Who's Got the Hootie?
Comparing Austin' and Dallas' 1995 Output
Fri., Jan. 19, 1996
Edie Brickell always seemed harmless enough. What she and the New Bohemians may have lacked in soul, they seemed to make up for with charm. But since Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars shot up and down the charts in 1988, Dallas' music scene has found nothing charming about living in the shadows of Ms. Brickell & Co.'s high-profile failure. It wasn't the first time, and certainly won't be the last, that bad management, naïveté, and the sophomore jinx cut a band's future down at the knees. But if you believe Dallas radio veteran Redbeard, who helped start the New Bohemians phenomenon at his heritage AOR powerhouse Q-102, Brickell's case was pivotal not only because it failed to usher in the major-label signing frenzy for Dallas/Denton/Fort Worth acts that many had hoped for, but also because it left an otherwise vibrant scene stillborn.
"It was viewed industry-wide as a big money-wasting, high-profile grabbing, highly frustrating debacle," says Redbeard. "So ultimately, her success and quick demise set the scene back five or six years. And I believe we've only just come out of it in the last 18 months." And while Dallas' music scene hasn't yet produced a Hootie-sized hit capable of overshadowing its reputation for self-titled prime-time soaps, the Cowboys, and a certain book depository, its reputation for respectably selling, major-label music has indeed received a dramatic facelift over the last 18 months. The recent album sales figures and road and radio success of "Big D" bands such as the Toadies, Deep Blue Something, Tripping Daisy, Hagfish, Jackopierce, the Nixons, and Brutal Juice are just now beginning to point to something much bigger than a scene; they point to a market where the right mix of live play, sly management, initially independent records, and airplay is combining for statistics that major-label A&R representatives can no longer overlook. Interscope A&R-man Ray Santamaria, who signed both the Toadies and Brutal Juice, says Dallas is now a place where "you don't have to ask what they've produced, remember Edie Brickell, and wonder why you're flying in and see some band."
Ironically enough, those flights have, over the last few years, more often than not, wound up in Austin, as A&R reps were content to catch Dallas bands at their SXSW showcases. Still, Dallas' sneaky turnaround may actually be a valuable learning tool for the scene Dallasites have long stood in the shadows of and closely watched for cues: Austin's. With major-label and "big-indie" debuts due from Magneto USA, Storyville, Prescott Curlywolf, Hamell on Trial, Spoon, Alejandro Escovedo, and perhaps the Ugly Americans, as well as pivotal follow-ups from Sincola and Chris Duarte, 1996 could finally be the year the fabled Dallas-Austin rivalry actually comes to a head.
Surprisingly though, most artists, radio programmers, managers, and record company executives from both Austin and Dallas interviewed for this story contend they were already curious about the other city not because of the inherent competition, but rather because they thought the slew of signings might just hold the insider trading tip necessary for a leg up, not just for themselves or their own hometown, but for Texas as a whole. A united Texas music industry? Not quite. But certainly there are lessons to be learned by examining 1995 from both sides of the Dallas/Austin fence. Even Cowboys go to Training Camp Well, before Dallas had its "Big 7" major-label acts -- or its three latest signees: Vibrolux (Atlas/Polydor), Tablet (Mercury), and Ugly Mustard (Relativity) -- the scene had already begun its reconstruction. By 1993, Dallas had entered into a phase of dramatic resurgence in both the number of live music venues and local indie releases. As such, of the 10 acts currently signed to major labels, all had released at least one independent record, and at the minimum had developed reasonably impressive draws both at home and on selective regional touring circuits. And while these facts in themselves don't differ greatly from any major music market's textbook groundwork, it's how Dallas artists were able to transfer local success to national interest that's become the city's real story.
"What I've found in Dallas are bands that have built up local followings, made records, toured and received airplay virtually on their own," says Interscope's Santamaria. "For myself, what matters is the music and then that the band doesn't care about pinning all their hopes on me as the A&R guy or the label as a sales vehicle. I'm looking for bands that are still going to be bands if I dropped them tomorrow. It's not so much about do-it-yourself in the old punk way, but do-it-yourself in the practical way that they'll always have a fan base and reason to keep on playing, even if a major-label deal is a disaster. Bands should want a deal because it gives them reach to continue to do what they do as a band, not because they're focused on immediate MTV or radio play. When I get really nice demos from bands that have never played a live show, I'm immediately suspicious. When I hear a band like Brutal Juice had been touring a year before I'd heard of them, I become immediately more interested."
In fact, one of the primary keys to Dallas' success appears to be how centralized many of the artists have kept their business affairs. With in-house management, booking, and record-release capabilities, most of the now major-label artists were able to play, tour, and release local records simultaneously, with each end feeding the success of another. Insiders point to the local management and booking team of Mike Swinford and Paul Nugent (214 Entertainment) as proof that in-house operations can be both profitable and safe. Nugent and Swinford's label operation, RainMaker Records, initially released Deep Blue Something's Home, keeping the three sides of their business in-house while also reaping the benefits of initial independent local record sales and the payday of selling the record to Interscope for a major re-release. Swinford and Nugent, who also book and manage the Nixons (MCA) and new Dallas radio favorites Adam's Farm and Quickserve Johnny, say their business grew into a label when giving away the fruits of successful touring didn't seem to make sense. "I wish I could say it was all a plan from day one, but when we found our acts doing well at home and on the road, the label thing grew out of necessity," says Nugent. "We thought, `Why give this to somebody else?'"
Nugent and Company are the latest talk of Dallas, mostly because the Interscope re-release of Home is expected to be declared Gold (sales of 500,000) this week on the strength of its first and only single thus far, the infectious "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Harmless and passionless, Deep Blue Something may indeed be Dallas' answer to Hootie & the Blowfish. Already, the backlash has begun, with the influential radio-trade publication Hits offering up the uncharacteristically negative question of whether Deep Blue Something's success "was about a song or an artist." Dallas Observer music critic Robert Wilonsky doesn't seem to care, concluding in his own year-end column that "Deep Blue Something is terrible no matter how popular they become." So how does terrible music, which is, granted, terribly catchy, make for great business?
"RainMaker put us on a farm team approach and it paid off," says Deep Blue's Todd Pipes. "By booking and managing us, they put us at a level regionally that when it came time to make a record we could go in with confidence and the luxury of knowing it would be at least well received for our small level. And by releasing it ourselves, without the interference of a major label, we were able to spend a tenth of what a major-label record might cost while maintaining the quality, and still having money left over we could combine with the profits to apply back into the other aspects of career, like additional touring."
When Dallas acts do give their independent records to someone else it's usually to an in-house operation of a different sort, like Crystal Clear Sound. With a hand in almost everything but management and booking, the Dallas-based Crystal Clear owns and operates a recording studio, mastering facility, cassette duplication plant, and distribution system for regional artists. Typically, Crystal Clear sells its services outright, although they also may enter into agreements with local bands where production costs are recouped on a licensing agreement that gives Crystal Clear the rights to the records for up to five years.
And the local advantage of Crystal Clear? Paulos does so much business -- an astonishing one million CDs and one million cassettes a year -- that his manufacturing costs are possibly the best in Texas, giving young, unsigned bands the potential for quality, releasable product to be ultimately distributed by Crystal Clear's distribution arm, which has connections in high-volume markets like BlockBuster Music, Hastings, and Best Buy. Upping the ante even further, '95 marked the start-up of Paulos' own label imprint, Steve, for Dallas artists like 66 and Funland -- bands he wants to develop without the confusion of the Crystal Clear co-op deals. So for a band like Funland -- which lost a major-label deal with Arista early last year and are now looking to rebuild locally -- or more often, for a new artist, Crystal Clear potentially offers something valuable to show the labels; product and sales figures.
"If there's any real trend in the industry, it's that the majors are looking more and more at independent sales figures," says Paulos. "Recording has become so affordable that there is no excuse for not having something to sell. And then, what the majors want to know is how it sold." Heard It on the X Traditionally, the best avenue for spurring album sales and creating yet another statistic to show to interested major labels is airplay. And radio has meant so much to Dallas' rise that even under the facade of an "everybody wins" smile, three radio stations (KEGL, KDGE, and Q102) have been involved in public pissing matches over who "made" the Toadies, Deep Blue Something, and Tripping Daisy. And with radio being the competitive business that it is, and the inherent risk of losing listeners by sandwiching an unknown local between U2 and Pearl Jam tracks, it's come as somewhat of a surprise that Dallas radio would play Dallas music at all, let alone in heavy rotations. And to fight about who did it first? Nobody, including Redbeard, ever thought it would come to that.
"Radio's played an important and exciting role in Dallas' success," says Redbeard. "but to fight about it and thump your chests about making a band doesn't help anyone. We don't write the songs, sing 'em, give them places to play, front money, develop careers, or move back in with our parents, we just make space for them on a playlist because we believe if the song's good enough to stand up to the rest of the playlist, listeners will embrace it. The arguing is too bad because we proved local music on local radio can be a win-win for everybody. The CDs sell, the concerts sell out, and we've seen the ratings go up."
Sony A&R representative Teresa La Barbara-White, who's based in Dallas, also zeroes in on local radio play. "Deep Blue Something had a bona fide pop hit that management, radio, and eventually Interscope knew could crossover to alternative markets as well," she says. "Their set-up was well organized and part of that was making a record cheaply and independently, and having money left over to bolster promotion and tour. This shows that independent radio promotion is a great way to use that money and parlay it into sales and a deal, but after, however, many SXSW panels on the subject, people generally still don't get that spending all your money on a CD and leaving nothing left over to promote it is a bad idea."
But recently, several Dallas managers report that it seems like just making a CD with the songs firmly in place may be good enough for radio promotion in Dallas, simply because none of the stations want to miss the boat on the next Deep Blue Something. Steve's Funland and Ardent Records' Spot have been the latest recipients of heavy cross-station airplay, although at least two of the three big Dallas stations say they're also concentrating on continuing their support of Hagfish, Tablet, the Nixons, Ugly Mustard, and even Brutal Juice, hoping to attract the national kudos for being the first to chart success as much as they are hoping to beat their local competitors. In any event, says Dallas manager Scott Robinson (Little Sister), the openness of the airwaves can only benefit the bands themselves. "The bands that have the big local draws are getting the most attention, but everyone wants to be the one that picks up the next young and promising band with the great song another station may be overlooking. It's simply great for everybody."
Interscope's Brutal Juice is a band that considers any airplay a luxury; their abrasive, semi-industrial Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult is so radio-unfriendly that its first single was called "Kentucky Fuck Daddy." But in the tour-'til-it-breaks tradition of Pantera, Nine Inch Nails, or Korn, Brutal Juice contends they're happy with their Interscope deal because not only has their draw doubled in markets they'd previously visited independently, but also because they're stretching out to new national markets and finding the promotion work already done.
"When we toured with the X-Cops and GWAR, we'd show up at venues and read papers that wouldn't mention the headliners and knew about us," says Brutal Juice's Ted Wood. "Best of all, our posters were hanging in the clubs when we'd arrive, attracting interest that the headliners didn't have because Metal Blade doesn't have the support staff that an Interscope can offer."
This is as it should be, says Interscope's Santamaria, since it's the same game plan he used for pushing the Toadies' record into the gold. And although Santamaria says he's up front about his plans to keep the band on the road so they can build up their fan base -- eventually calling for radio and MTV support from that amassed fan base -- he admits the risk behind this formula can be in frustrating the bands, like the Toadies' discouragement last year when they believed their record looked dead in the water after nine months on the shelves.
"It takes a measured and calculated pace to break a band that's looking for
longevity," says Santamaria, who admits the Toadies turned him on to Brutal
Juice by taking him to a 1994 SXSW showcase. "But the more you come back to
towns and the better you do each time, the better the record's going to sell
behind an eventual push. As long as we know we're doing everything we can as a
label, we're setting ourselves up for the kind of `I told you so' we got to
give the Toadies. Brutal Juice knows when they're on the road they'll only have
to worry about playing, not eating, and we both know at these paces were not
building an overnight sensation like the Presidents Of The United States of
America that won't have staying power. Brutal Juice is building towards
longevity on the road."
The (Local) Mighty
Have Fallen So what's happening with Austin's major- label contingency? Everything and nothing. While Dallas' artists are on the charts in the trade publications, Austin artists are more likely to be found in the gossip columns between charts, announcing signings, droppings, and label shake-ups that could affect their releases. And although the influx of signed acts with debuts in 1996 is good news for Austin, of the four major-label records released last year, Ian Moore's Modern Day Folklore, Charlie Sexton's Under the Wishing Tree, Chris Duarte's Texas Sugar/Strat Magik, and Sincola's What the Nothinghead Said, only Duarte's was an unqualified success, selling over 100,000 copies in the comparatively narrow blues-rock field. As such, it's easy to imagine labels taking a Santamaria-style approach with their Austin bands: putting bands on the road for two years and taking a wait-and-see stance.
Cutbacks of key personnel at Capricorn are too recent to fully gauge what it might mean for Ian Moore, but even with a regional touring base and a booking agent capable of getting him high-profile regional gigs (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan), insiders say Capricorn can't be pleased that Moore's second effort sold noticeably fewer copies than his debut of two years ago. Faring far worse, though, was Charlie Sexton, who along with MCA, couldn't translate generally favorable press into record sales or live audiences. Sexton lost his MCA deal last month, although the same insiders who question Moore's handling say part of the blame should lie with MCA and their push of Sexton to a rock radio market, rather than the more appropriate (but less glamorous) adult alternative audience.
As for Sincola and their debut on the major-indie Caroline, both the label and band seem happy with sales pushing just over the 10,000 mark. Sincola drummer Terri Lord says her back surgery and the lack of a booking agent threw a wrench in the band's touring schedule last year and thus became album-sales roadblocks, but adds that both situations have been dealt with and their upcoming release should come into the world without such handicaps. Sincola, though, does appear to have something many local artists don't: complete label commitment -- their A&R representative has actually moved up the corporate ladder at Caroline to a new post as director of A&R and director of operations. Silvertone representatives also report being pleasantly surprised with the payoff of Chris Duarte's constant road work, resulting in consistent Billboard Blues Chart placement. In fact, the label only recently stopped promoting the record, conceding the small contemporary blues niche to Louisiana SRV disciple Kenny Wayne Shepard and contending that Duarte's March return to the studio will best set them up to retrieve their spot by summer.
So with Dallas records either making notable national sales and radio inroads or visibly building foundations, why then were Austin records seemingly less successful last year? One popular theory says that, save Sincola, the three aforementioned Austin entries were generally blues or traditional AOR-based fare, a genre whose marketplace was cut severely by the likes of alternative artists such as Alanis Morissette, Bush, and Silverchair. Yet another popular theory is that the sheer number of bands in Austin paired with a smaller population make it tough for any one artist to achieve the local sales often necessary to attract label attention. In a metropolis the size of Dallas, with fewer bands releasing records, it's easier to post big numbers that will impress a label.
Whichever theory you choose, the news of nine potential Austin releases before summer, including six debuts, is good news based on the numbers alone. If, in a worst-case scenario, each label were only to do the minimum and throw the product out to the marketplace, sheer numbers alone would increase the odds of one artist sticking. But according to the artists and managers with those upcoming debut releases, the perception of an "Austin curse" and the news of last year's Austin and Dallas sales figure discrepancies makes everyone just a bit more wary of entering major-label deals -- subsequently forcing them to ask the greater promotional, marketing, publicity, and radio questions that often go unasked in the face of major label dreams.
"It takes a while to find a deal that feels comfortable," concedes local manager Mark Proct, who recently ended a long Storyville shopping spree by inking a deal with Atlantic. "A deal is not judged by the number of zeros, records, or years, but by the initial levels of comfort and belief that the label and artists are on the same page concerning the kind of record an artist wants to deliver. So although Storyville's make-up is of a higher average age than most new bands and they have the experience to walk into a deal clearer than most, we still felt that establishing them to radio and retail with the record on the smaller November Records was a way to remain competitive in the search for a deal that would meet our needs. Atlantic understands Storyville, and to top it off is on a great roll and feels good about themselves after selling 12 million Hootie records."
Proct also says Doyle Bramhall, Jr.'s debut should be out on Geffen by summer, a deal he says makes sense after the label supported Bramhall in the aftermath of the Arc Angel's messy break-up. Add the hopes for that record, a follow-up to Jimmie Vaughan's debut (which moved an impressive 225,000 copies) and a new Eric Johnson record sometime this year, and the Austin guitar hotshot category looks like a fairly safe sales bet. But according to most A&R representatives interviewed, the most promising, and subsequently high-risk section of this year's Austin major-label contingent, are the alternative artists -- nearly equal in numbers to Dallas' 1994-1995 output. It's no news flash that radio, now more than ever, is alternative music centered.
"The majority of the bands coming out of Austin this year are alternative," says Austin-based Mercury A&R representative Ruth Richards, who brought Prescott Curlywolf and Hamell on Trial to the label. "Since it's the fastest growing format, there's more avenues for them to succeed. So with the right promotion and marketing, bands like Spoon and Prescott have a real shot."
But what is the right promotion and marketing, and better yet, what guarantees a band they'll receive it even when it's promised? In November, Giant Records began pressing advance CDs of the Ugly American's debut, Stereophonic Spanish Fly, a good initial indication of the generous promotional push to come. With the band's extensive road work (H.O.R.D.E and Dave Matthews) and Hootie producer Don Gehman at the helm, Stereophonic... had the groundwork laid for a potential radio hit. However, when controversial Sony veteran Missy Worth landed at Giant in late November, one of her first moves at establishing a new identity for the label was expressing her disinterest in the Ugly Americans. The band was then given clearance to shop for other deals. And although major-label release of the record looks highly likely given Gehman's track record, The Ugly Americans now face a setback of not only uncertain down time, but in building a fresh relationship with a new label complete with new promises.
"It's a very funny time, not just for Austin bands, in that the recent shake-ups at almost every label leave a merger-mania climate of who's-on-first proportions," says Ugly Americans' manager Mark Bliesener. "There's so much general confusion that the A&R, marketing, and promotion promises made upon signing are often not worth the paper they're printed on. Any deal's always a gamble, but with the confusion they all become critical now. So, unfortunately, the music winds up taking a back seat to the lawyers and beancounters listening to a new guard with different agendas."
On the other side of the equation is a situation like the quick signing of Magneto USA to Hollywood records. Hollywood, a Disney subsidiary, has just come out of a rebuilding period, which means a negligible track record but an understood intention of throwing Disney money into creating a credibility-building hit. Even before papers were signed, Hollywood had matched the band with red-hot producer Jerry Fin (Green Day, Rancid, Pennywise) for pre-production on their Boomerang debut, due April 2. For Magneto's Miles Zuniga, the relatively quick courting, signing, and recording process signaled Hollywood's commitment at coming out of the box strong -- not to mention the label's belief that the band was ready.
"We felt we were ready to make a record, didn't want to wait, and were lucky enough to be found by an A&R guy we genuinely liked who also believed in our ability to turn around a record he'd like," says Zuniga. "When this felt so right, there wasn't any reason to wait around for a bidding war. Because often when the smoke clears you're in no better position than the next guy. Bidding-war bands flop all the time."
The notion that nearly all of Austin's upcoming debut artists have released independent records, built local followings, and toured at least regionally would seemingly bode well for the class of '96. But ironically, in the time that much of the Dallas scene has jumped to the major-label level, industry insiders claim to be noticing the relative value of the independent record and extensive touring declining.
"It used to be the bands like an Ugly Americans or Soulhat, who had done their groundwork would mean more," says Bliesener. "Three years ago we'd show independent sales of our Big Head Todd to the labels and they'd be amazed at the numbers, so that we got to a point where everybody that's competing has done their homework is great, but now it's the norm and therefore means less."
Manager Marc Proct agrees, contending that even Soulhat, who had successfully built a strong regional following in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arkansas college markets, somehow didn't seem bulked-up enough in the eyes of Epic to warrant the type of major-label push the band's colleagues like Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root, or Phish received in the same general time frame. And although Proct maintains the band's internal frustration with their stagnation prevented them from ever seeing the push he still believes would have come, he also says he never felt Soulhat got the regional sales support the band had seemingly laid the groundwork for either.
"The East Coast bands enjoyed a relationship with Epic that involved the label buying all the records and merchandise and supporting each show," says Proct. "But we never seemed to get the same build-up and treatment a successful regional club draw and independent record seller deserved upon releasing a quality major-label debut."
Even the effects of airplay for Austin bands doesn't seem to be following Dallas' formula. In the case of Soulhat, surprisingly respectable Texas airplay for "Bonecrusher," Good to Be Gone's first single, somehow failed to generate the same late-inning interest Interscope managed with the Toadies. Ian Moore singles from both records were immediately well received by radio statewide, but a Capricorn source says the airplay typically failed to noticeably impact sales figures. And as for the Austin equivalent to a "Breakfast at Tiffany's"-style independent hit, the generous local and state radio attention paid in 1994 to Austin's only comparable independent single, Sincola's "Bitch," may have actually wound up hurting the band's album sales chances when their re-recorded, Caroline take on the song went back out to radio last year.
"In a lot of ways, `Bitch' had already happened at radio here," says Lord. "So when the label made that our first single we didn't expect much locally, and were right, because we didn't get much." Breakfast on the Charts, Dinner in Obscurity? Given that airplay is tough everywhere and the cold hard fact that most records fail to make any money, Dallas' luck seems all the more amazing and Austin's all the more ordinary. Not good or bad, just ordinary. So while Robert Wilonsky correctly warns in his Observer piece, "Don't judge your local music scene by the bands signed to the majors; don't buy into the bullshit myth that mass-market appeal is a signature of quality or recognition of talent," he's wrong not to acknowledge that the excitement of big music-business action inevitably breeds more local talent.
So despite the old myth which states that every A&R rep coming through Austin has their favorite local band, which for whatever reason they never feel justified to sign, 1995 proved to be the year that saw those same A&R hounds finally snag a dozen or so Austin bands, even as Dallas was breaking crossover-alternative-pop talent into the national arena.
"I'm not sure there's a scene per se in Dallas, but there's a lot of good bands," concludes Interscope's Santamaria. "It's ultimately a big city with lots of kids who have been inspired to play music. So if Dallas bands have made it now, it's mostly because the mainstream has caught up and it's their turn to be a part of it. And right now, the one thing I notice about Austin is that there's a tight scene of currently non-commercial musicians who aren't so concerned with getting signed. It's what I like and it's what stands out in Texas." n