Take Me to Funkytown?
Given how our Music Awards expand in categories and nominees every year, it stands to reason that Fort Worth’s music scene is bigger, busier, and better than it’s ever been. With more bands, venues, and fans (as well as the mega-success of a certain soul singer who’s become a household name over the past two years), you’d think Fort Worth’s mark on the national music map has also become more prominent. Weekly contributor Steve Steward sat down with Lola’s co-owner and manager Ryan Higgs and Afallon Production’s Brooks Kendall Jr., who books shows at The Live Oak Music Hall and Shipping & Receiving in addition to Lola’s, to see what Fort Worth’s rep is outside the city limits.
Weekly: Has booking nationally touring bands gotten easier over the past year or two? Do people know about Fort Worth outside of town? People complain that they have to go to Dallas to see such-and-such band, and that always seems like a function of booking agents routing bands through the big city in a particular market.
Brooks: From a booking agent’s standpoint, that’s pretty much the way it is. I’ve had more than one agent in the last month refer to Fort Worth as a suburb. There’s still a lot of message to get out. Dallas is viewed as the primary market, and we’re the secondary market. That’s part of the problem. …
Ryan: I think there’s a lack of serious talent buyers in Fort Worth. … There’s not really too many people taking the risks. Eddie [Vanston of Shipping & Receiving] does, Brooks does, but it’s a big monetary risk. … I think it’s easy to get jaded if the shows don’t do well.
Brooks: Live Oak is 400 standing, Shipping is 500 standing. We have that tier covered, but we don’t really have the space for that 500-to-1,500-person tier. But you’re right. I don’t think we can sustain it. You’d have trouble getting bands in town that will fill that room, sell that amount of tickets, and keep the business open. …
Weekly: Because Fort Worth is still the secondary market?
Brooks: That’s right. There are plenty of choices for a thousandish-capacity room in Dallas. And that’s where they are going to call first. … To speak to Ryan’s point, about the people here who are willing to risk money on shows, I think there’s truth to the idea that people in Fort Worth don’t support big shows the way people in Dallas do. It scares promoters off from spending money.
Weekly: What of the idea of Fort Worth’s music being a “balanced ecosystem,” where the number of bands, venues, and fans is sustainable to the point where it has a reputation that sets it apart from Dallas?
Brooks: I think we still have a long way to go. The buzz that people perceive, it’s legit, but it’s not an overnight change. … There’s still buzz from Leon Bridges, but it needs to happen like a snowball effect.
Weekly: The timing of Quaker City Night Hawks’ recent record and booking and management deals is kind of fortuitous, given what spot Fort Worth is in The Leon Cycle. They’re the newest band to depart on tour with some kind of national prominence that uses Fort Worth as part of their branding.
Brooks: But Dallas still has the name from people like Erika Badu and Old 97’s. … Fort Worth doesn’t really have that kind of legacy band that the guys doing it now can look up to –– the kind of bands who have been successful but are still part of the scene who the younger bands can communicate with and learn from. Other than The Toadies, there aren’t really any established acts that tour nationally that can tell their agents or management or bands they’re touring with that Fort Worth is a good place to play, that you shouldn’t skip it.
Weekly: Do you think Fort Worth could benefit from more word-of-mouth promotion from local bands that play out of town?
Ryan: Out-of-town bands do want to play here, but one thing that happens a lot are mid-level touring bands that play Dallas on a Saturday or Sunday and have a few days to kill before they go to Houston or wherever. They’ll reach out for Monday or Tuesday shows.
Weekly: And that’s not ideal?
Brooks: … It frustrates me, the amount of interest we get from these touring bands wanting off-night shows, because while we’re getting a bigger band in there, we have to see if it’s worth cancelling someone’s regular open-mic night or whatever. …
Weekly: What would make your job easier … to raise Fort Worth’s profile as a place to play for touring bands?
Brooks: I’d say for local bands, they need to get out of town as much as possible. If you play five [road] shows in a row that suck, so what? You’re learning to compare the way things are happening in other towns, in other clubs. If you play out-of-town clubs and see how the rest of the world works, you learn a lot. And you make friends with other bands you can do gig swaps with. They come to town and that helps us long-term when we’re trying to bring those national touring bands, because Fort Worth looks like a legitimate place to play. We need more local bands to have better relationships with these out-of-town bands. I can’t really think of a band right now that regularly does gig-swaps.
Ryan: Another thing, it seems like everyone coming from Austin, they have representation. Part of the problem, besides nobody willing to buy shows, there’s nobody professionally repping Fort Worth bands outside of town. A professional buyer could do this city some good, to go out and risk money on a big show.
Brooks: OK, so here’s the deal with that. That’s what I do, all day long. The company I work for, Afallon Productions, takes risks on expensive shows for this size market and for the size rooms Fort Worth has. We spend money every week. … We generally get it back … but it’s very easy to measure what you’re going to make back and control your potential losses when you’re trying to draw 200 people rather than a thousand. And when people go, “Well, how come my favorite band only comes to Dallas?,” they’re talking about a band that brings 1,500 people. There are business people in this town –– Higgs, [Lola’s Brian] Forella, me, Eddie at Shipping & Receiving, the guys at The Rail Club –– who actively spend money on bringing music here all the time. But for us to push into that realm where we are risking $15-, 20-, 30,000 all the time, we need to know that the people who say they want to buy tickets to those shows have our backs. If you’re going to be that guy who says, “How come nobody I want to see comes to Fort Worth?,” start by just going to the shows that are happening in Fort Worth. If there’s something you think maybe could be cool –– so-and-so, who’s a member of some band, but you don’t know their new band –– go see ’em anyway. Spend the five bucks. If you think about that, shows are pretty cheap. Two locals and a small touring band, you pay $5 to see them. That’s the price of a show in, like, 1996! And in 1996, a pack of cigarettes cost $1.75. A gallon of gas was 98 cents. Cigarettes cost $7 a pack now, and gas is $3, but shows are still five bucks. Don’t bitch about the $5 show –– even the $10 show is a deal –– because you know it’ll be a good show if it costs more than the usual cover.
Ryan: That’s totally true. One reason there isn’t a major buyer here is that every venue has had the experience of getting its ass kicked by an expensive show that nobody came to. You’re confident in the city, this is a great band, but people don’t come to it.
Brooks: Eddie has probably lost more money on big shows than anyone in the last two years, and it’s because he goes out on a limb for that shit. And it’s very frustrating. If people want Fort Worth to have that kind of recognition, of being a tour destination stop with a good music scene, they need to go to these bigger shows when they happen. There are only a few of us who are going to spend money on shows, and if you lose us, the whole thing collapses. We have to pay Dallas prices or higher right now to get the show in Fort Worth.
Weekly: Besides touring bands getting a good impression of a robust music scene, what else can boost the city’s reputation on the national level?
Brooks: I think what the guys at Nile City Sound [where Leon Bridges recorded his major-label debut, Coming Home] are doing is geared toward putting Fort Worth more on the map.
Ryan: Getting Fort Worth’s name out there, there’s gotta be a sellable band from Fort Worth. Leon Bridges is obviously sellable. Quaker City is sellable. They have a look. They’re a good band. …
Brooks: They have a good label, and they’re going to get in front of the right people. But with Leon, I think the Niles City guys … [are] the missing piece in a lot of ways. It wasn’t like Leon Bridges was going to have a cool Instagram and then get famous. I think those guys said, “OK, here’s someone I believe is marketable. I’m going to make this record at my own risk, and then I’m going to call my friends who have power and put the two together, and I know that it’ll work.” And I think that’s the model they intend to pursue here, to produce artists from Fort Worth that are marketable elsewhere. … If they’re working on a local record, it’s not because the artist is paying them. It’s because they think they can do something with it nationally.