Candidates in Support of the Music Scene?

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I was reading Off the Kuff and saw this link to John Nova Lomax of the Houston Press and his article suggesting that the gentrification of neighborhoods like Montrose and the Washington Avenue Corridor are to blame for the loss of clubs like Helios and Mary Jane’s.  He’s right of course, but his suggestion is to fight the system by moving pro-music people into the neiborhoods and onto city council.

And instead of an urban renaissance, what has happened is more like a suburban invasion. The suburbanites have brought their boringly efficient, car-obsessed, dreary way of life with them, and now they have imposed it on all of us. These people refuse to tolerate outdoor concerts that go past ten p.m. at places like Miller Outdoor Theatre and any concerts at Rice Stadium, ever. They build condos on top of long-established bars, move in and shut down and/or harass them into extinction. It has happened to Helios and to Pam Robinson at both locations of Walter’s — on Washington and on Durham. Just off Kirby, both Hans’ Bier Haus and the Big Easy have been hassled in recent months.

Is it any wonder that so many of our talented young people move to Austin, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles? (See Letters to the Editor.) Is it any wonder that all of those cities have much more thriving live music scenes than we do?

Enough. I’ve bitched about this stuff enough. Now it’s time to do something about it.

The way I see it, the artists and musicians who made Montrose the creative hotbed it was from about 1965 to 1995 have two choices — fight or flee. In either case, they need to organize.

Charles has his response here making some suggestions…

1. There’s 14 people on City Council, and the agenda is set by Mayor White. There will be only so much that one member can do.

2. It’s very seductive to cast an election in terms of Us and Them, up until the point where you learn the hard way that there’s more of Them than you thought. It’s best to define your terms in such a way as to allow as many people as resonably possible to think of themselves as an Us instead of a Them.

3. Money most definitely talks. If you’re going to form a PAC anyway, consider talking, and donating, to existing Council members who you think might be receptive to your ideas. Hell, talk to any Council member regardless of how friendly you think they’ll be. You never know – they might surprise you. It’s likely to be more cost effective than financing a fullblown campaign.

4. Remember that any campaign designed to bring habitual nonvoters to the polling place is an uphill task at best. Kinky Friedman was going to ride to the Governor’s mansion on a wave of new voter turnout. Didn;’t work out too well for him. Voting is a habit. It’s often easier to change minds than to change habits.

5. If you’re going to recruit and run a candidate no matter what, consider the upcoming special election to replace Shelley Sekula Gibbs, if she ever formally resigns and a date is set for that ballot. It’s sure to be a low-turnout affair, which will make your task easier, since you will need a smaller number of people to actually show up and vote to have the desired effect. I’ve got a preferred candidate in this race already, so it’s not necessarily in my best interests to tell you this, but I’m assuming you’d have figured it out on your own anyway, so no harm done.

John is one of the finest music writers our city has ever had, but here’s the problem with all this talk: it won’t fix a problem.  Why won’t this fix the problem?  Because, as usual, the focus is misplaced.

Lomax talks about the scattering of former neighborhood residents, but I have yet to see anyone mention the isolation of local alternative, indie and rock musicians.

There is an elitist attitude that has been rampant among the pop music set in Houston for years.  I use “pop” to cover a range of music that, for my purposes here, includes the styles that have made “scenes” all the talk among the hipster set in music.  From Austin to Seattle to Athens, Georgia to LA’s Sunset Strip, these are the gold standard “scenes” for pop musicians.  They don’t care if you have a terrific symphony as long as you turn out the next Death Cab for Cutie.

Therein lies the REAL problem. For so many years, we (and I’m in this group) have isolated ourselves.  While our country, rap, r&B, jazz and Latino music brothers and sisters have consistently turned out nationally recognized artists, we sit and complain.  While Da Camera and the Houston Symphony become world renowned and fully funded, we can’t figure out why nobody likes us.

The result is a total lack of power and a “scene” that has more in common with Cut ‘n Shoot than it does with Austin or even Dallas.

Look at the rock clubs in Houston, past and present.  From the original Cardi’s to Rockefellar’s to the Engine Room to Fitzgerald’s, the one thing they have in common is something they DON’T share: space.  Clubs, like musicians, are spread out.  It’s like a metaphor for for Houston.  We have to drive cars because we don’t have mass transit, but we refuse to support mass transit because we don’t want to give up our cars.  But, even musicians campaigned AGAINST our last zoning ordinance.  In the same way the people in the Heights (my ‘hood) don’t understand that an individual deed restriction for your home that prevents it from being turned into a condo isn’t the same as a suburban HOA telling you not to paint your house lime green, musicians don’t get that you can’t just fight the system.  You have to build a new one.
If you want to build something, forget city council.  Try something smaller.  How about asking for some help from artists who are already successful instead of thumbing your nose at them?  You may not care for tejano music, but La Mafia has multiple Grammy awards.  How many does your band have?  How about nominations?

Nobody bothers to promote rap and hip hop, yet it has turned out more artists on the Billboard charts in the last 5 years than the pop scene in Houston has managed in the last 30.  And God forbid we look to jazz or country.  It isn’t like they have successful artists on Blue Note or getting airplay on major country radio.

If we had any intellegence whatsoever, we’d spend more time learning from Da Camera than we do complaining about their patrons who destroy the character of “our” neighborhoods.  Maybe then, we could turn Main Street into a viable place for live music.  And speaking of that…
The most successful “scenes” in Houston over the past 20 years have been on the Richmond strip and, now, Main Street.  How many original music clubs exist in either of those locations?  If you exclude Continental Club, which is outside of downtown proper, NONE.  We’re so busy complaining about the loss of the few venues that do let us play in them (assuming we can bring a crowd of drinkers) that we forgot the lesson Sixth Street should have taught us – band together and we all get stronger.

I’m always shocked at the compeitive nature of musicians.  You’d think this was a battle for shareholder support rather than an act of creativity.  Yet, instead of being competitive with other forms of business and fighting for a thriving arts community, we fight amongst ourselves.  The reality is that scenes don’t just pop up for no reason.  They are built.  We have thriving and successful music in Houston.  It just doesn’t get airplay on the Buzz or KPFT or KTRU.  Since they seem to be doing something so right, why are we spending so much time complaining?  Why aren’t we praising them and asking for help?

We have arguably the hottest export in Houston history in Destiny’s Child and Beyonce Knowles.  Why isn’t anyone lining up to support her and figure out how to turn her success into success for all of us?

And don’t think the city doesn’t want this.  There is a reason the House of Blues is moving to downtown.  There is a reason we’ve spent more than a billion dollars on an arena, a ballpark, a stadium, light rail, fountains, new trees, street improvements and the other new things you see in a downtown that used to be home only to homeless people and the police.  Why are we spending so much time complaining about the loss of the few things we think we own instead of fighting for our piece of the action?

The city would love nothing more than for us to have our own Sixth Street or Deep Ellum or Sunset Strip (well, minus the hookers).  The struggles of Walter’s and the loss of music at Helios sucks, but why fight what is increasingly becoming a losing battle?  And, ultimately, a few isolated venues scattered throughout the city do not a scene make no matter how cool they might be.

Until you figure out the why’s, no city councilman or move from the Oak Forest to Montrose will help us.  Until you can figure out why musicians would rather bail out than nut up, no amount of campaigning or angry letters to the editor will solve the problem.

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