The Houston Press cover story this week is about how indie bands are avoiding Houston after the 2006 incident at Walter's on Washington. I'm not really into the indie music scene, and probably wouldn't be even if I weren't a boring married-with-kids guy, but it's a worthwhile read for anyone who cares about Houston's image. It also contains an interesting assertion that I think needs a closer look:
In bottom-line terms, why does a lively indie scene matter?
It's hard to quantify. One who has tried is Dr. Richard Florida, an author and urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto. Florida has studied the economic value of music scenes in 31 North American cities (Houston not among them), and concluded they are a major component in attracting and keeping creative young people in town, and that often those people go on to create lucrative businesses.
"Music combines with technology and business trends to put these places on the map," Florida writes in his study's conclusion. "It reflects their openness to new ideas, new people and new sounds. If you really want to see entrepreneurs in action, go talk to local musicians."
Florida's study further contends that successful music scenes signal "the rise of regional ecosystems that are not only open to new sounds and new ideas, but have the size, scale and commercial oomph to retain key talent and turn their ideas into global commercial successes. Once music scenes of this scale get going, they produce a logic and momentum of their own and signal that more entrepreneurship is on the way."
While Florida's data, methodology and conclusions are debatable, and his focus somewhat blindered in that it was focused on indie rock, the exodus of a certain type of creative person from Houston is not. For decades, Houston has exported musicians to cities with livelier scenes at a depressingly steady clip, with almost none moving here from elsewhere in return.
As Florida points out in one of his studies, Win Butler founded the Arcade Fire in Montreal after moving from Houston. We also lost Greg Ashley and Jolie Holland to San Francisco, where their recordings have won attention from fans and critical notice all over the world. We lost Mando Saenz to Nashville and Hayes Carll to Austin, and each of their latest recordings made at least a dent in the national psyche this year. And those are just some of the more famous ones -- every band in Austin seems to have a couple of exiled Houstonians in it.
And then there are the people who are simply music fans. How many one-time fixtures at places like Rudyard's, Mary Jane's or the Proletariat have now decamped to Austin, San Francisco and New York? Maybe most of them were just slackers, but surely at least a few have gone on to prosper.
On the flip side, how many recent college grads from other parts of the country turn up their noses at even the prospect of coming to Houston sight unseen? In many of their minds, Houston is a cousin city to Coketown in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a town populated by and solely for Gradgrind-like engineers and scientists where facts and statistics must always trump fancy and the spirit of bohemia. Given a choice of moving to, say, Seattle, or Houston at the same salary adjusted to local cost of living, how many would choose Houston? The question answers itself.
Music matters, and, like it or not, the music that matters most to a great many young, educated new entrants into the workforce is indie rock. And that scene in Houston is definitely ailing.