If you’ve ever wondered why your favorite bands skip right past San Antonio on their national tours, you’re not alone. Partly based on past history, the city gained a reputation as a third wheel in Texas, playing second fiddle to its more popular urban cousins.
Depending on the perspective, the reasons could be economics, demographics, or the harder to pin down issue of taste. Regardless of why, several local promoters have set out to make San Antonio a necessary stop for touring bands.
Chad Carey opened the 1,000-capacity Paper Tiger music club in 2015 for “personal satisfaction,” he said, but his motivation was also cultural. “I was tired of seeing bands that I like skip San Antonio, and I thought it was important to the cultural infrastructure of the city that I love to have to have a good-sized, independent music venue.”
The previous occupant of the space on the St. Mary’s Strip, the White Rabbit, had been hosting local music and touring hip-hop acts such as Tyler, the Creator and Kendrick Lamar before his rise to national stardom, but the building had fallen into disrepair and needed revamping.
At the time, Paper Tiger was the only venue of its size trying to bring in national touring bands from the independent music scene. Reflecting, Carey said, “It’s crazy that in a city of our size we didn’t have a venue that was trying to do things like that.”
‘Metal City’ rep
Musician Chris Smart said one reason San Antonio hadn’t established itself on the independent music scene was because of its heavy-duty reputation as a heavy metal city, dating back to the days of KISS FM radio and DJ Joe Anthony, known as the “Godfather of Rock ’n’ Roll,” deciding to play only “British Steel” metal bands including Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Scorpions.
“They didn’t play any punk. They didn’t play new wave. They didn’t play anything [else],” Smart said, a situation that extended into the 1990s.
For the music promoters who books shows, that meant a lack of awareness of the burgeoning independent scene. “Nobody would ever come to San Antonio because they wouldn’t sell any tickets. Or the promoters weren’t really prepared to risk it,” he said.
For Smart, a turning point came in early 2011, when indie rock band Interpol played Josabi’s music club in Helotes, a venue that now mostly books private events. Everyone thought the show would bomb, Smart said, because “no one’s ever heard of them. … They were a cutting edge … band everywhere except San Antonio.”
When KSYM radio started playing music geared toward college audiences, things began to shift, Smart said. And with Paper Tiger now in the fold, “it seems like we get a lot more shows now. Even 10, 15 years ago, you had to drive to Austin see anybody, and I rarely have to do that anymore.”
While some have touted a renovated Sunken Garden Theater as a necessity for attracting music acts to San Antonio, club owner and live music advocate Blayne Tucker said the issue isn’t as simple as “if you build it, they will come.”
One major issue is advance ticket sales, Tucker said, which promoters rely on to judge whether shows are likely to turn a profit. “If you look at ticket buying data, San Antonio is probably the worst city in the country for advanced ticket sales. And Austin is number one.”
Another issue, he said, is that San Antonio is a “vastly different market.” In some sense, it’s a collection of disparate smaller communities, he said, giving the example of the sold-out Aaron Lewis show at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes during Fiesta, which draws hundreds of thousands to downtown and other areas of the city.
“Everybody kind of lives in their own little world. So that’s the challenge above all,” Tucker said.
Profit margins and logistics
Carey said changes in the promotion side of the music industry have created new issues that limit what bands play where, in part because independent promoters are getting squeezed out of the business. Nationwide promoters such as Live Nation, which books bands at the Aztec Theatre, will create itineraries for bands they represent based on economics, Carey said, looking to make $20,000 from an Austin show versus $10,000 for a San Antonio show.
David Viecelli, founder and president of national boutique artists’ agency The Billions Corporation, said the ratio is closer to one-third for what a band might typically expect to make in San Antonio versus Austin, and that playing here has to make economic sense for the band.
But many factors come into play, Viecelli said, including simple touring logistics. When indie rock band Pavement booked a reunion tour, Austin was on the itinerary but San Antonio was not, in part because the band was leaving for London right after Austin to continue their tour internationally.
Another issue is that promoters often have “radius clauses,” which prevent artists from playing shows within a certain radius to prevent audiences from being spread too thin.
The problem for San Antonio is also historical, Viecelli said. Even though the city was growing, “people didn’t perceive it as a growing thing. It didn’t have the cultural cachet of Austin. To some extent, agents and managers are creatures of habit, too. You get used to thinking of it as a triumvirate of cities in Texas,” he said, meaning Houston, Austin, and Dallas.
Viecelli compared the situation here to Milwaukee, which had traditionally been passed over in the Midwest triumvirate of Chicago, Madison, and Minneapolis, similar in size to Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Individual promoters can make the difference for an out-of-the-way city, he said, referring to the operators of the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, a restored 1895 venue that now hosts 100 shows per year of all music genres.
Thanks to the hard, long-term work of the promoters, “it just built into something. They treated artists really well, they invested in the venue, and they really did a fantastic job turning that market around. That’s, frankly, what San Antonio could really use.”
San Antonio promoters continue working to change the city’s music dynamic. Lonesome Lounge Sessions at the Lonesome Rose feature popular artists such as John Doe and Bill Callahan, and are supported in part by sponsorships including Texas Public Radio and Period Modern, which supplies fashionable furniture for the one-off shows. The new Stable Hall, former a private event venue at the Pearl, will become a 1,000-seat music venue next year, to showcase local musicians and national touring acts.
Carey said he’s putting in the time and effort required to show promoters and agents a new face of San Antonio’s music scene.
Indie band The Mountain Goats played Paper Tiger last August, but the show was the result of years of “hand-to-hand combat” with agents, Carey said lightheartedly. “We begged and begged and begged, and they finally did a show, and the show blew out, it did so awesome. The band had a great time, they tweeted the next day that any bands need to come play Paper Tiger in San Antonio.”
Though indie rocker Ty Seagall will play Austin and Dallas in June at venues with similar capacity, Seagall will skip Paper Tiger. However, Carey said, “the downside to being this magical unicorn city for music that Austin’s been for the last 20, 30 years, is that their market can be pretty jaded. But if [Seagall] were to play in San Antonio, I think people would go nuts for it.”
Aaron Zimmerman is vice president of programming at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and also books shows with Tobin Entertainment for the Real Life Amphitheater and the new 3,100-capacity Tech Port Center and Arena, which sold out its debut Smashing Pumpkins concert Monday night.
“While San Antonio is a physically larger city and a larger population, we cannot compete with the cool factor or the music scene that Austin has,” along with other music cities such as Nashville and Chicago, Zimmerman said.
However, he said, things are changing. “The music scene in San Antonio has grown exponentially in the past decade,” and with a variety of venues, “I almost don’t think [bands are] skipping the city anymore. For the most part, we have a shot at everything.”
Zimmerman said that as a music promoter, “I really do believe in this city. I’m one of many that have tried to be a part of a growing scene, and I think that it really is happening, it’s happening in front of our faces. It might not be as fast as we all want it to, … [but] I think that the mentality really is changing and changing fairly fast.”