Bayou City

Houston Fights to Shake "Stolen Music Gear Capital of the World" Tag

This week started in the worst way possible for the Black Lillies. The six-piece Americana band based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, had played a Cactus Music in-store last Sunday afternoon, followed by a gig that evening at Dosey Doe Music Cafe in Conroe. The next morning, they woke up to discover their touring van and equipment trailer missing from its parking spot outside the band's motel near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Between the van, the trailer and all the gear it contained, the Black Lillies later estimated their losses could reach as much as $100,000.
Bands on tour leave themselves vulnerable to burglary and theft in ways other people rarely have to think about. Of course, you should never leave anything of value in your vehicle — at the very least, stow it in the trunk — but it's rarely practical for a band on the road to unload a packed trailer when stopping off for a meal or at a motel. Although the Black Lillies' van and trailer were in a well-lit part of the motel lot, security footage showed someone was able to break in and drive off in less than two minutes. Tuesday morning, authorities recovered the van, which had been abandoned by the side of the road; an insurance adjuster was scheduled to come out Thursday to assess the damage. The instruments and the band members’ personal effects, a list containing dozens of items — many of them irreplaceable — remain missing.
The Black Lillies’ situation brought the attention of not just local media but outlets like No Depression and Saving Country Music, which went so far as to label Houston “The Stolen Music Gear Capital of the World.” As that article recounted, other victims within the past few years include Ruby Jane, a young Austin fiddler who was carjacked along with her mother in 2011; the L.A. electronic musician known as Nosaj Thing, whose gear was stolen while the band was eating at the House of Pies on Kirby after an April 2015 Fitzgerald's gig; and Texas country singer-songwriter Zane Williams, who was also robbed while his band had stopped to eat on the way to a gig in Galveston around the same time last year. Williams, though, was able to recover his equipment thanks to a tracking device he had placed in the trailer; he followed the thieves on his phone and let the police do the rest. They arrested two suspects and recovered all of Williams's gear except one 100-year-old fiddle.
No such luck with the Black Lillies. Most of the band’s instruments were insured, but Chyna Brackeen, their manager, estimated that financially they could recover at most 60 percent of what was stolen. Some of the instruments were quite rare, and the sentimental value of what was stolen can never be measured in dollars.

“One major issue is that a vintage instrument doesn't have the same value to an insurance adjustor as it does to a musician,” Brackeen wrote on the fundraising page established on the Black Lillies’ behalf; as of Thursday afternoon, it had raised more than $43,000 from nearly 800 supporters.

“When you have a 1952 guitar that's one of a kind, that has a soul and a sound that you can't just go out and buy, that sounds the way it does because of how it has been played over the years and how it has worn through and cracked and been put back together again…well, you can't just find the cheapest price and replace it,” she added.

If there’s any further comfort in this grim story, it’s in knowing that this kind of problem is not unique to Houston. Last month, St. Louis magazine reported that 25 touring bands had experienced some kind of burglary or theft since May of 2014. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Saving Country Music from labeling Houston “the most dangerous city in America in the United States to play music.”
Is that true? Probably not; or if it is, such a claim is all but impossible to verify. But what is true is that auto theft and burglary of a motor vehicle are both ridiculously common both in the state of Texas — which, according to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, sees nearly 65,000 cases of auto theft per year, and many more burglaries of motor vehicles – and in its largest city. Houston is so big that the Houston Police Department's interactive online map requires considerable zooming before the number of vehicular crimes grows small enough for its algorithm to count.
However, within the two-week period between January 14 and Thursday, using the widest possible zoom at which the statistics do show up, there were 650 auto thefts and burglaries south of I-10, and 288 incidents north of I-10. That's nearly 1,000 vehicle-related crimes in two weeks in an area that's not even the entire city, and in fact does not even include the motel where the Black Lillies' van was stolen. (Here's a link to the map if you'd like to play around with it; try the "Advanced Search.")
According to HPD, burglaries of motor vehicles in the city were down slightly more than 10 percent in the first six months of 2015, the last period for which statistics are available. That's of little comfort to bands like the Black Lillies, but cops do understand their frustrations. After the Nosaj Thing theft last May — the gear was never recovered, Nosaj's manager, Todd Roberts, told us earlier this week — the Houston Press spoke with Officer Jim Woods, a 30-year veteran of the force; more than 20 of them have come with HPD's Auto Theft Division. Woods told us that the Bayou City’s criminals think nothing of breaking into unmarked police cars and other city vehicles (“sometimes in broad daylight at lunchtime”). A few months before we spoke, it had happened to a military band in town to march in a holiday parade, he added.

“And that’s not the first time it happened,” Woods says.

When the unthinkable happens, Woods says the best chance people have of getting their stuff back is to keep track of the serial numbers of each piece of equipment. That military band at least had the presence of mind to do that, he notes.

“It’s the easiest thing to do,” Woods says. “You’ve gotta record it. And you have to be able to keep it available to you so you can regurgitate it to us and say, 'Okay, here's the serial number to my amp that's missing. Here's the serial number for my mixer that's missing. Here's the serial number for this item that's missing. Here's the serial number for these guitars.’

Police are able to track stolen property in several ways, he explains: sting operations, Crime Stoppers tips, a pawnshop database called Leads Online, and of course the Internet; Woods laughingly calls Craigslist “Crooks’ list.” Sometimes, he says, cops will catch people simply because their neighbors turn them in — “A lot of times, they just want to turn him in because it's, 'I'm tired of his crap,’” he says. Grants from agencies like the Auto Burglary Theft Prevention Authority also help, he adds, and in fact the annual number of vehicular crimes in Houston has dropped to between 11,000 and 13,000 lately from around 40,000 in the early ’90s. But Woods also readily admits there’s no “magic bullet” that will stop a thief who possesses the right balance of wherewithal and opportunity.

“For all the years we've talked about this, at least the only good thing we've had is at least in the last year, burglary of a motor vehicle has declined,” he says. “Is it because people are doing a better job of not leaving the property in the car? That's what we're going to hang our hat on and say that that's the case. Is it because of all the things we've been telling them?

“We can always hope that's the case,” concludes Woods. “But realistically, it still comes down to if you can't afford to lose it, then don't leave it in the car.”

The Black Lillies return to the Houston area April 13 at Main Street Crossing in Tomball.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray