A recent Facebook discussion really helped me focus and frame this post that has been percolating for some time now.
Cathedral Records was born out of a desire to help cultivate and support the music community and to this point that has taken the form of championing bands, venues, retailers, photographers, and other members of the scene here in Houston as well as around the region.
The biggest debate in our music community has always been about the viability and vitality of our scene.
Do we have one? If so is it any good? Is it getting better or is it on the decline? Is it true that only cover bands draw crowds? Are venues really supporting the artists? Why don’t fans come out?
These are all questions that get thrown around bars, practice rooms, and of course on internet discussion threads.
Here are some of the challenges I, and many other musicians and enthusiasts, have brought up in regards to Houston.
Houston is too spread out. The geography does not lend itself to a thriving scene because people live too far away from wherever the bands are playing. Suburban areas do not support live music in any form beyond cover/tribute bands or DJs. Inside the loop there lacks a central, walkable area with multiple venues ala 6th Street in Austin, the French Quarter in New Orleans etc.
Venues don’t do enough to promote artists or drive traffic, instead leaving that vital aspect of running their business to the performers themselves. Compounding matters they don’t provide ample backline resources and don’t pay musicians a reasonable amount…if at all. This puts all the responsibility of promotion, marketing, and capital investments in the hands of the musician. Musicians thus have to become marketing professionals on top of masters of their chosen craft and then invest in their own PA equipment in addition to the investments they’ve already made in their instruments and training…which then requires additional investment in transporting all this equipment and specialization in live sound engineering.
Fans don’t come out. Artists hammer Facebook, Twitter, make fliers, and shout from the mountain top but in the end all they get is a tepid response from the same friends and family who have been going to all their shows since they started playing and struggle to attract all the people outside their immediate circles who seem to be shouting from the mountaintop that there’s never anything to do in Houston, that the live scene stinks, and that if only there were good clubs and bands out there playing they would go out.
The media doesn’t do enough to promote the existing community of artists and venues or to cultivate further development. The “media” as it pertains to Houston is typically the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, and whatever other small distribution, local and free papers you can think of. The Chronicle is…well…the Chronicle. Chron.com’s entertainment section is littered with click-through photo galleries, recycled time and again, and articles about national artists and gossip. The Houston Press, for all its stated goal of championing the alternative audience who are disaffected by “mainstream” media has its own problems with consistency and quality. What they share is an apparent desire for quality content opportunities that will generate interest and those oh-so-important ad impressions and clicks.
Bands. Bands are also a problem discussed in our community. They don’t work together. They are cliquish and cynical. They don’t like to share bills or cross promote or they get a sniff of regional/national attention and they “forget where they came from.”
I’ve been playing in Houston since I was a teenager sneaking into open mic nights at roadhouses, desperate for any audience I could find. I began “promoting” singer/songwriter nights soon after high school in a coffee/internet café (remember those?) shortly after graduating high school.
These were the same arguments my older friends were talking about then, the same arguments my peers have been having, and the same ones happening with the talented group of bands coming up behind me.
So what’s the point? What am I getting at?
The point is that while each of us puts our flag in the ground with one issue and proclaims that it is THE defining problem with the Houston music scene, the other issues continue to go on and others stake their flags in their opinion when really…we should be addressing the problems.
Here’s what I think makes a great scene and what I’d like to see happening and how I’d like to fit into that…and it’s very important to state: all of it is already happening in pockets around the city.
We’ll start at the top.
Houston IS big. It’s a giant wasteland of sprawl and concrete with more tan shopping centers and isolated communities than I can count. The inner loop – outer loop battle will rage on long after the “inner loop” becomes understood as Beltway 8. This isn’t a challenge so much as it is an opportunity. A band can “tour” without ever leaving the 713/281/832 area codes. Clear Lake, Galveston, Pasadena/Deer Park, Katy, Humble, Spring, Woodlands, Almeda, downtown/Montrose/midtown are all hotbeds of activity just bubbling under the surface. There are bands sweating in practice rooms and bars looking for acts that can help drive business. The inner loop does NOT have exclusive rights to talented musicians. They’re all over the place. Rather than looking at the inner loop area as “the scene” Houston musicians and fans need to see the larger picture and understand there are lots more opportunities.
I currently live outside the loop…and count me among the people who gets up for work at 5 am, drops my son off with my parents, spends 9 hours at the office, leaves, grabs my son, goes home, makes dinner, goes through the mail, cleans up around the house, plays with the baby for a bit before it’s time for him to go to sleep and then I pass out because I have to do it all over again. I miss out on basically every show ever because after doing all that I can’t fathom the idea of going out to see someone perform who isn’t going on until midnight in the Montrose or downtown somewhere. I would get home at 3 and have to “wake up” at 5 am.
Bands need to understand that while geography poses some very real challenges…so to do they provide an opportunity to go out to where the people are.
Which of course brings us to the venues: many have written excellent pieces on how venues take advantage of talent and often use the analogy of a restaurant “hiring” a chef to work for free because after all, it’s their passion to cook and they should be happy to be given an opportunity to cook for people…and oh by the way, you’re responsible for bringing people in…and oh, our oven is broken. It’s a very valid point.
Venues have for too long skated by for years using pay-to-play or by forcing artists to do their own promotion. As bands became too much of a “hassle” to deal with it, they brought in karaoke, DJs or just said screw it and went with a juke. Now…see it from their point of view. Running a business is hard and expensive…just like running your business as a musician. Investing in a proper backline, tailored marketing campaigns for each band, and the allocation of valuable real estate inside the club for a good stage is a big deal. They need a return on those investments. This, however, by no means whatsoever, excuses them for what I deem to be unethical dealings with musicians.
What is needed is real partnerships, real collectives among venues AND talent and the use of effective, best marketing practices to ensure success…and no, it’s not a sure-fire-overnight deal. Investors need to see the long-term returns and not bail at the first sign of danger. All too often venues agree to “test” live music only to fail at picking the right bands, giving them the right support, effectively promoting the event, and then giving up after one show because “it didn’t work.”
Just like musicians are expected to become masters of marketing and communications, so too do venue owners need to become adept at promotion and in creating effective, attractive showcases for bands…doing their research on which nights will be most lucrative and provide the most opportunity for growth.
I subscribe to the belief that “if you build it they will come.” But you can’t build it, only tell your immediate friends, only let people in between the hours of midnight and 2 am on a Wednesday, and locate your incredible edifice an hour away from everyone that would like to come. Fans, in the end, are the consumer. Venues and musicians are the vendors/suppliers/products. To connect them together you have to meet in the middle. Bands and venues have reach out to the audience in more ways than Facebook event shares and traditional calendar ads in the back of the Houston Press squeezed next to the rub-and-tug and escort classified ads.
The internet has provided a lot of great ways to connect with fans outside the traditional live event inside a club. Do live performances and broadcasts from your practice room..a “From the Studio” gig, as it were. Do an afternoon show on Saturdays or Sundays…these are typically down periods for venues but, particularly in outlying areas, could open up a whole new audience who, by the constraints of their M-F lives, are unable to participate in the traditional 10 pm – 2 am schedule of events taking place.
But fans have to do their part too. BUY the damn record. BUY the T-shirt. WEAR the T-shirt. TELL 10 friends you were at the show or are listening to the music. If you have time to take a picture of what you made for dinner, you have time to tag the name of the band whose music you’re listening to at that moment. If you have time to take a selfie at the show, you have time to tag the band and the venue. It isn’t enough to “like” someone’s content. Likes don’t pay the bills and they don’t generate new opportunities. Sharing is caring. Fans are a critical part of the equation and should step up their game.
Ahh…the media. Who doesn’t love ripping on the media. They write an article we love and they are a bastion of true journalism, objective, well-researched, and honest. Write something we don’t and SCREW THESE biased, ignorant bastards and their agenda!
The media can’t have it both ways as far as I’m concerned. They can’t proclaim their desire to give a voice to voiceless and then throw up a bunch of click bait photo galleries with pointless images of people walking down the street or sticking their tongue out at a music festival.
You don’t get to take the easy road. You also don’t get to outsource your content to independent bloggers, post their material on your site, and then say their opinions don’t reflect those of your editorial staff. Writers don’t get to sit back and essentially write entire pieces filled with inside jokes and obscure references letting everyone know how cool they are while essentially ignoring what they’re actually supposed to be doing – reporting and describing the music scene around Houston.
As a member of the community your role, as reporters/photographers/journalists is to shine a light on the good and the bad. Not every review needs to be glowing and they certainly don’t need to be advertisements hidden behind the mask of a news article. What I want to see is fair and honest reviews of bands across the city. I’m not just talking about bands that are drawing big crowds at the few “major” venues, those bands that are already getting some national attention. They absolutely deserve coverage and attention because these bands should be a shining source of pride and inspiration for every other group in the area.
BUT…what about that cool wine bar off Rayford that has a fantastic singer-songwriter showcase attracting some of the most talented people I’ve seen in a long time?
What about that circle of metal bands playing in Pasadena and La Porte…they are doing it old-school. Printing their fliers, sharing practice space and stage time, dolling out some of the nastiest and aggressive music in town.
Oh you haven’t heard of those? Exactly. People of the media – Do. Your. Job. Check your email and your snail mail. Go trolling usergroups and Facebook looking for content opportunities. End all your published pieces by asking for, not comments below to which you can make all those snarky responses you’ve had in your pocket, but for leads on new content. Get out of your comfort space. Leave the same four clubs you’ve been going to for the last three years. Houston is big and you’re supposed to support and serve all of it…not just yourself.
I’d like to see guest articles from band members themselves. I’d like to see updates on progress is coming along with different recording projects. Reporters should go to the many studios in town and see who’s working on what. Go to the practice rooms, the teen clubs. Get members of the Houston Association of Acoustic Musicians to write guest pieces. If you haven’t heard much from this band or that band, look them up and give a quick blurb on what’s been happening.
Now the bands…first…bands need to be good haha. Learn to play your instruments. Learn to write songs and be willing to put in the time, earn your scars, sweat, bleed, sweat some more. Sadly…in a way, that’s the easy part. We spend our lives doing that part. But then, when we want to share our music we’re faced with all these challenges I’ve spent close to 2000 words writing about.
Sorry but we DO have to cooperate with each other. We DO need to get out and network. Support other bands’ shows, share their calendar of events…cross promotion is critical to building a good, thriving scene. No matter how far along your band has gotten, never forget that you were just coming up once too. Offer your opening slot to a no-name group of kids in your neighborhood. Be mentors. Share what’s working for you. If you’ve found a great recipe for success, share it!
All too often I’ve seen bands become islands unto their own…afraid that other bands will glom onto their thing, stealing their trade secrets and render them somehow, less unique.
I’m a believer in a rising tide raising all ships. Bands that have had success will have MORE success if they help other bands build their brands and establish themselves. The more bands playing out, the more quality singer/songwriter nights happening, the more smoking blues jams happening all around this sprawling city the better it is for everyone.
Venues aren’t the best at promoting? Make it easier for them. Approach them with an entire bill. Three bands, committed to performing two nights a month…once every other week. Put together what you think is the perfect ad and work with the venue manager to get it into the papers, onto the social networks. Negotiate a rate – work out the details…anything is on the table. 5 bucks a person at the door? Fine…band takes 4 – house takes 1. Consumption gets split 60/40 to the house. That’s right bars…the bands deserve a cut of consumption. Deal with it. Those people are there drinking because of the entertainment you provide.
Once everything is ironed out, do a Facebook live session at the “contract signing” and then write a press release announcing this beautiful union. Blast it everywhere you can think..even if you think it’s pointless. Follow up with phone calls and invite reporters to the show. Venues need to print up nice color posters for the doors and small ones on each table keeping the event on everyone’s mind. It may take a couple months for both the venue and the bands to reap the rewards but if both are committed, it will work.
Oh…so no one is coming out on Tuesday night for your 10 pm show with four bands no-one has ever heard of in an obscure underground club in midtown? Well…how about playing a half-time set during a weekend roller derby bout? Make a night of it..play the national anthem before the bout, a quick half-time set of fan favorites and then rock the crowd with a 30 minute set of your best material. During the bout you’re networking, handing out fliers, supporting our roller derby gals and having a great time.
Look…no one said it was easy. No one said it was easy to run a bar/club. No one said it was easy to be a musician…in this city or any other. No one said that your favorite bands were going to be playing 5 minutes from your house at the exact time that you would have 45 minutes to devote to them that also perfectly coincides with you being in the mood for live music, and have absolutely nothing else to do.
Being a part of community is sacrifice, compromise, cooperation, and collaboration.
So when you think about why this music scene isn’t what you want it to be…don’t focus on what others fail to do about it…focus on what you can offer that might, in some way, contribute to building that community you wish you had. Encourage others to do the same. Take a look at Jealous Creatures. They are the living embodiment of how to do it. They work hard at social media, they collaborate with other bands, cooperate with venues and promoters and they put on amazing shows full of incredible music.
And remember – Cathedral Records is here to promote, to counsel, to collaborate, to share, and to help in any possible way.
I want to bring everyone – musicians, venues, and related service providers together in a way that enriches all our lives.
Let me know what I can do, how I can help. If you’re struggling with a particular aspect of your endeavor, get with me and let’s talk. Need help filling out a bill? Let me know and I’ll help find a good band.
Just recorded an album and are thinking “well…now what?” Let’s talk about your options related to distribution, promotion, copyrighting, and publishing.
Are you just starting to write songs and want to get some recordings done but don’t have the tech savvy to do it yourself or the funds to go to some of the established studios in Houston? Call me. Cathedral Records has a great project studio and some of Houston’s best musicians at the ready to help in any way we can.
Are you an owner of a club? I definitely want to hear from you. One of my goals is to promote a monthly event called “Cathedral Records Presents…” It will be a showcase for aspiring songwriters to share their music and their passion. Let me help you with best practices related to building an audience for your venue and with negotiating fairly with talent.
Finally – thanks for reading of course – this is obviously a long piece but I hope it provides everyone with a morsel of food for thought.
If your take anything away from this it should be this: “the scene” is never dead, it’s never alive. It’s never awesome and it never sucks. It is what we all make of it. Let’s ALL do our part to make the best of it for all of us to enjoy – musician, venues, vendors, and fans together.
Be well and kind,