This One Time at BandCamp

This is starting to sound like a broken record. But maybe this time it'll be different. Isn't that what they always say?

The topic at hand, once again, is how to "fix" Houston's chronically underperforming local music scene, like it's a Ford pickup with a faulty transmission or air conditioner on the blink. Yawn.

We all know what's wrong — bands book too many shows too close together, promote them with a MySpace or Facebook event invitation at best, then wonder why nobody shows up. Cue the requisite hand-wringing about how the scene is "dying." Any of this sound familiar?

By this logic, the scene has been dying for years, because the people in it are either too lazy or apathetic to do anything about it. Or stoned. Could too many bong hits be the culprit?

"Marijuana is certainly a large driving factor for many, many artists in Houston," laughs Matthew Wettergreen, co-host of KTRU's weekend-rundown Revelry Report program (Fridays, 6-7 p.m.). "I actually can't say whether it affects their promotional skills."

Wettergreen and his Revelry co-hosts, Phillip Beck and Ian Wells, are ready to roll up their sleeves. The trio has organized BandCamp, a symposium designed to bring these and many other issues affecting the local music scene out into the open, scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, October 19, at Museum District creative workspace-for-hire Caroline Collective, 4820 Caroline. Wettergreen just happens to be one ofthe owners.

"I really think it's a lack of knowledge about what works and what doesn't," he says. "I think we're in a rut right now of general knowledge. Bands are mostly posting flyers in the Montrose area and using MySpace bulletins. If every band is on MySpace using bulletins to promote, there's too much noise and you're going to get lost."

Besides promotional tips, other BandCamp topics will include booking tours, recording and self-releasing an album, selling merchandise, getting the most out of studio time and so forth. Speakers include Dan Workman of Sugar Hill Studios, longtime CBS radio executive Paris Eley, Juice Consulting PR agency owner Heather Wagner, local DJ and promoter Ceeplus Bad Knives, Matthew Brownlie of Bring Back the Guns — talking about what made the Hands Up Houston collective so successful — Chicago rock and roll radio talk-show host Joe Saldana and many others.

A key discussion point at BandCamp will be ways to convince the city itself to pay more attention to the local music community, or at least acknowledge its existence. Workman is a member of the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau's Marketing Committee, the closest thing the music scene has to a liaison with any local governmental agency; Wettergreen has invited someone from the mayor's office on cultural affairs, but isn't sure if they'll actually show up.

"The City of Houston is not even recognizing the wealth of talent [here]," he says. "I've never seen a press release touting the importance and the vibrancy and the eclecticism of its musical arts other than ballet or opera, things like that."

The common thread at BandCamp is advising local musicians how to conduct their affairs in a more professional manner, which isn't going to be easy. Houston is at best a part-time music city, meaning a very small number of people are able to make a full-time living off their music. It's more than a hobby but less than a job, and that limbo can be stifling both creatively and financially.

And one more thing. Toning down the inordinate amount of trash-talking — which usually comes at the expense of, you know, actually doing something — within the scene would be nice too. Of course this isn't unique to Houston, but it does seem to be a particularly popular pastime around here.

"I think it's fear of success, or fear of what you can achieve," Wettergreen muses.

Part of the discussion at BandCamp, to its credit, will focus on what Houston is actually doing right. "Dan Workman said this earlier in the week, but I have to agree," Wettergreen says. "We are in this cultural void with no national eyes peering at us, and that has allowed very eclectic music to be played and practiced regularly.

"With nobody telling us that's wrong or bad or not popular, it's been able to flourish," he adds. "Our noise scene is a direct product of that, and extremely well-known to people that know noise."

And believe it or not, there are plenty of other reasons to be optimistic. Despite our low national profile, the editors at Spin hardly blinked when Noise pitched Houston for the magazine's monthly "Rock City" feature (available on newsstands now, thank you very much).

After a summer of soul-searching triggered by John Nova Lomax's Houston Press cover story "Houston Has a Bad Reputation With Touring Bands" — which Wettergreen says lit the fuse for BandCamp — the city has at least partially reintegrated itself into the indie touring circuit, with successful shows by Silver Jews, Ra Ra Riot and the Walkmen in the last month alone. The fall concert calendar is positively stuffed with Pitchfork favorites: Ting Tings, Girl Talk, TV on the Radio, Kings of Leon, Parts and Labor, Of Montreal, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.

Some clubs are exploring the idea of weekly residencies again; Sideshow Tramps frontman Craig Kinsey's guest-heavy Thursday solo shows at the Big Top have drawn healthy crowds. And any out-of-towner who happened to stumble across the swarm of people at last weekend's Westheimer Block Party — where exactly one act out of more than 100, Austin's Voxtrot, hailed from outside the Houston area — could be forgiven for thinking the local scene is downright robust.

It is robust. And eclectic and inspiring and frustrating in almost equal measure. BandCamp certainly won't be able to fix everything that's wrong — that responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders, each and every one of us who gives a damn about local music — but if it inspires even a few musicians to hold off on booking that second show in one week or to put up posters somewhere besides Montrose, for God's sakes, it will have been worth it.

Our local music scene isn't like a car we can just trade in for a newer model when the old one breaks. Whether it's thrown a rod or just needs some light body work, it's the only one we've got. Who's ready to get under the hood?

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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