Welcome to Local Music 'Mericans, where we get to know the people behind the scenes in Dallas/Fort Worth music.
Vince and Dawn Barnhill have been running Universal Rehearsal since 1987, five years before they tied the knot. Over that time, they've hosted rehearsals by Erykah Badu, The Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert, The Toadies and the boys in Drowning Pool.
They expanded to a second Arlington location, and the space is far from the typical studios you can get loud-as-fuck in. There are rooms that look like small music clubs, and are used for private parties. Some simulate a larger stage, for rehearsing bigger live productions. And they're comfortable to walk into and hang out if you're a music person.
They haven't had a completely smooth ride, but considering how many thefts they've had over two-and-a-half decades -- not to mention how many of them were solved (all but one) -- Vince and Dawn have their shit wired pretty tight. They're trusted and respected by a sizable chunk of our local music community, and tend to go above and beyond in showing their support for the scene.
Below, they talks about who has walked through their doors and rattled foundations, a recent expansion into the world of artist merch and how a married couple with two teenage boys ended up playing house parents to some of our more creative musical souls.
What first interested you in opening up a place like Universal? Vince: Opening Universal was kind of a fluke. I entered a drum-off held by KZEW. I had a few weeks to rehearse before the event at the Hard Rock. I set up my drums in a vacant room and after a few nights of jamming out it just came to me. Universal was born. I didn't win the drum-off, but had a great time trying. Dawn: He shared his idea with me about Universal and we got to work on it! That was 25 years ago in January.
Who were some of the first real standout bands/artists that set up shop? D: I think Vince has this list covered, but we've really been blessed to have been a part of so many of their lives, and know that hard work really does pay off. V: The Buckpets, around the time of their first major deal. The Nixons, Andy Timmons, Drowning Pool, Toadies, Reverend Horton Heat, Burden Brothers, Erykah Badu, Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert.
Is there a sense of community amongst the artists at UR? It seems to be very socially comfortable. Not just rows of rooms. It's very hang-friendly. D: Most definitely! They jam together, help each other load out, share techniques. In a sense, they all borrow a cup of sugar from next door. V: Universal is like a little city inside one building. I always see the bands hanging out together in their jam rooms. They network, as well as share the stage a lot.
I imagine there's obvious security challenges that come along with running a rehearsal facility. Is that something you're comfortable talking about? D: Gear theft affects everyone in the music community! Whether it's at Universal, a club or a hitched trailer. Hey, if it happens in "our house" we do everything possible to catch the thieves. There are a few still behind bars. V: In any business there is stress, but in the beginning I learned from our mistakes and eventually had a pretty tight policy in effect. In 25 years we've had 13 thefts, 12 of which were solved. Gear returned. Ten convictions and four in prison. We spared no expense on security. It's really paid off. Its how you handle it! We handle every tough situation swiftly and move on.
Does running a facility like that leave any room to get out and see live music? If so, what local acts do you try to catch? V: Owning a facility our size with over 200 bands, we definitely make time to get out and support bands. We can't see them all! But we do our best to show them we care. It means a lot to them. Some of our favorite local acts right now are Carbon, Mo Robson, 1100 Springs, Maleveller, Lance Lopez, Rivet Head, Sidekick Mafia and Honky.
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How did Swag Dealer come about in the middle of all this? Is it run out of the same facility? D: Swag Dealer is next door to our main location. Vince and I wanted to provide a one-stop shop for musicians who need merch, which can be a huge part of a band's income. V: I funded for the late [Supercell, Killing Caroline] Jason Wheelington, who recently lost his battle with cancer. It went hand in hand with bands needing merch so I helped Jason get started. It did well, but it wasn't long before we parted ways. We changed the name to Swag Dealer and landed a few large accounts (Toadies, Martin Bros, RISD Vendor). We built a 2400 sq. ft. shop in the business complex next to Universal.
Have you had a lot of thankful artists offer to pay it forward for the support you've shown them? V: Man, they are thankful. They're there for us whenever we need them. This year I had a serious leg injury and a handful of them came in and worked for me for over a week. We've always had a open invitation to all their shows. D: We have had the opportunity to meet so many great people and share in their passion for music. Vince has a little quote he likes to say: "Thanks for playin'!"
Not that you've had to grow up, but what kind of music kids were you? D: My father is responsible for how I turned out. We always had music night at our house. V: I was the guy that hung out while my high school friends practiced or played people's parties in exchange for beer. After high school, and of drinking age, I would frequent the metal bars: DC Limits, Basement, On the Rocks, and Smokin' Daves. I knew I wanted to be a rock star, so I bought a set of drums and started lessons. That was just my first interest. Being a rock star was not in the cards for me.
What are your thoughts on the local music community? Is it functioning the best it can? Changes/improvements? V: I think the DFW local music community is making a comeback with the rebirth of Deep Ellum, but it can always be better. It's getting better! I'd like to see it get back to where it was back in the late '80s and '90s. Bands went out and supported each other by attending each others' shows and paid the cheap cover as opposed to "getting on the list." It's five or 10 bucks, people! When you pay at the door, the band makes money, the bar makes money and then, voila! They ask you back to play again! D: It's fun again! Show your support to the locals by getting out and seeing them play, keeping the local clubs and bars alive. Our mottos for 2012 are: "Support local music" and "Thanks for playin'."