Dixieland jazz at the Esquire Tavern, a touring fempunk band at Korova, Tejano tunes at a Southtown church festival, a conjunto taller at a community center, modern chamber music at Jazz, TX, a rhythm and blues DJ night at Tucker’s, a marching band rehearsing in the Brackenridge High School parking lot, and a Houston Street busker trumpeting the national anthem – all of these music events can be found during a typical week in San Antonio.

But can San Antonio be called a “music city,” on par with well-known national music cities such as Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis, or Austin?

The City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts & Culture and San Antonio Sound Garden, a local music advocacy group, think so. Last year the City earmarked $25,000 for Sound Garden to prepare a comprehensive report on the local music industry. Sound Garden plans to release findings from the report in 2018, but the Rivard Report has obtained an advance copy.

“The value of the study is to provide a lens through which the community as a whole can identify, understand, and tackle problems that face the local music industry,” San Antonio Sound Garden founder Edwin Stephens wrote in response to questions about the study.

San Antonio Sound Garden Founder Edwin Stephens sits in Ashby House Recording Studios.
San Antonio Sound Garden founder Edwin Stephens sits in Ashby House Recording Studios. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

One key finding from the report is that San Antonio’s music industry contributed $530 million to the regional economy in 2015, the data show.

“Business is good,” said Danny Constante, owner of multiple music venues along St. Mary’s Street including Hi-Tones, Squeezebox, Faust, and Phantom Room – the latter of which is reopening this month. With hundreds of fans patronizing his clubs on weekends, he said, musicians can make a lot of money from cover charges.

Krystal Jones, film and music commissioner for the City’s Arts and Culture Department, said in an e-mail that the study was undertaken in part to attain a “Music Friendly Community” designation from the Texas Music Office, which would raise awareness and ensure the accuracy of data about the city’s musicians, venues, studios, education institutions, and music events.

The City will use the data to develop a strategic plan, expected to be completed by June, Jones wrote, with from the Music Committee of the San Antonio Arts Commission, a 15-member board of mayoral and City Council appointees with knowledge of the arts. The committee will use five key recommendations of the study to help formulate its plan.

Recommendations include creating more “hubs” and venues for music, building an “education pipeline” between secondary schools and professional musicians, and “branding” San Antonio’s music scene to make it more readily recognizable both inside and outside the city.

Identifying a Brand

“The thing you hear mentioned most often is its diversity,” Stephens said of San Antonio’s music scene. “What I think people are referring to is both cultural and genre diversity, and that seems to be the unifying thread.”

Condensing the diversity of San Antonio music into an easily identifiable brand might not be as simple as with other, more well-known music cities. Nashville is known as the capital of country music, Memphis as the birthplace of rock and roll, New Orleans hosts its annual Jazz Fest, Chicago has the blues, and Austin has Austin City Limits and SXSW, the annaul alt-country and “indie” music convention.

Asked whether San Antonio has a music brand, longtime musician and entrepreneur Chris Smart said, “Yes and no.” Five years ago, he said, kids discovered Chicano Soul, the Westside sound that the city can “really stake a claim to.” Those musicians, however, had been around playing flea markets for decades, without much attention, he said. New music label reissues of their 1960s and 1970s recordings now have “kids getting hip to that sound,” Smart said.

Troy Peters, musical director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, said San Antonio “is definitely a music city.” He cites the San Antonio Symphony, which he feels is underrated, but on par with the best national orchestras, also “top of the line jazz musicians,” and the “remarkable diversity of sounds, really interesting intersections that grow out of the multicultural aspects of this city.”

YesBodyElse perform 'The Beautiful Ones' which features lengthy guitar solos.
YesBodyElse performs on stage with YOSA in a Prince tribute at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on March 13, 2017. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But, Peters said, such diversity makes branding the city’s scene difficult. “If you look at the national profile of artists and musicians from San Antonio, there are a lot who’ve made an impression,” he said. But with “a really wide variety of styles, there hasn’t been a sustained flow. Are we talking about Selena, or the Butthole Surfers? How do you connect the dots in that?”

Longtime jazz musician George Prado agrees with those who say San Antonio is a music city. He particularly agrees with one goal of Sound Garden study: more opportunities for musicians to record, which allows wider distribution of their music and opportunities for greater income.

“Although we do have a lot of music, and people love it, we don’t have a lot of recording going on here,” he said. “Not any big labels,” though much independent recording goes on, particularly among Tejano and Banda bands, he said.

But when recording does happen, it makes a difference, he said. Both George and his son Aaron Prado, who followed his father’s footsteps into jazz, cite Trinity University’s radio station KRTU‘s influence on the jazz scene in particular.

“People started recording their own stuff more, because there was a place for it to get played,” said the younger Prado, who managed the station from 2002-2009, and introduced its jazz programming, which also helped persuade venues to support live music. He named Jazz, TX, Carmens De La Calle café, and Luna as “the big three” jazz venues locally.

The Jazz, TX logo is illuminated in red neon lights at the entrance of the speakeasy style space. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The Jazz, TX logo, illuminated in red neon light, is at the entrance of the speakeasy-style space. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

A Part-Time Industry

On its website, Sound Garden itself states that San Antonio’s “music economy isn’t built to sustain local musical entrepreneurs.”

Stephens describes San Antonio as a “double-edged sword:” while it remains a more affordable city to live in, musical artists “really have to struggle to excel and succeed in their craft,” in part because of a general disconnection from the greater music industry, partly from meager income opportunities.

Aaron Prado said that by augmenting his performance income with teaching music at Northwest Vista College – “a real job that pays a real person’s salary” – he is able to do what he loves while making a decent living.

Musicians whose primary income derives from performance make up only 7 percent of the industry population here, according to the study, and “80% of music industry professionals must earn a majority of their income from other vocations, (i.e. we have a part-time industry),” the study concludes.

But San Antonio’s scene is healthy and expanding, according to the report and people in the industry.

In addition to the clubs Constante currently runs, he plans to open several more, expanding beyond the St. Mary’s Strip with Con Safos in Hemisfair, which will feature live music on the patio. The City is also planning to build an amphitheater in Hemisfair’s Civic Park for live music shows.

Ivanna Gomez plucks her violin before the Deer Vibes performance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Deer Vibes violinist Ivanna Gomez performs at Paramour. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Becoming vs. Being

One way the city could help its music industry is by specifically designating areas of town that feature live music, and with a promotional “music city” campaign as in other successful music cities, Constante said.

“You’d get a lot more people to understand that live music is a big ol’ part of what makes San Antonio San Antonio,” he said.

The study agrees that being labeled a music city, can be helpful in itself. The idea is backed up by Tim Kerr, a musician and artist who has witnessed Austin’s growth over a 30-year period. “I think the primary factor for [Austin’s] ‘Music City’ label was the city council running that [advertising] campaign and slogan,” he said.

Even with the burgeoning St. Mary’s Strip, new music festivals such as Mala Luna and Botánica, and new venues planned, there’s still room for the music scene to grow, Peters said. But, “across the board in every style, audience development has been a real challenge in this city,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to come out for all styles of music.”

Festival attendees during the Wiz Khalifa performance.
Festival attendees sit on one another’s shoulders during the Wiz Khalifa performance at Mala Luna Music Festival. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

George Prado agreed. Though jazz audiences are here in abundance, he said, “sometimes they won’t go out to support it.”

However, through the combined efforts of music advocacy organizations like San Antonio Sound Garden, the Department of Arts & Culture, and the music industry itself, Texas Music Office director Brendon Anthony feels the city and state are on the cusp of a new opportunities. He said San Antonio is “very far along” in its work to achieve the Music Friendly Communities designation.

“I can say, without hyperbole, that we have a chance to make this state the most interconnected music community in the country,” he said. “And that would be unprecedented. It would offer us opportunities we’d feel for decades, which is why I’m working so hard on this initial Music Friendly Communities program. It’s going to serve us well in the long term.”

This story was originally published on Nov. 12. 

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...