Is the Net Neutrality Repeal Another Blow to Tex-Mex Musicians and Broadcasters?
Bidi bidi bom bom
Last December, the Federal Communications Commission, led by President Donald Trump's chairman designee Ajit Pai, voted 3-2 to reverse previous President Barack Obama's net neutrality rules, which prohibited internet service providers – the companies users pay to access the world wide web – from blocking content, throttling speeds, or charging extra fees for faster internet lanes. The repeal took effect June 11 despite outcry from free internet advocates, a Democratic push to overturn the decision, and even state efforts to ensure equal access to all web content.
Within the music industry, ISPs charging higher fees for streaming and social media access could prove a huge impediment for independent artists and businesses, especially those in non-mainstream genres. In Austin, a pair of Texas-rooted styles, Tejano and conjunto, depend on net neutrality. Can they overcome this obstacle as they've done with a whole series of adversities that have kept the music in danger of local extinction for more than a decade?
Piper LeMoine and Baldomero Frank Cuellar run Rancho Alegre Radio, a homegrown, preservationist nonprofit that recently staged its fifth annual conjunto festival at Stubb's (revisit "Playback: Strictly Conjunto," May 11). Beginning in 2013 with the digitalization of vintage vinyl and artist interviews, they later hosted a Tex-Mex show on KOOP 91.7FM for almost two years until 2017. The two wrote a letter to the FCC in November detailing how the internet saved the genre from disappearing after the loss of terrestrial Tejano radio stations here in the early 2000s.
"A lot of the people that are either musicians in the genre or that own online radio stations – or just fans – need to know this could affect them," says LeMoine.
Born in Central and South Texas, Tejano belongs to a group of American music genres that includes conjunto and orquesta. Those three types are commonly grouped as Tex-Mex due to their origin among Mexican-American communities. Founded in the Seventies, Tejano – complete with synthesizers and rock, R&B, and country influences – peaked in popularity two decades later when Selena Quintanilla, "The Queen of Tejano," Emilio Navaira, and David Lee Garza reached nationwide success. At that juncture, Tejano and conjunto radio stations thrived throughout almost every city in Texas.
Then the FCC passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, among other things, allowed the ownership of multiple media businesses by a person or corporation. Suddenly, locally owned radio stations of all genres sold out to big conglomerates. Most suffered minimal format changes with new ownership, but Tejano stations didn't get off so easy.
"These companies bought the Tejano frequencies and changed the format to another Spanish-language genre," says LeMoine. "They either changed to Norteño or Mexican regional, and for some reason they felt the existing audience wouldn't know the difference. Like, 'It's in Spanish, after all.'"
In 1996, at least 10 radio stations broadcast Tejano or conjunto in Austin, according to media reports. By the mid-2000s, that number totaled zero. The genre returned to the airwaves in 2007 through KOKE 1600AM, which is nowadays the only Tejano terrestrial station in Austin.
"Unfortunately, Tejano music rarely receives the national attention it deserves," attests Gary Hartman, director of Texas State University's Center for Texas Music History. "For most of the past two centuries, [Tex-Mex] has mostly been limited to Mexican-American and Latin American audiences. Other than a few brief periods, Tejano has not been adequately recognized by the mainstream media."
Joe Morales sits behind the microphone in a small North Austin studio.
"You're listening to KOKE 1600AM, the best of Tejano music in town," he announces at the start of his 3-6pm daily shift.
Logging more than 20 years in Tejano radio, Morales' deep voice has become a symbol of Tex-Mex music in Texas. He's experienced the genre's ups and downs. As KOKE's general manager, he works with the station's owner, Joe Garcia.
Both are aware of net neutrality's repeal, but their station's internet presence remains minimal. KOKE doesn't stream its signal or even have a website. A Facebook group page is the frequency's only online portal.
Sticking to a traditional radio business model has worked well for KOKE. Despite scoring fewer than two rating points, they enjoy a loyal audience among Hispanic Austinites for several decades now, although they struggle to reach a younger population. And that's not because new generations don't listen to Tejano music, but because most of them simply don't own an AM radio receiver.
"I told some of my friends and fans, 'I'm doing an interview at KOKE,'" recounts Tejano singer Ashley Borrero. "And they're like, 'Where can we listen, where can we stream it?' I told them, 'Well, you can't.'"
Being an AM endeavor means KOKE's reach is limited and its signal prone to interference.
"There are some parts of town where you can't listen to it," concurs LeMoine. "That's where streaming would help them."
At a time when the ownership of radio receivers among 18-to-34-year-olds has decreased from 94% in 2008 to 68% in 2016, an online strategy would seem like the obvious next step to any radio station. For Garcia, it doesn't make much sense.
"Our listenership tends to be an older audience," he says. "People are [streaming radio] because they believe that's where the technology is headed, but it hasn't gotten there. If you see the Grammys, they always say the same thing: 'Listen to radio.' They never say, 'Listen to the internet.' They congratulate radio stations for helping promote the music."
Garcia's family helped pioneer Hispanic radio in Texas. His father, Jose Jaime Garcia Sr., began broadcasting locally in 1952 and debuted Austin's first Spanish-only radio station in 1976, KMXX 102.3FM, which now plays hip-hop as the Beat KPEZ. His son witnessed the millennial media grab of such commerce firsthand.
"The mega-operators here in Texas decided there was more money to be made on Mexican-language radio stations," says Garcia. "They saw it because you go to a Tejano dance and the price is $10 to $15. But you go to a Mexican dance and it's $35 to $45. So it was that derogative – 'If people are willing to pay more, then we can get more' – they focused on."
All at once, Texas-born genres competed with Mexican regional, Norteño, and Latin pop. And not only in Texas, but nationwide and in Mexico. When Garcia founded the Encino Broadcasting company in 2007 with the purpose of repurchasing KOKE from Border Media Partners, the conglomerate that acquired the station four years earlier, several web-based stations had begun to attract a Tejano fan base.
"It's a micro audience for them," shrugs Garcia. "They've tried to put up events and all have failed. When we do an event, it's usually a big event, like what we do at the rodeo. There were 1,200 one night and 1,500 the next night. It was packed."
While ratings are important, KOKE's executives measure success by music event attendance and revenue from their advertisers, which include Latino nightclubs, restaurants, attorneys, and mechanic garages.
"For advertisers, our product happens to be Tejano, and we're the only chocolate bar in the marketplace," offers Morales.
Last year, KOKE restructured. They moved to their new studios on Parkfield Drive and are in the process of acquiring a translator to broadcast in FM. Opening up to the internet isn't officially part of their plans yet.
"Radio stations in general may be dying out," allows Hartman, a music historian. "Switching over to the internet isn't necessarily a negative thing. In fact, you can reach a global audience that way. So, the internet could actually expand the market for Tejano."
Late one night in 2007, Mike Borrero stopped by his tuxedo store in Southeast Austin. He and his friend and then-employee Manny Vasquez needed to finish work for some Mike's Formal Wear customers. They wanted to do it the way they always had, to the rhythm of Tejano music. Problem was, the last remaining Tejano music station in Austin, KTXZ 1560AM, had been taken off the air a few months before following a slow process dating back to 2004.
Dozens of Tejano music stations disappearing proved the single biggest blow to the genre, whose decline began with Selena's murder in 1995. Tejano artists tried their luck with Norteño or country, while publicists and agents abandoned them to represent musicians of more popular genres. Consequently, mainstream media stopped covering Tejano.
The internet came to the rescue.
"Hey, Manny," said Borrero that night. "You're a deejay, right? You have lots of Tejano music. Why don't we start our own radio station on the internet?"
At that point, online radio registered more listeners in the U.S. than satellite radio, HD radio, and podcasts combined, according to a 2007 Bloomberg report. As mobile devices proliferated, web stations became cheap and easy to start up and maintain. Borrero and Vasquez founded PureTejanoRadio.com not only to give Tejano music an outlet, but to promote Hispanic businesses.
Borrero still operates PureTejanoRadio.com in the back of his tuxedo shop, surrounded by racks of jackets, ties, and shirts. He streams not only Tejano, but conjunto, cumbias, and other musics under a Tex-Mex umbrella. Two computers, an audio mixer, microphone, and a pair of headphones are all the equipment he needs.
Born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother, Borrero arrived in East Austin at the age of 6 months. Half a century later, when he's not fixing a suit or ironing a tuxedo, DJ Tuxedo Mike reps Tex-Mex. Like PureTejanoRadio.com, Tejano web stations arose all over the Lone Star State after terrestrial radio's decline: ChicanoExpress.com, HotTejano.com, CompadresMusic.com, BNetRadio.com. Many exist as a hobby.
"We don't want to make a profit," admits Borrero. "We just want to share this music. We want to bring people in and help them to rediscover Tejano music. We do it for free, out of our pocket, for passion."
In order to broadcast, an online radio station requires a computer, an internet connection with decent bandwidth, and a streaming service such as Radio.co, Virtual DJ, or SAM Broadcaster, whose subscription rates range from free to $99 a month. Borrero and Vasquez spend around $250 a month to keep PureTejanoRadio.com online, including the internet bill and the broadcaster subscription. Since they don't turn a profit, no royalties are levied on the music they stream.
Their station streams on the website, but the TuneIn app – for mobile devices – is the main way people listen. In almost a decade, PureTejanoRadio.com has accrued 90,000 followers on TuneIn.
"Internet radio has helped Tejano music because it allows new artists to emerge, and even old artists that we haven't heard from," says Vasquez. "Music is still being produced, and it's still moving, especially when it's not a mainstream genre anymore. You don't get that help from mainstream radio."
Borrero's partner in Tex-Mex is the tech behind PureTejanoRadio.com. He works IT for a medical nonprofit full time, then becomes DJ Rysk for a web audience in his free time. Vasquez is aware that the net neutrality repeal could affect PureTejanoRadio.com, but he and Borrero say they're willing to keep their passion project on-air even if it means paying higher fees themselves.
"All musical genres are constantly evolving as they absorb other influences and as audience tastes and technology change," weighs in Hartman. "Tejano is still quite popular throughout Texas, but mainly within the Mexican-American community. Most Anglo Texans and others are not very aware of it. However, it has risen to prominence a few times in the past and will probably do so again."
Bidi Bidi Banda
Ashley Borrero is Mike Borrero's daughter, a young performer whose career basically depends on social media. She's been singing since 2011, after winning a local "Tejano Idol" contest and joining the Angel Gonzalez y Vimana band as a backup singer. Three years later, she formed Ashley Borrero & the Boys.
The only way one can listen to her songs is through digital platforms and on her own website. Moreover, Borrero knows people won't find her on Spotify or YouTube without previous exposure. She also says the only way to invite people to her live performances is through online radio and social media announcements.
"They haven't played my music on the [Tejano] AM radio station we have here in Austin," she admits. "Austin performers have it even harder, because there are [terrestrial] Tejano radio stations, but most of them are in Houston, Dallas, Corpus, and San Antonio. But I've had a couple of people from online radio stations just today reaching out to me and saying, 'Hey, email us your new song and we will start playing it for you.'"
Stephanie Bergara inadvertently started up Bidi Bidi Banda by inviting some Tejano musicians to join her for a one-time celebration of Selena. The future frontwoman posted a picture of herself dressed up as the late singer on Instagram and generated massive interest among the fan base. Four years of celebrating Selena's legacy now counts as one of Austin's most popular acts.
"Without the internet, it would have been impossible for it to take off," she acknowledges.
Whereas Borrero builds web strategies for an online content marketing corporation and applies that savvy to her band's social media, Bergara's worked as a booking agent, manager, and publicist for bands. That knowledge helped land Bidi Bidi Banda an Austin Music Award this year as Best Cover/Tribute Band and an official showcase during South by Southwest. They've also been featured in a PBS documentary.
"The Tejano music community could stand to pay a lot more attention to mainstream marketing trends," says Bergara. "The original theory behind promoting Tejano music is stuck in the Nineties. Technology and social media aren't going anywhere. If we don't accept that and take advantage of it, then Tejano music will die."
If new internet fees arise from the net neutrality repeal, Bidi Bidi Banda will cover them, but Bergara and Ashley Borrero agree it would constitute a dire blow to Tejano.
"Making it more difficult to access Tejano music would only hurt the people who still love Tejano music," insists Bergara. "It would make it even harder to discover. If Tejano music starts to become less affordable, then it does start dying."