

"Our worst time [for programming] is when music is very segmented," says Shafer. Crossover artists with wide appeal, such as Destiny's Child (performing on March 1, the final Friday night of the rodeo), make the marketers' job much easier. The computers, communities and the bottom line all arrive at the same conclusion.

Shafer wants people to check their cynicism at the door. For him, the entertainment at the rodeo pulls people together. "It's a win-win situation, for the rodeo, for the artists and for the public."

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Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts