Music Business

What The Closing Of Walter's Says About Houston

Spencer Fort of the band Moth Wings stands in front of Walter's for the last time.
Spencer Fort of the band Moth Wings stands in front of Walter's for the last time. Photo by Derek Rathbun

The music world is changing so fast, that it's almost difficult to keep up with. The way things were 20, ten, and even five years ago in music have since changed in ways that most people can't begin to imagine. Sixteen years ago, Walter's opened on Washington Avenue, and changed how many people would see music in Houston, Texas. Seven years ago, the venue moved next to University of Houston Downtown, and continued its stream of indie rock, indie rap, and punk shows with a calendar that was rivaled by no one else in town. Last week, the venue announced its closure and ended a long run as the home for independent music in this town.

click to enlarge The sign at the front of Walter's. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
The sign at the front of Walter's.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
For many of us, Walter's was a home and their employees were close friends and family. Taking the legacy that Pam Robinson began on Washington, her son Zack Palmer kept the venue afloat when Robinson was stricken with cancer and past her passing. Pam was to many of us, a second mother who made sure we all had a place to see the kind of music that ignites fury and passion, and her passing was difficult to say the least. Palmer kept all of the traditions of the original Walter's intact in a way that might not look good on a balance sheet, but was admirable nonetheless. If your band played at the iconic venue, you were treated just like a touring act with a rider and plenty of hospitality. There was never a merch cut taken either, something that's become common in today's music industry.

click to enlarge Zack Palmer, owner of Walter's behind the bar for one of the last times. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
Zack Palmer, owner of Walter's behind the bar for one of the last times.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
And of course that's before you delve into the facts of the venue itself. All ages, all shows, all the time. Most cover charges at Walter's stayed around $10 and under, their everyday prices for beer and any other beverages were well below what 90 percent of bars around town charge, and about 99 percent of what other venues in Houston charge. The current staff of the best sound man in Houston hands down, Terry Nunn had been with the venue since Palmer was a little kid.

click to enlarge Jon Januhowski (Sound Engineer) and John Baldwin. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
Jon Januhowski (Sound Engineer) and John Baldwin.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
John Baldwin, who ran Deep End Records from the front of the venue worked harder than any promoter in this city to ensure that shows were inexpensive, that killer acts like Bully, of Montreal, Quicksand, and so many others were housed there for one night, because that's where the shows should've been at. And the current cast of door personnel with Mark and Halston, both in Houston punk bands themselves. Joe at the door, Will Harrison, Jade, and Dave Bufano behind the bar, just meant that the small scale employee roster was one of those who got the vibe that this was a place where everyone who wasn't a jerk, could come see a show.

click to enlarge The green room at Walter's. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
The green room at Walter's.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
And that should be enough for you. It was enough for me and I attended about 95 percent of the shows they hosted in the last five years. Zack and the team at the venue became so much more than just guys you'd see working at a show, they were family and friends above anything else. A crew of people who were hell bent on making shows available to all, whether they could afford to attend them or not. Zack once said to me when I asked why he didn't raise the prices, that "everyone should be able to afford going out, and that's what we're here for." 

The same sentiment was echoed from Baldwin who said, "not everyone can afford to see their favorite band, and that's why I keep the prices low or let homeless kids in for free sometimes."

click to enlarge The Men's room graffiti. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
The Men's room graffiti.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
As to why the venue is shutting down, it shouldn't matter what their reasoning is. You could point fingers, speculate, or question their methods; but that wasn't what the space was. Walter's is and will always be the best example of what music was, and what it should be. Music is about freedom, expression, and energy. The building housed everything from sweaty punk and metal shows to chill wave and Soundcloud rappers, alongside fair prices and an even fairer way of treating everyone who played there or who walked in the door.

click to enlarge Front entry into Walter's. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
Front entry into Walter's.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
This city, has never really supported live music as we should. As someone who writes about music, I can say that the fact that people don't get out and catch something new on the regular, is a factor in why places don't stay open. All of the venues in this city feel the hurt of a lack of support for smaller shows and local acts. People will consistently pay $150 to catch a touring act, then complain about how a venue like Walter's doesn't carry a certain beer. It's indicative of the times here, where live music is changing and the city is changing as well; yet the inhabitants here are pretty indifferent to getting outside of what's popular.

click to enlarge Halston Luna, Jon Januhowski & Libby. - PHOTO BY DEREK RATHBUN
Halston Luna, Jon Januhowski & Libby.
Photo by Derek Rathbun
I can tell you to go see a show, or go check out a band you've never heard of; but that will only make a handful of you actually do so. If I had to say what the venue's closing says about our city, it's that things have changed for the worse in the past decade, and Walter's is the first victim in those changes. Just when I think that people are supporting things more, something like this happens to remind me that things have only marginally gotten better in the past three years.

But heed those words nonetheless. The only things I could offer as to what you can do to help make sure this doesn't happen to any other venues is the following. If you're in a band, go see a new band. If you're just a fan of music in general, you should go find a band you've never heard of and see them live. Because if we don't change how we support the local venues that are left, we'll see a lot more closures in the future.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.