This month marks four years since I moved to Houston to work for the Houston Press, first as Assistant Music Editor and then (after a brief layoff) Music Editor. It’s gone by in a flash, but four years is a long time.
By the calendar, four years is 1,661 days. It’s a presidential election cycle, an Olympic ring and the amount of time it takes some movies to go from bombing at the box office to Sunday afternoons on Channel 20 or 39. It seemed like a good time to ask if the local music scene is, in the words of a long-ago GOP candidate, better off than it was four years ago.
With apologies to Magic 8-Balls everywhere, signs point to yes.
A couple of points of order first. As befitting a city its size, Houston is actually composed of many different music scenes; diversity is, after all, one of the city’s main calling cards and an everyday fact of life.
Perhaps unfairly, the phrase “music scene” is generally taken to mean goings-on at Inner-Loop bars, nightclubs and music venues, but there are a multitude of other “scenes” at Tejano dance halls, suburban icehouses and even house concerts. And personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the Houston area’s abundance of cover/tribute bands as well as local audiences’ undying affection for them, but critically, groups exclusively playing other people’s music don’t register on my radar very often.
So anyway, four years ago, Houston’s much-touted rap scene was fading. The clutch of “Class of 2005″ MCs coasting on the candy-painted success of improbable national hits like “Still Tippin’” and “Ridin’ Dirty” was beginning to run out of fuel, and soon enough would start repeating themselves to ever-diminishing critical and commercial returns. (Forget Who Is Mike Jones?…where is Mike Jones?) Pimp C’s death from a promethazine overdose in late 2007 in many ways literally marked the end of the “syrup” era (although the culture persists) and cast a further pall over the local hip-hop landscape.
Meanwhile, the indie scene was positively reeling. The stain on Houston’s reputation caused by the 2006 altercation between an HPD officer and San Francisco duo Two Gallants at Walter’s on Washington lingered, and enough similar bands were bypassing the city in favor of Austin, Dallas and even New Orleans that many people worried it was permanent. The city’s other main indie-rock club at the time, The Proletariat, was on its last legs and closed in early 2008, and the “talent drain” of young local musicians moving to other cities (most maddeningly Austin, of course) was especially acute.
In those dark times, local scenesters — I hate to use that word, but the people to whom it refers know I mean no disrespect — did something else Houstonians are known for: They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Encouraged by the success of topping off a day of local music with a few regional and national headliners at the Westheimer Block Party, Free Press Houston partnered with local promoters Pegstar to create a super-sized version of the Block Party in Free Press Summer Fest. In three years, the two-day festival has gone from experiment to institution, drawing 62,000 people to Eleanor Tinsley Park last month — many of them (gasp!) from out of town…even Austin.
Others began shoring up Houston’s musical infrastructure in different ways. Cactus Music reopened in Shepherd Plaza in late 2007, proving record stores can still be a viable business model — especially when they have several in-store performances by local and touring artists a month, sometimes as many as four or five a day.
SugarHill Studios partnered with Zen Films to create the monthly Internet series Live From SugarHill and then ZenHill Records, which now counts Houston artists The Ton Tons, Roky Moon & BOLT, Southern Backtones, Sideshow Tramps (as well as front man Craig Kinsey), Winter Wallace and Peekaboo Theory on its roster. Space City Records, Red Tree and A-Trak Records have all signed on in the past few years as well, the latter only last month. New West Records certainly gave the scene a shot in the arm when it signed three of Houston’s most promising young artists — Robert Ellis, Buxton and Wild Moccasins — bing-bang-boom late last year.
And then there’s the Internet. In July 2007, the Houston Press’s music blog Rocks Off averaged about four or five entries a day, some as short as a single paragraph. Today it’s up to eight (at least), and they’re considerably longer. Our own Houston Press Music Awards and corresponding showcase — which, by the way, have been moved to the fall this year, for those of you who were wondering — make an excellent opportunity to take the scene’s temperature every year.
Among Rocks Off’s friendly rivals, Houston Calling and Space City Rock do an especially good job of keeping an eye on the local scene. (R.I.P. Skyline Network.) The Houston Chronicle cleared out more room for local music coverage when it created 29-95, first online in 2009 and then in print last year. Even CultureMap deigns to mention local music from time to time, although it usually takes an event like Summer Fest.