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BandCamping, Part 1: Saving the Houston Scene [10/31/2008 01:27:00 AM]:
This way to BandCamp! Yeah, yeah -- I know this is way, way, way overdue, considering that the event itself happened a few weekends ago, now. I'd been holding off posting anything 'til I could get down thoughts about the whole ball o' wax, y'know? The whole OCD thing is my downfall, I swear...

The tagline there's a wee bit tongue-in-cheek, btw, partly because I don't honestly thing The Scene needs "saving" -- I think it's stronger and deeper than it's been at any time since I've lived in this city, and that's going all the way back to the Lexington days, with de Schmog & Sprawl & that whole crew (sorry, guys, but it's true). There are some truly amazing music-makers in Houston right now, in pretty much any musical genre you can name. I don't think there's anything about the music itself that needs to be saved.

That said, I also recognize that things have got to go onward & upward here, which means growing the audience for "local" music both here at home and elsewhere -- heck, that's been part of the point of this little e-zine since it morphed from just the original shows/venues/bands/etc. lists into this. Not "saving," then, but "expanding" in terms of reach and influence and levels of success for everybody involved. I know first-hand how much it can suck to put everything you've got into a band and then end up playing most of your shows to fewer than 30 people, and that's something that a lot of bands in this city -- even ones much, much more talented than my own ever was -- wrestle with every time they play.

Enter BandCamp up at the Caroline Collective "co-working" space. I've blathered about it previously, so I'll spare you the backstory, but what it ended up being was a gathering of a hundred or so (200, maybe? people were coming & going the whole time, and I'm horrible at estimating numbers...) band members, musicians, record label people, DJs, artists, promoters, press folk, and assorted concerned scenesters/fans all talking about what we, collectively, can do to make things better for music in this city. (I took a handful of pics w/the iPhone, some of which I've scattered through here -- see here for all of 'em, if you're so inclined.)

Caroline Collective front office All things considered, I walked away pretty impressed. Organizers Matthew Wettergreen, Philip Beck, and Ian Wells, all of KTRU's The Revelry Report did an awesome job of herding cats to pull it all together -- if there's a group that'd be more of a pain in the ass to corral than a bunch of music types, I've never seen it -- and Matthew, in particular, did a great job as the emcee of the whole deal (ably aided by PR consultant Heather Wagner), keeping folks on-task and driving things forward. (I think the success or failure of this thing rests largely on he & the other members of his triumvirate, the poor bastard, but I'll get to that later on.)

Organization-wise, too, I was happily surprised. The thought of setting up something like this seriously makes my head spin, and yet the Revelry/BandCamp crew had plenty of chairs & tables to sit at, water & vitamin water for all (er, most), beer later on, and the largest pizza I've ever seen in my life. The A/C in the place didn't seem able to cope with the number of people hanging around inside the Caroline Collective's meeting room, so things were a wee bit warm for most of the time I was there, but eh, that's a minor complaint overall.

The name-tag idea was freakin' brilliant -- some of the more cynical/mysterious opted just to add their names, but it was a huge help for somebody like me, who doesn't regularly interact so much with real-live music-type people anymore. I was able to scan the room and say, "hey, that must be Lance from Tambersauro!", then walk over and introduce myself. (He's a very nice guy, btw; I've now got his Golden Cities "side project" disc w/Esotype Recs guy Marcus in my pile to check out asap...) The chance to meet people I've talked to online in-person was probably the best part of the whole thing, for me -- turns out I really had been standing next to Omar of Free Press Houston during the listenlisten set at the Block Party, after all...

Dan Workman & Ross Wells presenting at BandCamp Plus, at various points the organizers encouraged/cajoled participants to actually mingle & introduce themselves to people they didn't already know, which was also a help. I've blanked on some names already, I'm afraid, but along with the people mentioned above, I got to meet Allen from The Quietist, Joe Rogers (who I've met before, but neither of us could remember where) & his little girl, Dunnock of Mink/Prolo/Ill Advisory fame, Joel from indiehouston.org, Brent (I think?) from News on the March, Ian from KTRU, & a ton more I shamefully can't recall. Now I've just got to retain it all; dang.

A few folks were conspicuously absent, notably ADR of The Skyline Network, who I think was traveling at the time, and Matt Brownlie of Bring Back The Guns, who'd apparently hit a dog(?) the night before on his scooter and was in bad shape. (Hope you're doing better, man!), but the crowd was pretty diverse and large, all the same.

At any rate, once folks had gotten settled in somewhat, the thing kicked off with Dan Workman (Sugarhill) and Ross Wells (Zen Film) basically talking up Our Fair City and laying out their shared vision of what bands need to do to get things moving. I'm not sure they said a whole lot of practical stuff people there didn't already know, but I wholeheartedly agree that the Houston scene, as a whole, needs to do some serious Stuart Smalley channeling and become its own biggest fan.

I'm not sure a slogan's even needed (although Workman's "Houston's The Shit!" does have an undeniable appeal), so long as we do something to combat the negative self-image we all seem to carry around with us. Ask a random friend or coworker if they love it here (hell, if they like it, even), and odds are that they'll chuckle bitterly and shake their head, then talk about the city they'd really rather live in. I'm guilty of this myself, although I try my best to fight it -- this city truly is a love/hate kind of deal, and griping about the place has become just about the only common pastime all Houstonians can engage in.

Steven Garcia & Dunnock outside BandCamp It's definitely not limited to the music scene, mind you, but it's definitely damaging to any hopes of becoming better-known both in the Houston metro area and elsewhere. You know the truism: you can't be loved unless you love yourself. And like I said above, there is a shit-load to love about Houston music right now. Anybody who complains that there isn't just plain isn't looking hard enough. From Something Fierce to Young Mammals to Bright Men of Learning to Stadium to The Tontons to B L A C K I E to Giant Princess to listenlisten to The McKenzies to Tambersauro to Sharks and Sailors to Buxton to Satin Hooks to Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans to The Jonx to By the End of Tonight to Co-Pilot to -- hell, my fingers hurt, but you get the idea -- there're probably double the number of badass bands here as there are bands, period, in the music scenes of some smaller-yet-better-recognized cities.

Dan & Ross are right that we need to be proud of that. We need to be boosters for Houston music, pushing it on disbelieving friends & family every chance we get. One of the motivating factors of this very site, really, has always been the idea that if Houstonians (and everybody else) could just get exposed to this stuff, they'd be certain to love at least some part of it. It works, truly -- I'm not saying it's not an uphill battle, but it works. Houston music -- hip-hop aside -- suffers from a seriously crappy "brand," and that needs to change.

I felt like I was in a bit of an odd position compared to a lot of folks at the event, I have to say, being ostensibly a "press" person; the more detailed sessions weren't really aimed at me, seeing as I don't have a band or a label or anything like that. (Although I do need to work on promoting this here site better than I do today, but I'll get to that.) So after the initial "Houston fucking rocks!" bit, I meandered outside to chat w/Steven "Something Fierce" Garcia & Dunnock (whom it was nice to finally meet, btw) while Heather Wagner delivered what I was told was an excellent talk on PR. Dang.

Ran into Jacob Calle after that, and chatted quietly to ourselves about the weirdness of all of it, the lack of work bands do to promote themselves outside of Houston, his now-ongoing (I think?) tour as "Hurricane Bear", and just taking things in. I halfway listened to the presenter, who was talking about applying Berry Gordy's Motown model as a model of success here in Houston, which I didn't entirely get, and enjoyed the vibe of all the random folks gathered together in one place.

I did like the part, though, where the guy doing most of the talking (sorry, missed the intro, but he was an older gentleman who had several women with him who also spoke about a few different things) pointed out that everybody in the room was running a business, whether they wanted to or not. I've heard/seen a bit of sneering about that since, but I thought it was a brilliant point to make -- if you're in a band, and you want to reach more people, sell more CDs, make it into the paper, etc., then yes, you are a business. And running your band like that's the case is the smart thing to do.

View from the back of BandCamp session I'm not saying, mind you, that everybody should run out & get a manager, asap -- unless you work 12-hour days and/or don't really give a crap, you don't need a manager unless you're lazy (sorry!). Nevertheless, understanding that you can't generally half-ass your way to more successful shows, tours, and so on is a good thing, in my book.

In spite of my confusion over how being like Motown would help most small-time local labels, I do agree that having a business model helps. Before anybody reading this panics and hits the "D.I.Y. Alert" button to summon Ian MacKaye, though, I should note that if you have a band and you play shows and occasionally make money, then you already have a business model, whether you're aware of it or not. If you want to play to MORE people and make MORE money and whatnot, then just practicing when you feel like it, doing a show every blue moon, never flyering, etc., are not going to help you. For most bands, the business model is to practice, record, and play shows as much as humanly possible, and there ain't nothing wrong with that, so long as you and your bandmates apply yourselves to it and don't give up after a year like about 99% of the bands in Houston seem to.

Anyway... After another break, things heated up a bit. Matthew led a spirited, free-form discussion about what's good/bad & what could be improved with the scene in general, and while I've heard a few negative comments about how random it all was, I honestly thought it was valuable to hear, especially since this site is somewhat of a local resource. I learned a few odd tidbits, like the fact that you can go to City Hall and get a noise permit for $10 that'll let you make noise (to a certain level) up 'til 10PM, but mostly what I found useful was to hear first-hand what folks in bands find difficult or confusing or whatever about the way our little mishmash of a scene runs.

See, I haven't been in a band in a long time now. I've got no clue what it's like to try to book shows, get press, sell CDs, all that, and that's what the Space City Rock site was originally started to help bands do. Back in the day, this site was a stripped-down version of its current self, basically just a list of local bands and a list of local clubs bands could play, with contact info for each. It was like a crib sheet for bands who (like me, at the start of it) had no idea what the fuck they needed to do or who to talk to.

Moving on a decade-plus, and I've lost contact with that. Do people out there in the wider world of "Greater Houston" know about SCR? From the comments, some did, but others didn't, which was interesting to hear. So I kept my mouth shut, pretty much, and just listened to what people had to say. The responses made me realize that I've got to seriously get up off my ass and start being serious about this site, something I've procrastinated about, literally, for years now.

First up, I've got to get a sticker design finally together (any graphically-talented folk out there willing to help on that, btw? I'm a little terrified of what I'll be able to come up with on my own...), and then recruit lackeys to hit the bars & distribute 'em for free anywhere and everywhere. More eyeballs on the site is good for H-town music.

Jacob Calle at BandCamp Number two is that all us local music-focused sites need to start banding together. That's happened some over the past few years, yeah, but it seemed like a lot of the Bandcampers knew one or two of the sites people mentioned but not the others. I know there's kind of a competitive thing going on, but fuck it -- we need to cross-promote for one another every chance we get. If anybody reading this has a local zine or blog or site that's mainly about music in this city, send us a banner (468x60, please), and we'll get it up in the rotation. A rising tide of awareness of everybody else doing what we're doing floats all our little boats.

And for number three, I think we need to take that "banding-together" thing and expand it, state-wide (hell, maybe further). We need to be proud of Houston, but we also need to be proud of Texas's music as a whole and promote that, too -- after all, who're our nearest neighbors? It's not like promoting H-town bands in Rhode Island is going to help those bands much the next time they tour, since few Houstonians make it that far. Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin (and every little scene in-between), on the other hand, are practically a captive audience. They're stuck here in the second-biggest state in the Union, just like we are.

Plus, the more visible Texas as a whole is, the more visible we are. Any attention we can get is a damn good thing, for everybody from here to El Paso & beyong, and I think us Houston music folk need to try to reach out a hand to our brethren to the north, northwest, and west. ADR has done some of this already on Skyline, hooking up (figuratively) with Austin Sound and weshotjr., in A-town and Dallas, respectively. I've got some thoughts on taking things further, although I want to keep 'em under my hat for the time being, at least; I'll post more about my grand Master Plan once I actually bounce it off a few other folks...

Of course, the discussion went all over the place, so it was hard to get much of a consensus on things. More cross-genre shows or fewer? I heard proponents of both. More early shows? Sure, why not? More local bands on "big" shows? Love to see it, esp. since the brand-new House of Blues has zero local talent listed on its calendar at the moment, but will it happen? Per some of the voices in the room, doubtful. One big Website to rule them all or go with what we've got? Again, I heard both.

The one truly concrete thing that I think came out of the discussion was Matthew's suggestion that in lieu of a new "super-site" for all things musical, folks could start using the Skyline's SceneWiki, which ADR rolled out a while back and then never really got anybody to mess with. And I think it's a damn good idea. It's collaborative, anybody can edit it, the structure's already there, and folks can go out there and either see what's there (some of which is damn entertaining, at least at the moment) or add their own band/label/whatnot.

Somebody in the meeting pointed out that yes, SCR does actually have a big list of bands, but while that was very kind of 'em, I'll be honest: I hate, hate, hate updating it, at least the big-long "all bands" list. Utterly loathe it. Half the bands on there at any given time seem to be dead & buried, but I'd never know it if nobody told me, the design's not very useful or cool, and it's just honestly a hassle. I'm planning on keeping it up for the time being, at least, but if everybody put their own info in the SceneWiki, that'd save me a lot of grief in the long run. Just sayin'.

Sadly, after the first round of discussions, I had to leave or risk being ripped to pieces the next time the wife was able to track me down (dinner at the in-laws, naturally). So I headed for the door, saying "hi" to a few more folks on the way out (nice to run into HP editor Chris Gray again), my head swimming with excitement and trepidation and all the rest of it. Whatever happens in the next year or so's gonna be epic, I have a feeling...

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