Conspiracy theories are everywhere in Denton. Perceived threats are coming from all directions on the college town's proud music scene, and suspects include Jason Lee, Buc-ees, LSA Burger, city officials and even Scientologists (OK, that's just Jason Lee again).
These fears don't come from nowhere. With venues like Hailey's Club, Rubber Gloves and J&J's Pizza's basement all closed since the start of the year, many feel that there is a crisis.
That's why Christopher Cotter, a volunteer at Fort Worth DIY venue 1919 Hemphill, took it upon himself to organize a town hall meeting for the Denton music scene at the Greater Denton Arts Council on Monday night. Even Cotter found himself the subject of suspicion (predictably, perhaps, as an out-of-towner coming in to propose solutions) as the run up to the panel saw a nasty series of name calling and accusations play itself out on social media.
The drama never really materialized at the meeting, although there were multiple panelists scheduled to appear who didn't even show up. Better safe than sorry, perhaps. In the end, much of the conversation came from audience members expressing their concerns, while panelists — in particular, Gloves owner Josh Baish, 35 Denton founder Chris Flemmons, J&J's booker Matt Farmer and UNT's Dr. Michael Seman — were left to respond to the many questions and proposals.
What seemed to come from it all was not concrete solutions on how to fix the problem, but the sense of a disconnect between different factions of the scene. Community members suggested ideas as far-ranging as city grants, music councils and regulations to control property value inflation, most of which were shot down as impractical by one or more of the panelists.
Cotter was keen to push a 1919 Hemphill-style DIY space, one that would be all ages, substance free and a "safe space" free of discrimination and inclusive of everyone. It would also, he hoped, be subsidized somehow by the city. Several younger audience members stood up to voice their support, particularly to stress the need for such a space to be substance free, while many musicians echoed the fact that such venues were crucial to their getting a foot in the door of the music scene.
But Cotter's idea was fraught, for several reasons. First, the substance-free talk was largely beside the point, although it took up a substantial amount of the conversation. Many in the room — including Baish, whose club was all ages but also sold alcohol — agreed that such spaces are crucial, but not practical in a club setting, where bar sales are the primary income driver.
Second, the inclusiveness rang hollow. At one point Lil Dirk, a Denton rapper, urged those present that any solutions should include hip-hop, and not just the punk, noise and rock-oriented acts that make up the majority of programming at such DIY spaces. Gitmo Music founder Keldrick Scott, one of the panelists, agreed, saying it was a problem throughout Denton music. "It seems everyone runs away. 'Hip-hop? Nope,'" he said.
Cotter was quick to explain why a venue like 1919 Hemphill wouldn't, in fact, be able to easily include hip-hop. "I have no connections or resources for hip-hop," he argued, shortly after imploring someone, anyone, to set up a DFWDIY.com-style database that could help people like him network.
Farmer backed up Cotter's insistence that even the sound system in a venue like J&J's was ill-suited to rap. "Bands would ask me, 'Are you the sound guy?' And I'd say, 'Well, I turn the sound on,'" he said.
Which leads to a third, more important, point: What Denton music needs is cash flow, not a handout from the city. ("The town's broke," Flemmons said, flatly, at one point. "Anybody's going to tell you that.") As one former venue owner in the audience put it, "I didn't have crowdfunding, I had credit cards." That's especially true of clubs, who need someone with the ability to invest in a proper business.
"We're talking about DIY venues, which are important, but what's more important is having a legitimate venue. We need money," said Baish, who was confronted at one point about why he couldn't simply sell Gloves and let someone else open it. "I'm seeing a recoil, but we need to be able to support artists. Money is what you got to have. ... It has to grow or it just stays at a level, and then people drop out. It's not sustainable."
If the clubs themselves can't afford sound systems worthy of live hip-hop, then the issue runs deeper than developers pricing out the music scene. (Farmer, at one point, wondered aloud why UNT students — Denton's biggest potential show-going population — seem so absent at local clubs.) That point was only underlined on Tuesday morning when news broke in Dallas that Clint and Whitney Barlow, the owners of Trees and The Bomb Factory, would be opening a third club, Deep Ellum Live, sometime next year.
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When the Barlows reopened Trees in 2009, Deep Ellum was a ghost town, with most of the music venues out of business. Things have changed dramatically in the years since, as more and more investors entered the neighborhood. Of course, there have been complaints of the "wrong" people being attracted, both investors and clientele, but the bottom line is that there are a lot fewer empty store fronts than before — and a lot of live music.
There are investors in Denton. The ones opening restaurants on the square might not be the ones who will champion the next live music venue, but someone like them will have to. As Seman stressed, that next venue probably won't be on the square — maybe in an old shopping strip instead.
But the answer doesn't lie in conspiracy theories, nor in panel discussions. It's business, and running a music venue is tough business.