Lately the medium and small-venue level of the Houston music scene has begun to resemble a chessboard, with pieces moving around quickly and spectators left to look on and wonder who will ultimately hold the upper hand. After one last blowout this Saturday, Pegstar Concerts will relinquish its lease of Fitzgerald’s on September 15 while continuing to book shows at various local venues like Rudyard’s, Walters and Warehouse Live and awaiting construction of its multi-stage White Oak Music Hall on North Main, currently projected to open in spring 2016. Taking over Fitz will be a new team of partners headed up by Lauren Oakes, the venue’s former sound engineer; the property is slated for extensive renovations once Pegstar’s lease is up. Meanwhile, halfway across the state, the owner of Dallas’s Kessler Theater is hoping his plan to acquire the old Heights Theater building on 19th Street goes through so he can turn the space into a Houston counterpart to his popular venue in Big D's Oak Cliff neighborhood.
The newest player at the table is new only to Houston, sort of: Transmission Events, the Austin-based company that will take over booking at Fitz as of the Neon Indian show scheduled for October 2. Founded about a decade ago, Transmission produces Austin’s annual Fun Fun Fun Festival and books shows at several venues in the city, principally Red River anchor club the Mohawk; it also maintains an office in Dallas, where it books shows in rooms such as Club Dada, the Bomb Factory and Trees. From time to time it has even placed a show at Fitzgerald’s, such as California rap-punks Death Grips a few weeks back. Transmission also books at San Antonio’s Paper Tiger, the recently overhauled venue once home to one of the Alamo City’s longest-running clubs, the White Rabbit.
Graham Williams, a founding partner of Transmission, calls Fitzgerald’s “one of my favorite rooms” and says he’s been many times, both as a musician and as a fan; “it was always where you would go when you went to Houston for a show,” he offers. After his company was approached by the new Fitzgerald’s team, Williams says that although it was somewhat late in the game, Paper Tiger’s similarities to Fitz is one reason Transmission signed on to book the space. He sensed the same level of commitment he saw in the San Antonio club’s owners, he explains.
“I’ve booked so many venues, and some places are just there to try to make as much money as possible and close, and there are places that are owned by passionate people who really, really care about music, and they care about the venue, and they care about the experience of their customers,” Williams says. “So for me, I feel like that was a big part of it, and making sure that the right partners were behind it.
“For us it just made sense to give it a shot and start booking shows there, since we liked the space and they were giving it the treatment it needed,” he continues. “I feel like it’s a great space to go into. Houston’s got a cool scene, with a ton of people who want to go see shows. Since we’re doing so many shows around the state anyway of similar size, it would make sense to find them a home in Houston.”
Williams says he’s not looking to start a big rivalry with Pegstar, and that Transmission has even co-produced events with the Houston promoters in the past. Rather, he explains that for a city of its size, Houston has a relatively tiny number of suitable live-music venues, lagging far behind Austin and Dallas. Once White Oak Music Hall is up and running, or even before, Transmission and Pegstar should be more than able to coexist peacefully in the marketplace, he promises.
"I guess I’m just used to it in Austin and Dallas, where there are a lot of different promoters doing similar shows, so you’re used to competing a bit,” Williams says. “I think it can usually be very civil, I think everybody can work together, I think there’s plenty of shows to go around; hopefully they feel the same way.”
Transmission’s existing relationships with venues in other Texas cities should also make it easier to add a Houston date to tours already routed through Dallas and Austin/San Antonio, Williams figures. He also confirms something that many Houston music fans have long suspected — that several issues related to the local music scene have made it particularly unattractive to both artists and booking agents.
“God, I don’t know how many booking agents I talk to that say all the time, ‘I know why it’s easy [for bands] to skip Houston,” he says. “They don’t hear back from the clubowner enough; they’ll never email them or call them back for a hold; or there’s not as many folks there; or because there’s only a handful of clubs, there’s only a few options, and those clubs are usually booked. So if they’re trying to get a date…unlike Austin, where there’s a lot of options. I definitely hear that [from] a lot of people.”
In that regard, Transmission’s expansion into Houston should help widen the field, Williams figures.
“I think it gives the opportunity for a lot more agents and a lot more bands to come through,” he says. “We sort of do a little of everything, so I think we can bring a lot more bands to the table that have currently been skipping it or just choosing one city over the other.”
Besides Neon Indian, other early shows at Fitz include several popular regional names — Bun B, The Sword, former Denton indie-folk band Seryn — and up-and-coming indie acts like Georgia’s Reptar and the Coathangers, California’s Maudlin Strangers, and UK post-punks Shopping. Since most tours are already booked and routed through the end of 2015, Williams says things won’t really pick up at Fitz until the early part of next year, when the spring tours start coming through. Likewise, he says he’s working on a couple of things connected to possibly bringing acts playing Fun Fun Fun Fest’s tenth anniversary in November, but “not as many as I’d like there to be.”
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“We got a bit of a late start, but I think next year we’ll be able to have a lot more before and after shows with the bands coming in and out of the city,” Williams says.
Next year, of course, is also when the White Oak Music Hall is supposed to be up and running, and the Heights Theater (or whatever it becomes) could be adding its Kessler connections to the mix as well. Houston’s days as a relatively sleepy market for club-level promoters and booking agents may be coming to an end, and according to Williams, the people who will really come out ahead are the Bayou City’s live-music fans.
“Every once in a while, you’re going to want the same band to play the same night,” he says. “That just happens, and like I said, in the long run, I think there’s going to be plenty of shows coming through town.”
Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Lauren Oakes as Fitzgerald's current sound engineer. The Press regrets the error.