Houston 101

How Satellite Bar is Helping to Shape the Houston Music Scene

Whether you know it or not, the city's most important music venue is this little East Downtown dive that is Satellite Bar.
Whether you know it or not, the city's most important music venue is this little East Downtown dive that is Satellite Bar. Photo by Jack Gorman
Pulling up to Satellite Bar in an Uber almost always results in the same confused reaction from the driver. Sandwiched between a Whataburger and a dated car wash in the city’s Greater East End, the 2,000 square foot building is about as discreet as they come—far from the flashy look that most Uber hotspots around town have come to inherit.

Yet step foot into Satellite on Harrisburg, and what you’ll find is a music venue that feels exactly how a music venue should. You have a bar in one corner, a stage in the other, and a patio out back that serves as a hangout (which also serves as a space for bigger shows on the lawn). Dominating the entirety of the building is a weathered bar smell, which when combined with the heavy Houston air, makes for a classic live music setting that feels like something special is sure to develop with each show.

If you’ve been to one of Satellite’s many shows over the last three years, it’s likely you’ve seen the payoff of such an intimate and simplistic setup—where the audience is forced to crowd the stage and actually pay attention to what’s going on in front of them—a huge aspect of a live music that the Houston scene has historically struggled with. Yet, the intrigue and importance of Satellite Bar goes far beyond the mere vibe of the building.

Anyone familiar with running a small-sized music venue knows the importance of establishing a community—a place where both artists and fans can feel a part of something bigger than just the music of any given night. This is what made previously beloved institutions like Walter’s and Fitzgerald’s just so beloved in the first place—not the locations or just how modern the buildings were. Yet with the recent shuttering of both, those in the local music scene have been searching for someone or something to fulfill this void. Since opening doors just three years ago, it’s safe to say that this little East Downtown dive has done just that.

Beyond the unique feel of the building, Satellite’s most notable characteristic is the way in which it constantly blends Houston’s creative arts community into everything it does. For instance, if you’re a struggling painter looking for ways to show off your work, Satellite will take care of that by hanging your work right above the bar. If you’re an aspiring photographer looking for a venue that will actually allow you to bring a camera into a show, Satellite will welcome you with open arms (and even encourage it). Attend a weekend show, and you’ll find local food vendors and clothing pop-up shops set up out back for all attendees to enjoy, making for a communal atmosphere that goes far beyond the music itself. In a city as expansive and spread out as Houston, it usually requires a planned creative arts festival to bring so many forms of creativity expression to one place. Satellite Bar is doing this on a weekly basis.
click to enlarge Regardless of whether the acts continue to get bigger, you can guarantee Houston bands will be sharing the bill at Satellite. - PHOTO BY AARON MORENO
Regardless of whether the acts continue to get bigger, you can guarantee Houston bands will be sharing the bill at Satellite.
Photo by Aaron Moreno
“They’ve always been welcoming and supportive of my art...it feels like family” says local photographer/painter, Karo Cantú, who through Satellite’s platform has not only acquired more eyes on her work, but more importantly has been able to meet a host of musicians, artists, and photographers who are now some of her closest friends.

“For us, it’s really just spreading the artistic culture. Everybody that works here is involved in the arts in some way,” says talent-buyer/production manager, Gil Castillo. “One of the bartenders is a tattoo artist. Another one of the bartenders plays in a band. Another one has his own solo project. So everybody is involved in some sort of creative outlet, and for us it’s just about propelling that even more, and giving people that have that in them a place to go.”

To see this spreading of Houston’s artistic culture on full view, look no further than the venue’s booking practices. Last year saw Satellite land by far its biggest acts yet (including nationally-recognized talent such as Snail Mail, Cuco, Frankie Cosmos, Kero Kero Bonito, and Wavves). Yet look at the bill of any of these shows, and you’ll quickly find one or two local bands slotted as openers—something Satellite regularly practices in order to give the sprawling Houston scene the exposure that it deserves (and something they assure will continue in the future regardless of their plans for bigger shows).

This isn’t to say that Satellite hasn’t faced its fair share of struggles. As an untold number of business owners throughout Houston can relate to, the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey left the bar in a position where the sole priority was simply to keep the doors open. Yet as Satellite employees can attest, it was owner Eric Finley’s devotion to this scene that kept things afloat. “I’ve worked with a lot of bars and you never see the owner,” says bar manager, Josh Christian. “[Finley’s] up here because he enjoys it. During our down time, the only reason this place stayed open is because he loves music so much ... and wants this scene to be here.”

Whether it was shifting the week-night focus to being a bar first, venue second, hosting no-cover shows, or even going forward with shows this past summer despite not having A/C at the time (which made for an amazing and sweat-drenched night with London-based punk group, Shame), Finley and his crew stayed devoted to their mission of being the hub of Houston creativity.
click to enlarge Beyond the music, Satellite Bar has a communal aspect that hasn't been felt since the shuttering of Walter's. - PHOTO BY CONNOR FIELDS
Beyond the music, Satellite Bar has a communal aspect that hasn't been felt since the shuttering of Walter's.
Photo by Connor Fields
This dedication certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed from the city’s concert-going public, as the majority of characters that you’ll find at Satellite on any given night are regulars that not only enjoy what the venue is doing, but want to be a part of it themselves. Sure, in-demand talent, cheap ticket prices ($5-$20), and dive bar drink prices certainly don’t hurt foot traffic. But as an untold amount of Houston spots have learned in the past, it requires a lot more than the obvious offerings to make a mark on this often-confusing Houston music scene.

“They’ve created this environment that not only provides an intimate, cozy setting to see a band, but they’ve also made it to where people feel like they can hang out after the show,” says Satellite regular, Aaron Moreno, who has been frequenting the venue since its early days as The Shop. “Even when there isn’t a show and it’s just a DJ night, it’s a place you could just go and hang out...I’ve found myself just showing up on random nights, even if I didn’t know the performer. I can’t really say that about a lot of other places in town.”

Sharing the feelings of many in tune with the Houston scene, Moreno further notes the void filled by Satellite in the wake of Walter’s closure. “I had been going to Walter’s since I was a teenager, and when we lost it, it really felt like the city’s music scene took a huge blow. I was heartbroken! So it’s almost like Satellite came around at just the right time, at least in my eyes, to fill that spot. They’ve done such a good job creating that similar feeling and space.”

Often times, being perceived as the “hip” spot in town can result in an ego-dominated space that feels anything but welcoming—where looking a certain way or having a certain level of popularity to your name is some sort of prerequisite to attending. As Cantú, Moreno, or anyone else who has visited throughout the last three years can attest to, this is far from the case at Satellite Bar.

Whether by focusing on the minority population of the city (i.e. regularly hosting Latin-themed nights), booking everything from hip-hop to the death-metal, or keeping an open-arms policy for creatives and vendors throughout Houston, Satellite is helping to shape the city’s music scene into something as diverse and inclusive as the city itself. In Satellite’s own words, “we just want it to be a family...where people and artists walk in and treat it like their own home.” Given the strides that Satellite Bar has made since opening doors just three years ago, Houston music fans should only expect this "family" to continue to grow.
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