Feature Stories

Without Free Week, How Does Denton Get UNT Students Involved?

This week marks the first week of classes for University of North Texas students in Denton. For years, the first week of school has gone hand-in-hand with another occasion, Free Week, the annual fall semester kickoff extravaganza of free shows at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios.

But not this year. 

Rubber Gloves closed its doors in June, and two of Denton's other most important venues, J&J's Pizza's Old Dirty Basement and Hailey's Club, followed suit.  At a town hall meeting organized last week to discuss what can be done for the scene, some pointed out the lack of venue patronage by UNT students.

“People get it twisted about UNT being a music school; UNT is a jazz school,” says Josh Baish, the owner of Rubber Gloves and one of the panelists from last week's town hall meeting. He points to the presence of commuter students and the fact that a lot of people "just can't step out of their fucking boxes". 

“Jazz has some of the greatest connoisseurs of music in my book," he says. "There’s just not a lot of crossover here.”

With the closing of three of the city’s most beloved venues in less than a year, Baish believes that there’s an opportunity for more DIY venues within Denton’s music scene. “There’s a clear distinction between a house venue, between a DIY venue and a legitimate venue. House shows are going to go on because you can do what you want until the cops come and bust it up," he says. "But you can only get so big as a DIY venue. At a certain point, you have to break free or you die.”

Baish isn't just talking through his hat here either. He knows from experience: “Here’s the thing that people forgot about," he says. "Rubber Gloves started as a DIY venue. Then it grew."

Dr. Michael Seman has done his fair share of analyzing Denton's music scene as well. A senior research associate for UNT’s Economics Research Group, a Ph.D. in urban planning and public policy and the guitarist for Denton band Shiny Around the Edges, Seman also based his dissertation on Denton’s music scene.

To him, while Denton may be temporarily down, it’s definitely not out. Especially with this new round of UNT students, who Seman suggests are more likely to figure out ways to play venues that many people hadn’t really considered before.

Specifically, Seman mentions a potential Fry Street revival or venturing into newer locations like Tom’s Daiquiri, across from UNT’s art building. “[The versatility of Denton], it’s not like that all over the country and a lot of people don’t think about that," he says. "The idea of turning a pizza place or a taco stand into a venue does not cross someone’s mind. But I’ve noticed in Texas, that’s pretty normal.”

Seman also points out the opportunity for an open-booking, all-ages DIY venue like Flint Local 432, a nonprofit space in Flint, Michigan. That is, if someone could find a way to remedy the sky-rocketing real estate prices and, you know, someone or some organization to foot the bill. To Seman, the answer to this problem comes in two parts: commercial real estate agents and the city of Denton.

“At the end of the day, an all-ages DIY space is good for the music community — it develops us as musicians, as entrepreneurs, as people who love music. Those people are also usually going to be teachers, IT developers, nonprofit administrators, graphics designers — you know, the people who drive the economy forward in the city,” Seman says. “So, for the city, it would benefit them because they’d have this thing that’s attracting these really smart people who are community-minded, which is who they want for their city residents. And commercial real estate agents, they want to have people eat at their restaurants, to shop at their places and to live in their apartment complexes.”

Glasir’s Nate Ferguson, a UNT student, had just moved to Denton when the news of J&J’s broke, and his reaction was one of shock. “I don’t know of a music scene having this decisive of a blow in a long time. The timing was pretty horrendous," he says. But he remains hopeful: “I’m confident that there’s enough people that are dedicated, something will happen.”
To Ferguson, the issue with student attendance at local music events could have numerous root causes, such as stereotypical ‘broke college kids’ or commuter students that live in larger cities like Dallas or Fort Worth. But now, with the lack of traditional venues, Ferguson feels like the problem has become circular. “You need people to come out to the shows to have demand, but in order to have demand, you have to have places to have shows,” he says.

Nevertheless, Ferguson concurs with both Baish and Seman in their leanings toward DIY venues. “Gatsby’s Mansion is still doing their thing. Those guys are crazy dedicated and they’ve had to take on so many more bookings now that that’s the only place for some bands," he says. "But they can’t do it themselves. Really, what I’m interested in are more non-traditional show spaces.” And by “non-traditional show spaces,” Ferguson is referring to the likes of Gatsby’s Mansion, Glorp Studios and Broketopia, which offer a more flexible, house-venue/DIY feel than what you would expect at a regular music venue.

One concern for Baish is the big money outsiders swooping in with dollar signs in their eyes, looking to save Denton. “I hope that doesn’t happen; it has to happen organically,” Baish says. “That’s why Rubber Gloves was what it was, because it happened organically. Nobody came in and put it in, then we opened the next day. Rubber Gloves was a journey. It was nothing planned, necessarily.”
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Molly is a Dallas/Austin-based writer who's been published in the Austin Chronicle, Phoenix New Times, Euphoria Magazine, Listen Hear and Nakid Magazine. When she's not writing about music, this diehard non-vegan is tirelessly searching for the city's best elotes, discussing East versus West Coast rap and forever asking for 10 more minutes of sleep. For a good time, tell her your favorite band is Muse and wait for the five million reasons why you're wrong.
Contact: Molly Mollotova