For a brief shining moment, San Antonio was the hotspot for indie music in Texas. It was a glorious time, when local alt-rock fans didn’t have to drive at least an hour to see their favorite bands. That moment amounted to a five-week span in the fall of 2006, when Sunset Station brought in several high-profile groups, including Wilco and Kings of Leon.
And then the music died; the Flaming Lips and Spoon are the only big-name alternative bands to play here since. The absence of concerts left those into indie rock wondering, where have all the good shows gone?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” says Thomas Wilson, who runs Scout Bar, one of the few clubs currently booking smaller alt-rock gigs on a regular basis. “It’s the reputation of the town. Like it or not, people associate San Antonio and metal. It’s slowly changing. It’s just going to take awhile.
“I think that San Antonio — and don’t take this the wrong way — is considered a secondary market in the booking world. It doesn’t compare to Houston and Dallas, and being so close to Austin doesn’t help, either.”
Now wait a minute. According to the latest census estimates, San Antonio is much bigger than Austin — nearly twice as large with a population of 1.3 million compared to 750,000. It’s even bigger than Dallas, excluding its surrounding Metroplex.
And multi-platinum selling alt-rockers have been avoiding San Antonio like Ozzy does the Alamo suggesting that, when it comes to booking a gig, size isn’t everything. In 2007, the hugely popular White Stripes rocked out in barely visited Canadian hamlets of Iqualuit, Nunavut; Glace Bay, Nova Scotia; and St. John’s, Newfoundland and haven’t set foot on a San Antonio stage. Population of the entire 770,000 square mile area of Nunavut is less than the bustling figure of 30,000 people.
With what appears to be a built-in audience, especially considering S.A’s several universities and respectable median age (31.7, comparable to Houston’s 30.9 and Dallas’s 30.5) , it comes down to the venues. There are plenty of smaller venues capable of accomodating less than 1,000 ticket holders, such as the White Rabbit, Limelight, and Scout Bar. And while the latter’s schedule includes several familiar alt-rock names such as Phantom Planet, Cobra Starship, and Presidents of the United States of America, these bands won’t draw the crowds or attention of heavyweights like Wilco or Spoon.
For mid-sized venues, promoters have the option of Sunken Gardens, Live Oak Civic Center, the Municipal Auditorium, and Sunset Station. The first two require promoters to bring in their own sound gear, driving the cost and risk associated with a concert higher. And the Municipal is a seated venue, which can be a problem for music acts looking for a more interactive show.
That leaves Sunset Station as one of the only feasible venues for a mid-size indie rock crowd — up to 4,500 ticket-holders. Next highest on the list is Freeman Coliseum, capable of containing 11,700 fans, requiring bands and their promoters to draw a much larger crowd in order to make a profit.
“When you go from places like Scout Bar to Sunset, you really don’t have an in-between venue,” says Erica Vigliante, co-owner of concert promotion company Twin Productions. “A lot of shows are lost due to the fact that there is no place to put a 1,500-cap band. Sunset `Station` might be too big, and the Scout Bar might be too small.”
The alt-rock scene took a step backward in 2006, when Live Nation bought out the House of Blues, the company formerly contracted for booking events at Sunset Station, including a lot of the alt-rock concerts.
Sunset Station used to book upward of 100 shows a year, but, since dropping its contract with Live Nation, the venue now schedules concerts infrequently. That leaves promoters the option of taking the risk of staging concerts at the larger Lone Star Pavilion venue or taking the show elsewhere.
“It’s hard that House of Blues and Live Nation combined now, because I think it’s lost a bit of an edge,” says Terri Toennies, general manager of Sunset Station. “House of Blues could bring in those 1,500-to-2,000 people, classic-size venue shows that you’re talking about.”
There are those in San Antonio who still keep the indie dream alive. Erica Vigliante makes it a point to book alt-rock shows whenever feasible through her Twin Productions, a company she runs with Veronyka Mezquiti. While Vigliante organizes a high percentage of metal dates to pay the bills, these allow her to take the risk with left-of-center acts such as Muse, the Presets, and even Fall Out Boy, one of her most successful alt-rock concerts to date.
“I think people are going to go to these shows if they come here,” Vigliante says. “But that is, if they come here. That’s the problem.”
And there’s the other side: Many of those personally involved in local music see the city’s under-the-radar status as a potentially good thing.
“The more DIY punk way of looking at it is, ‘Who needs ‘em?’” says Jeff DeCuir of local synth-pop band Hyperbubble. “I’m probably speaking more from a musician’s point of view than that of a frequent show-goer — however, it may encourage local bands to create and promote shows from the bottom up, and in the process, cultivate their own audience.”
San Antonio show-goers can respond to local and national acts of several genres, Vigliante says, but many national booking agents still consider the city a major metal, classic, and hardcore rock destination and not much else.
“What’s sad is that we’ll do a band like Of Montreal, and it almost sells out the White Rabbit,” Vigliante says. “Of course, in Austin it would be 2,000 people. A lot of agents are like, ‘Why go to this market when it’s only 1,000?’ when `what` they don’t understand is, they could probably do both.”
“Veronyka and I have sent them email after email saying, ‘Bring us these shows,’” she continues. “’Bring us Ladytron. Bring us Death Cab for Cutie. We can sell them.’ The frustrating thing is, they really haven’t given us a chance.” •