By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
He plopped down on one of the rickety chairs on the sidewalk in front of J & J's Pizza with a copy of the Dallas Observer, and after lighting his cigarette, he flipped through its pages. He stopped at North of the Dial.
My ego could barely contain itself.
Why? Because that was the first time I'd actually witnessed a stranger casually reading my column. And I remember that afternoon as clearly as the first time I walked the sidewalks around Denton's Courthouse-on-the-Square, or the first time I explored the rehearsal studios for which Rubber Gloves is named. You never really forget "first" moments like those. Or "lasts," which are hard to forget too—like last weekend's spectacular that was Spune's 2K10 Winter Dance Party at Hailey's, which served as Neon Indian's final gig as Denton locals before moving off to the bright lights of Brooklyn—but that's about all the navel-gazing and waxing nostalgic you'll get from me in this, my final installment of the Dallas Observer's North of the Dial column.
Rather, let's face some facts: In reality, there's nothing magical about the sidewalks that surround the Courthouse-on-the-Square. And, no, the city's tap water isn't somehow inspiring all the bands and singer-songwriters to pen their songs. Denton's just a small, two-university town (one that "in Texas terms" U.K.'s The Guardian recently cast as a "doormat") whose schools of music attract eager musicians by the busload. Every year, and every semester, there's an influx of new musicians seeking to hone their craft and trying to find an outlet. (And they're just the ones who are moving to town for some classical training, never mind the bands and artists who move to Denton based on the reputation of its music scene.)
Some graduate and move on. Others get a taste of the town's music scene and its Kool-Aid and put down roots. Rather, if there is something that could be called "magical" or extraordinary about Denton, it's all in the townies. Because, in a college town like Denton, the native fans, bands and musicians somehow manage to adapt to changes, maintaining a tight-knit musical community despite the turbulence brought about by the seasonal, cyclical changes and revolving door of friends, genre cliques, bands, blogs and even venues (DIY or otherwise).
When North of the Dial fell into my lap after Dave Sims penned his final column back in July 2008, I don't recall having the contact info for a single Denton band, artist or venue saved in my cell phone. Stories sprang from posts that originated while snooping around on Denton Rock City or MySpace or from late-night, beer-stained conversations on the patio at Dan's Silverleaf or in the Old Dirty Basement of J & J's Pizza.
Initially, my only means of tracking down a contact was either awkwardly approaching them after a live show or by messaging them on MySpace. And, while plenty of bands still use Tom Anderson's big beast of an ad generator, many more have made the switch to the other two equally blue-bannered social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter) to promote their shows and stay in contact with their fans.
And that's a great trend. In 2010, keeping Denton's diverse bunch of artists and fans connected has never been less of a chore—or meant fewer trips to Kinko's to print off gig posters.
"I can't remember the last time I made a poster or flier for a show," Shiny Around the Edges' Michael Seman told me recently. "Everything about how we promote ourselves has changed."
Instead, like most Denton acts, Seman says his band sends out invites and updates to their friends and fans via the ol' Interweb. Sure, Nevada Hill is still printing those glorious posters for shows, and plenty of bands still tack or tape posters to the walls and windows of shops around town. But most bands have a Web presence on two or more of the big three social networking sites.
How else can you explain sell-out crowds for brand-new acts, like at the recent Fresh Faces event at Dan's Silverleaf? Face it: The success that both Dan's and Rubber Gloves have found by hosting free or $1 local shows is thanks in a large part to promotion on the social networking sites.
The costs of those shows helped: Most folks shy away from shelling out five or more clams to see an all-local bill—especially in Denton, where so many of us are used to seeing our favorite local acts play free shows in their living rooms, basements and backyards. But these no-/low-cost shows have come along at just the right time, because, with few exceptions (you know who you are, and we thank you), most of Denton's DIY/house venues have either closed down or been ticketed into hiatus.
The fact that technology has sparked many of the changes within the scene shouldn't come as a surprise. In a September 2007 editorial for The New York Times, Freakonomics author, blogger, lecturer and former Arista Records artist (see: The Right Profile) Stephen J. Dubner wrote, "the music industry of today looks almost nothing like the music industry of 20 years ago." Dubner suggested that while there are "tons of reasons" the industry has changed, digital technology has been the catalyst for the lion's share of the music biz's recent metamorphoses. It's an argument that's difficult to punch holes in, especially in today's scene where exceptional local artists like Florene, Sunnybrook and Neon Indian are getting record deals based mostly on blog hype and one or two songs alone.
It's in those acts' signing that the current times in Denton come into focus. Though much was made of the May 2008 piece The New York Times ran on Denton in its "Music Issue," how many average listeners, music critics or record execs spend their downtime inking their fingers on The Gray Lady's travel section looking for new music trends to upload to their iPods? A few, maybe, but it's more likely that they're thumbing through glossy mags such as Under the Radar or Paste or, more important, clicking through music blogs like DFW's own Gorilla vs. Bear or Weekly Tape Deck. In recent months, it's those sites, as well as those across the big pond, like 20 Jazz Funk Greats, who've helped shed an international spotlight on Denton like never before.
Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention can tell: With the second annual NX35 Conferette looming, these are exciting times for Denton.
And though I'll no longer be writing it, I, for one, can't wait for the next installment of North of the Dial, whenever it returns.