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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Roots of Texas Music

BOOK REVIEW
The Roots of Texas Music
edited by Lawrence Clayton and Joe Specht
Texas A & M University Press
p. 2003

  I think there is a fair amount of condescension about Texas in the Indie Music nation.  People living within the orbit of New York and Chicago tend to limit their definition of "cool" to those cities while making the occasional exception to representatives from the West Coast.  Outside of SXSW, most bands touring between the East and West Coast play maybe one or two dates in Texas, tops.   But uh, Texas has 25 million people and if you add that with California (37 million) you have just about 1 in every 6 U.S. citizens.  Unlike the other parts of the country, you can tour this territory year round, limit your dead zone to Arizona + New Mexico and skip the drama (and hard judging, and expenses of NYC.)

  The indie rock infrastructure in Texas markets like Dallas and Houston has grown to a level similar to that in smaller west coast markets like San Diego and Portland- this gives the touring band a strong thursday/friday/saturday segment to anchor the Texas leg of a tour.

  Despite popular conception, Texas has long been a fertile location for American music, as The Roots of Texas Music convincingly demonstrates.   Texas played a decisive role in the development of Blues and Country music in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as Blacks and White migrated from the East looking for work in the oil boom of the first part of the 20th century.  Texas's infamous criminal justice system was a direct inspiration for many of the classic Blues recordings and Blind Lemon Jefferson, by virtue of his early recordings, may be the most influential blues artist of all times.

  In the world of Country music ("Country and Western"= Western equals "Texas") Texas was key in developing the "honky tonk" song, with the now familiar tales of hard living that characterize much of the lyrical content of today's Nashville sound.  Texas was also the spawning ground for the "outlaw country" of Austin and the "bakersfield sound' of Buck Owens (born in Texas.)  Much of the country music produced in California was created by Texas immigrants.

  And of course, Texas played it's part in the rock and roll revolution.  Wolfman Jack broadcasted into Texas from a Mexican radio station across the border, and of course Buddy Holly came from Texas.

  So, it seems to me- if you are an Artist at a "DIY" level, and living somewhere between Seattle and Houston you're better off working the area between Texas and California- even outside of SXSW- then racing to get to New York City and wasting the opportunity.  When the time is right for New York City- you'll know.

From "Local Band" To "Regional Band" To "National Band" in 5 Easy Steps

     I've decided that local bands ought to be called "new bands."  There is no time limit to how long a specific project can be in this category, the same way that at "new artist" for the purpose of the Billboard Chart is measured by sales over the length of the entire career.

     Activity by new bands is typically the form of becoming a "local" band, wherever they are.  Often the question is "What is the best way for new band with no track record to get noticed?"  Answers these days typically take the form of either "going local"- playing local shows, network with bands touring through your home market OR international: start a blog, start a record label, run a kickstarter page, etc.

     I would argue that both of these approaches are less efficient for a new band then trying to tour regionally.  First of all, touring regionally is cheaper then putting out a proper record yourself AND bears almost zero chance of "failure" provided planning is proper.  Second, this is the most efficient way to network with other Artists in your area- playing a show together attended by 5 people is typically a bonding experience of some kind.  Third, getting our of your home market allows you to improve out of sight of your home audience- and most importantly, keeps your number of local performances to a lower level.

 Almost every band in the world should be able to plan and save for a road trip of a week- if you can't do that, i.e. get a vehicle, save up money for expenses on the theory you won't make any money, etc. you may not be ready to take advantage of any success  you might have.

     So for any band in the US, there is some regional tour of about a week that makes sense.  For West Coast bands, it's up and down the West Coast.  For bands from Texas, it's going up to Oklahoma City, cutting across to Memphis and then playing New Orleans and Texas.  From this perspective, the ideal place to be would be in between Chicago, New York, Atlanta and East Texas (Houston/Dallas) because then you have the access to four different week long circuits with little muss or fuss.

   The only markets excluded by this approach are Las Vegas, Denver, Boise, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Montana/Wyoming and the Dakotas.  You could also break off Boston from New York and say that there is a fifth circuit centered on Montreal.

 So, step one- figure out which region you are in. Step two, play regular, but not too regular local shows with bands from other areas in the region.  Step three, use those contacts to book a regional tour.  Step four, put together a recordings with more then one song.  Step five, attract record label and/or booking agent by pointing to what you've already done WITHOUT HELP.

  If your a bedroom artist reading this, you don't need to get a band together to play local shows.  No one expects it, no one gives a shit, and paying a band is impossible until you're at step five.

  If you are wondering how this analysis applies to a specific project, please feel free to email me and I will dispense specific advice.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture

BOOK REVIEW
Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture
by William Barlow
p. 1989
Temple University Press


   The story of the Blues is interesting on a number of levels that have nothing to do with the fact that most white rock and rollers trace large portions of their style, music and performance on the Blues.  First, the Blues are interesting because it was one of the modern musical forms that emerged in tandem with the invention of phonograph.  Second, Blues are interesting because there was a thirty year gap between the first artistic and cultural flourishing of the Blues and the appreciation of that flourishing by the music industry, music consumers and music intellectuals.

   Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture is a well rounded look at the historical facts that trace the emergence of Blues as a genre.  The bare facts of that emergence should be known to almost all modern music fans: After the Civil War white planters moved into the area south of Memphis and cleared huge areas for cotton plantations.   Slavery was now unconstitutional, but Delta planters still used African Americans for field labor, and those laborers were kept in a state of quasi-slavery. BUT- and this was important- the economic circumstances of the Delta area meant that African American field laborers did pretty ok by the standards of the time, and there was mobility- the spread of plantation agriculture meant that labor was always in demand.

   From this new found mobility and relative economic well being, musicians were able to travel between plantations and ply their art form.  What is funny, and this is a fact that Barlow gives short shrift to, is that we probably wouldn't know ANYTHING about the Blues without the records that were released in the 20s and 30s.  This is because of the 30 year gap between the blues recordings of the 20s and 30s and the post World War II blues revival.  Basically, all Blues history consists of people listening to 30-50 year old recordings and then trying to reconstruct how it went down.  Make no mistake, Blues records sold before the Great Depression laid waste to the record business, but white intellectuals didn't hail Blues as a major new art form.  The records came out, black people bought most of them, and then everyone forgot about the Blues until after World War II.

     After World War II academics, intellectuals and fans wrote the history of blues based on the recordings.  From the recordings, these interested individuals were able to go back and locate the still living musicians and from there locate and name artists who either didn't record or whose recordings were "lost" from lack of attention.

  Most of the institutions that supported the spread of blues between 1890 and 1933 were either criminally owned night clubs, gambling dens, houses of prostitution or some combination.  Once the Blues became "known" outside of its historic home in the Mississippi Delta and East Texas, it spread via traveling musicians- generally moving in a band between Atlanta to Chicago, hotspots being Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.

   By the onset of the Great Depression, Blues had established itself as a down market alternative to Jazz, though with little of the white interest and critical acclaim that jazz generated.  And then... nothing.  No records, no books about blues- nothing- until the close of World War II.  

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