Get the Word Out

It's Saturday afternoon at the Dallas Music Festival, and the Gypsy Tea Room is packed. Five hundred guys--and they are almost all guys--crowd the hall. They're not here for a performance but for an industry panel, titled (badly, like most panels) "Growing Your Band at the Club Level." They have many questions, which all boil down to just one, asked a zillion different ways: So, dude, how can I make it?

The best answer--make great music--didn't get much air time. Though the panelists did offer a few good tips--play less often to draw better crowds; don't piss off the soundman--the panel advice kept returning to one thing.

In the words of Jason Price, who books Houston's Engine Room: "Promote, promote, promote."

Promotion was the key word at the Dallas Music Festival, in which bands sold their own tickets to determine their time slot. Promote with fliers. Promote through a Web site. Promote with "merch" (and yes, someone pronounced it "merch"). In an industry that often treats music as an afterthought, that's not such a bad skill to learn. Yet, the approach left a sour taste, left a lot of people wondering if Sugarlight Productions (run out of L.A. and Cleveland) had its priorities in the right place.

"There were a lot of skeptics, but I haven't heard one complaint," fest organizer Dan Bliss says, his voice scraped raw from the weekend. He ballparks attendance at around 15,000 and adds, "The venues told me it was one of the best turnouts they'd had."

But what about the music? Of the 400 bands lined up for the fest, only a handful of reliable local draws could be found on any one day. By the fest kickoff, three of the best on that list--Sparrows, Sorta and I Love Math--had pulled out. "We had some miscommunication between someone who booked it," says Sparrows guitarist and Sorta bassist Danny Balis. The band wasn't pleased with their slot, either. "Who wants to see us at Fat Ted's at 1 a.m.?"

"Dallas music festivals are a joke," Balis says. "People don't come to Dallas to sign bands."

Instead, the Dallas Music Festival--which repeatedly claimed to be promoting the best in local music--seemed better-suited for newcomers and out-of-towners who could revel in their first Dallas gig, get a flash of exposure, a chance to rub elbows with other musicians and press hands with an A&R guy who likely will never open their CD. It's not a bad idea, but it's not about the best in Dallas music, either. If it were about the best in Dallas music, then why were the Starlight Mints--from Norman, Oklahoma--the festival's biggest draw? If it were about the best in Dallas music, then why was Saturday afternoon's Special Showcase (an extra slot for some of the bands that sold the most tickets, determined by a lottery) glutted with mediocre metal bands?

"The market dictated what types of bands performed," Bliss says.

At the Gypsy Tea Room on Saturday, I spy five cheerleader types in matching pastel sweatpants, the word "Dreamgirls" written across their asses.

"Are you girls in a band?" I ask hopefully. The testosterone has been getting thick around here. "Oh, no, we're dancers," one of them says, handing me a flier. "Wet N Wild Thursdays," reads the flier, which pictures all five of the girls topless and in G-strings, hands cupping their bare breasts.

"So you're at the festival to see the music?" I ask.

"No," said one of them, rolling her eyes. "We're just here to promote."

Early last Thursday morning, musician Shy Blakeman was shot during a botched robbery attempt after his gig at Poor David's Pub. It's yet another in a string of crimes in the Lower Greenville area. We send our best wishes to Blakeman and his family as he recovers, and we'll keep you posted on club owners' attempts to prevent crime there.

The list of great soul singers and songwriters working in the 214 gets smaller every day. The latest casualty is Al "TNT" Braggs, who died December 3 at the age of 65 after suffering a series of strokes. (His exact age is of some dispute, as some sources report his birthdate in 1934.) Though not as well-known as many of the performers with whom he shared stage and studio, among them Bobby "Blue" Bland and Johnnie Taylor, Braggs ranks among the most prolific and influential soul/R&B performers from around these parts; Ike Turner and Mick Jagger used to speak glowingly of the man who co-wrote the song "Share Your Love With Me," recorded by the likes of Bland, The Band on Moondog Matinee, Ted Hawkins and Phoebe Snow and made a hit by Aretha Franklin...and Kenny Rogers. Braggs is survived by three brothers, two sisters and a daughter.

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Sarah Hepola