Denton music is not dead. It’s not even sick or dying. Yes, it is in a transitional phase of its life, one whose future is unknown, and that is scary. But, it is far from dilapidated. Times seem hard; three venues have closed this year, four if you count last year. It seems like an epidemic or maybe an attack, but in reality it is a string of bad luck and unavoidable life changes. On Monday, over 200 musicians, artists, business owners, activists, and music supporters filled the Denton Arts Council building to discuss our current situation.
This has been a rough year for our venues, but the problems arose not out of lack of support, or from a corrupt corporate city council, led by a Hollywood actor, but from mostly unavoidable personal issues. The first closing, Banter, happened because of retirement. Running a successful business for 15 years takes a toll on a person, and rightfully they have the right to give up the reigns, and step back from the grind. Thank you for years of service. Hailey’s owners made a choice to change their business model from a venue to an arcade. Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios fell victim to a particularly bitter divorce. J&J’s suffered from a business divorce. Both of those venues had experienced so much recent success that they were planning renovations. But, like a ruthless kick to our entertainment balls, it seemed like the music, which was the glue that held many of us together, had melted. Our scene seemed to be falling apart. Where did the music go? Where can it go?
Lack of a venue has never stopped a Dentonite from making music. There has always been a thriving house show scene. And we live in town where the music is so important, that it can be found in very unusual places; beer and growler fills stations, art studios, an indian buffet, taco shops, storage units, a missile silo, and fine dining restaurants. Music hasn’t gone away, it is just not as obvious to find. And that was the central message of this town hall meeting.
At our heart we’ve always been a Do-It-Yourself style town. We are not Austin, or Ft. Worth, or Akran,Ohio. We’re fucking Denton. To quote our local polka philosophers, Brave Combo, “When it’s dark, we find the light, we’re Dentonites! Polka on with all our mights, we’re Dentonites!” The DIY culture is the foundation of what our community clings too, and music is the glue that holds it together. When 200 people show up to discuss our current music situation, it proves that there is an entire community of concern.
While there were almost as many ideas as there were people, we walked away from the three-hour meeting knowing that we are in it together. We need to quit thinking about DIY in the singular, and think about it in the communal. Denton It Yourself. (From here on the “D” in D.I.Y. is for “Denton” and represents our community as a whole).
Nowhere is the DIY mentality more obvious than house shows. This is also the least sustainable, and most potentially dangerous part of the music scene. House venues pop in and out of existence faster than pimples on a pubescent teenager. Houses get damaged and vandalized, there is always a chance of police intervention, and the lack of supervision and law enforcement is a concern to many people. The recent depreciation of official venues has lead to a rise of the unofficial. But, these aren’t all one-off, independent venues. Now, some have united to host the first ever house-show festival. That is the D.I.Y. attitude!
The biggest two holes to fill in our music community to fill are a place for minors, especially high school aged musicians, to safely play and listen to music, and a place that allows music to be weird and extreme. Art is often difficult and controversial. Sometimes self-expression means bleeding, screaming, dissonance, cursing, or nudity. It isn’t always appropriate for all ages, but being an art community means being open to anyone’s expression, and not just what can be played to families on the square.
The need for a communal space, a brick and mortar venue, is still apparent. The moderator of the event, Christopher Cotter of 1919 Hemphill, offered his communal, sober venue as a model to which we can use. This is an interesting idea, which was mostly well received, but the crowd was mostly divided on the issues of alcohol sales and funding. It can’t be denied that there is a big appeal to adults, drinking adult beverages, while responsibly enjoying music. It is also a strong financial revenue for a venue. The current problem is that the remaining bar venues do not want to deal with x-ing the hands of minors and worrying about making sure they stay safe.
Ideas for funding are the hardest to nail down. We live in an era where crowdsourcing is easier than ever, and yes, if everyone in that room contributed a few dollars a month we would have the venue of our dreams…well sorta. Who would run it? Where would it be? Would it be a collectively run non-profit, or a fiscally independent business? If we contribute, how do we know we are getting our money’s worth? Of course, none of these questions were resolved, but it is good that they were at least addressed.
Money is almost always the hardest hurdle to leap over. Prices around the square have skyrocketed. Denton is growing so fast, that investors from all over the world are lining up for their piece of the pie. These inflating prices and foreign investors are symptoms of what seems to be our Denton getting away from us. It seems like we’re fighting the Goliath, gentrification, and it seems like we’re losing. Our venues, our music, was our best, and last, middle finger. “Fuck you World, we’re doing it our way!” Now our voice doesn’t seem as loud, and it seems The Man has put a silly, foam finger over our collective bird. Fuck that. This is our town, our community, and our scene. No one, not Chinese investors, not vindictive ex-wives, not even lack of an official headquarters will stop that.
As a music community, we may have to branch out from our nest on the square. This isn’t the first time music has had to leave its established home. Fry St. was once the Mecca of Denton music. Now, the only venue is a convenience store, The Midway Craft House. The burning down of Fry St didn’t lead to a musical void, but to a complete renovation and rejuvenation. There are areas around town that can be reappropriated, but now the discussion has started. “New ideas require old buildings” panelist/economist/musician Dr. Michael Seman said.
I’m not sure anything was actually solved at yesterday’s meeting. But dozens of people got to speak their mind, and they got a collective ear to hear their concerns and ideas. Several people and groups are already proactive and attempting to solve these problems. Hopefully they networked with others who are attempting similar goals.
Most importantly, Denton Music got its chance to vent and cry. Instead of tearing at each other’s virtual throats with petty bickering over social media, we physically came together to address how to positively move forward in these times of uncertainty. Having an open minded room, filled with creative, passionate people, their problems and disagreements set aside, actively looking to solve a new problem affecting our community, is quintessentially what I love about Denton.
Our eclectic soundtrack has been temporarily turned down, but it is far from muted. No individual is going to save our scene, but collectively we can’t be defeated. We will polka on, forever and for always. Denton It Yourself.