The Conversation: What Role Do The Suburbs Play in the Greater Dallas Music Scene?

The burbs, brah.
The burbs, brah.

The so-called urban sprawl has created an interesting scenario in the Dallas music scene these days.

Back in the late '80s and '90s, Deep Ellum acted as a strong central location for the North Texas music community. But, over the years, as people have gotten more and more spread out, that central location has shrunk significantly.

The Polyphonic Spree's Tim DeLaughter, in an interview yesterday with "The Hardline" on KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket, talked about how tough it is in Dallas to get people to come out to shows. The Polyphonic Spree will sell out four nights in New York, he said, but will be hard-pressed to sell out one night in their hometown. He partially credited this to the demise of a regional music epicenter.

But as the Dallas scene has shrunk, the suburbs have very much grown. You can see original live music on most weekends in most suburban cities.

So here's the question is: Do the suburbs help or hurt the Dallas music scene?

What follows is a conversation between Pete Freedman and myself about the effects of the suburbs in the Greater Dallas music scene.

DH: I've been thinking a lot lately about the role that the suburbs play in Dallas music. Without their musical contributions, how strong do you think the Dallas music scene would be?

PF: Jeez. That's how you're gonna start this thing, Hop? Talk about a loaded question -- just considering how much urban sprawl has contributed to North Texas' culture overall...

I don't even know where to begin. I mean, the region's kind of this nebulous thing -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You may have your bigger hubs in the mix, but contributions come from all throughout. And they all interact -- especially in the bigger hubs.

The region sure makes for an interesting study in shared culture. I mean, it's difficult to even extrapolate one city from the bunch. Fort Worth bands play Dallas. Denton bands play Fort Worth. Halthom City bands play Denton. Arlington bands plays Dallas. Grapevine bands play Denton. Aledo bands play Frisco. Dallas bands play Lewisville. And so on and so on. I don't even know how the Fort Worth Weekly does it, trying to honor -- specifically and solely -- Fort Worth bands with their music awards.

You could argue, for sure, that all this is a terrible, terrible thing. That it'd be better if it were a more dense scene. That a more dense Dallas, with an embraced arts scene, could become some sort of Richard Florida-inspired utopia. That North Texas inherently suffers from the fact that it's so spread out. That it's not all more easily accessible.

The talent, really, is quite spread out. Think of the bands that claim Grapevine alone: The Rocket Summer, Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward, Fishboy, Mount Righteous. Or Arlington: Pantera, The House Harkonnen (the most metal city in North Texas, perhaps?). And just think of all the musicians that the suburbs produced that are now in bands that we call "Dallas" or "Denton" acts.

What really interests me is the fact that these suburban cities -- through grassroots attempts by some to start music hubs there, specifically in Lewisville, Frisco and, a few years ago, Plano (by Buzz Oven and, later, Third String) -- are now starting to claim the musicians instead of the other way around. Like the fact that the Frisco-based Wellhouse Co. will promote the shows it throws with Datahowler by calling him "Frisco's Own." Dude just moved to Dallas! It's no different, I guess, than the way we write about someone like Neon Indian's Alan Palomo, though, who has long since moved to New York.

I know you've noticed all this. You wrote a piece on Frisco's attempts to start a scene there a while back. And, hell, you live in the suburbs, too! What are your thoughts?

DH: Wow, Pete, that was a real humdinger of an answer.

You covered a lot, but I want to talk about your mention of the density of the Dallas scene. Old timers (local music fans from the '90s) often talk about Deep Ellum's heyday. There was such a dense, congealed community of musicians who basically lived in that epicenter of metroplex live music. I've even heard stories of musicians playing at Dada and Trees running across the street mid-set and joining each other's band on stage. Nowadays, that sort of thing wouldn't happen. Deep Ellum is still recovering from a low point.

But during its low point, when the central location more or less vanished, musicians were scattered. It kind of makes sense that suburban cities like Lewisville, Grapevine, Frisco and others would crop up and attempt to create their own scene. For a while there, if you lived in Frisco, why drive to Dallas when you could see a show at Lochrann's?

But that whole thing kind of fizzled out.

The sprawl you mentioned has some interesting and potentially negative side effects. It seems like bands can tour North Texas and never have any reason to leave. Ishi is a good example. They're kind of a big deal around here, but they rarely play out of town.

It's like we're creating our own little musical ecosystem here. Do you think that a central location will ever return to the Dallas music scene, or is it forever spread out?

PF: It really is like a micro ecosystem! I almost used that same analogy earlier.

The central location question is a major one. Look at Denton and Deep Ellum's high points over the past 30 years. It's clear that these were successful times specifically because everything was so centralized, and because these entertainment districts were born.

I think the unfortunate fact is that, as we move forward, this centralization becomes far less and less likely to happen by accident -- that it has to happen as a result of collective, intended efforts. Denton and Deep Ellum will forever have a certain cache all their own, but these days you really do need people like the folks behind 35 Conferette, or the folks in Deep Ellum's business associations, to do what they're doing right now, forcing the issue.

It's no surprise that people in the suburbs are following this model, with arts festivals, with production companies and with suburban music scene-centric Facebook pages all their own. I don't know that they'll ever fully catch up, but, clearly, the scenes there are better now than they traditionally have been.

Maybe that isn't a surprise; the suburbs are just older, more established, more settled than ever before. They're trying to hone in on their own identities. I don't doubt that they can make something happen. I'm curious to know if they can ever establish themselves s destinations for people in the bigger scenes.

But I never made it to Lochrann's in Frisco. I've never been to Hat Tricks in Lewisville. I've never seen a show in Arlington. I don't know if I see the point.

Is there a point? Should there be point? Do we really need hugely active scenes in smaller, more suburban cities? Can we even support them as region? Can we even afford to support them as a region?

DH: I don't think that we need the scenes from smaller suburbs, but we do need the artists and musicians. Because, after thinking about it, I can't think of any area artists that are exclusive to a suburban music community. There isn't a single band that says, "We only play Frisco."

I think the problem occurs when artists over-saturate the area. For example: Take Binary Sunrise, a hugely creative Dallas band. They can play hypothetically Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton, Lewisville and even some festival in Grapevine, all in the same month. Sure they'll get paid well that month, but that type of exposure doesn't sustain itself over time.

I think the solution to the potential problem is for bands to tap the brakes a little and limit how much they play in the area. If not, the low-attended shows that plague our scene will only continue to shrink.

PF: But can you really blame the bands for playing a string of paying gigs in a row if they're being offered and they're in different enough parts of the region where the crowds won't intersect?

DH: No, but it's hard to determine whether or not the crowds will intersect. Fort Worth folks travel to Dallas for shows, so long as the same band isn't playing in Fort Worth the next night. Same with Dallas fans heading to Denton shows. The region is small enough that, if a band is good and has only one show scheduled, people from all over will come out, making it feel like kind of a big deal. Unfortunately, too many bands seem happy to spread their fans thin.

PF: So, in summation: The suburbs totally suck. Just like we thought. Right?

DH: My point exactly.

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