Thursday is the fourth anniversary of the Live Earth concerts, which Rocks Off remembers today less for any of the music - Madonna and Gogol Bordello is the only thing that readily comes to mind - than because they were on TV in the background while we began packing up our Austin apartment in preparation to move to Houston.
When we got here, we found a music scene (or scenes) at low tide. Rap, Houston's calling card to the rest of the world for the past decade or so, was beginning to stall both creatively and commercially; the indie scene, for lack of a better word, was in turmoil. This week in print, Rocks Off attempts to sum up the past four years in about 1,200 words and it's our pleasure to report that, give or take a hiccup or two, in our eyes the scene is much better off.
Naturally it's a little hard to cram four years of anything into a single page, let alone everything that's gone on here. That's where the Internet comes in handy.
Rocks Off reached out to several of our fellow scene-watchers for their insight into some of the fundamental issues of the past four years: The "passover" by many touring artists; how Houston's diversity has helped or hindered the scene develop a distinct musical identity; whether or not anyone from outside the city will ever pay attention to anything we do besides rap, and whether we should even care; whether local artists can make a go of it in town or are better off moving somewhere else; and, of course, the eternal question of What It All Means.
We got so much good information and opinion back we decided to split this into two blogs, because we didn't want to cut anything but also wanted to avoid the dreaded tl;dnr. Part 2 will be along later this afternoon; in the meantime, we'd love to hear what you have to say in the comments.
For now, please welcome your panel of Omar Afra, Free Press Houston editor/publisher, Fitzgerald's partner and Free Press Summer Fest co-founder; Marc Brubaker of Rocks Off and H-Town Rock; David A. Cobb of recent Houston Web Award winner Houston Calling and Jeremy Hart of Space City Rock. These guys know what they're talking about, and the floor is theirs.
Rocks Off: How has Houston's music scene changed in the past four years?
Afra: The obvious answer is: Yes, the Houston music scene, or "community" as I would rather refer to it, has changed for the better. But to see it is a monolith is a mistake. The community has grown enough to splinter into various subgroups and factions, and that is a good thing for the incubation process.
Brubaker: Venues gone - the Washington strip turnover, Prolo out. No Westheimer Block Party. Revived Engine Room/Jet Lounge [now Underground Live], Fitzgerald's turnover, Free Press Summer Fest. Lots of band changes, but I'd say we've probably got more artists than ever.
Cobb: I think more people are paying attention to local music, which helps to foster a more supportive and cohesive scene. People like Mark C. Austin, the folks at Caroline Collective, Free Press Houston and Pegstar, SugarHill Studios, and many others that go out of their way to support local musicians - including a more supportive and focused local press - have been instrumental in this shift.
Hart: The scene as a whole hasn't changed that much, from where I sit, although some of the faces have changed; that's the nature of music in this city, unfortunately. I look back at stuff from 2007, and I had high hopes for folks like Papermoons and The Scattered PAGES and The Western Civilization and The Church of Philadelphia and The Dimes and Thee Armada, and none of those bands even exist today. It gets maddening, to tell you the truth - it kills me to see these bands that are great and incredible just explode and then fizzle out and disappear.
At the same time, there're always new bands stepping up to take the place of the bands that're gone, and we've got some truly amazing people making music these days. I used to look back nostalgically to when I first started paying attention to music in Houston, when bands like Celindine and Blueprint and The Suspects and Sprawl were around, but these days there's really no comparison. The depth of good bands in the scene here now is almost ridiculous.
RO: What has been the most significant change?
Afra: There has not been one deciding factor as to the growth of the music community, but great bands, better venues, and most importantly, dedicated fans are big contributors.
Brubaker: Summer Fest.
Cobb: I know of several musicians making a living solely by creating and playing their music. Sure, they're not famous or rich - but they are doing what they love, and people respond to that. I think the fact a lot of local musicians are taking it upon themselves to actively spread the word about their music, via social media or whatever, and make the effort to tour outside of the state have been positive changes.
Hart: There's more attention now, from all sides. Even as recently as four years ago, it seems like there were fewer outlets for bands than there are now, in terms of getting people to notice your music. Now there's the Press, obviously, the Free Press, 29-95.com, CultureMap, and Do713.com, and blogs like my own, David Cobb's Houston Calling, Breakfast On Tour, Pretty Riot, Dryvetyme Onlyne [currently on hiatus], etc., and that's just on the digital side. I see more and more bands popping up outside of Houston in places like Pitchfork or Daytrotter, and a couple I like have even gotten airplay on The Buzz, for crying out loud.
Then there's Summer Fest, which I'd guarantee has opened a lot of people's eyes to what's been going on right here under their noses. Witnessing the crowds there has been pretty awesome - I can't help but grin when I see hundreds of people rocking out to, say, The Wild Moccasins.
RO: Is Houston a better market for touring artists today than in '07?
Afra: Our city is no doubt a better climate for touring bands, but not because of a concrete change in infrastructure here, rather a new mindset that is making bands and promoters think bigger and better. More local bands touring, more independent promoters, more showgoers = more national bands coming to our city.
Brubaker: Yes. Summer Fest, Fitz turnover, Warehouse Live and House of Blues all contribute to this. Warehouse/HOB pick up artists that Meridian would have gotten, and both are probably preferential experiences.
Cobb: I think this depends on the "level" of the artist. House of Blues definitely opened up a new avenue for artists to come to Houston (and who knew that a Journey cover band could go on tour, much less play at a place like House of Blues?). Warehouse Live is great for indie artists, and the people there do a decent job of supporting local bands as well. Smaller venues and record stores are really supportive as well.
Hart: A little bit, sure - I think the Pegstar guys, in particular, have done a really great job of pulling in some good touring acts and promoting the hell out of them. At the same time, I've seen several very cool bands in the past couple of years - mr. Gnome and The Orbans, for two - where you could practically hear the crickets between songs. Houstonians are still pretty fickle; we've just got so many other things we could be doing, often much closer to where we live.
RO: What is the climate for local musicians like compared to four years ago?
Afra: More events and action here at home has both positive and negative results for local musicians. On one hand, inspiration is everywhere. On the other hand, imitation is everywhere. Houston being 'insular' for so long has provided us with unique bands that overlook national trends. But with connectivity comes the eventual course of influence.
Brubaker: More national attention - although still not a lot. More representation for quality indie acts, as opposed to simply some radio-rock and rap. Still plenty of places to play, and probably more people paying attention to the scene and embracing it.
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Cobb: People seem more receptive to local music. Obviously, my finger is more on the pulse of local music than the average Houstonian, but I know that when I play someone less familiar with local music a song from a band like The Wild Moccasins, Pale or Buxton, for example, people usually say they didn't know that Houston had such good bands and they want to find out more.
Hart: I don't think it's changed all that much. Some venues have gone away, but others have popped up in their place, and going just by the sheer number of shows I see listed every week, it doesn't seem like bands are having a hard time playing shows. It's been a long time since I was in a band, though, so I'm not seeing it from the ground, so to speak.