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San Antonio Hopes To Improve Its Music Industry Through Artist Exposure, Better Parking

Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Kris Vargas performing with the Dirty River Dixie Band at Roarin' Jazz Club.

The City of San Antonio has less than two months until its August deadline to complete part of its first ever “music strategic plan.” The city has had one year to finish certain steps outlined in the guiding document, which is intended to improve and expand opportunities for the local music industry. 

The music strategic plan guides the activities of the San Antonio music commission. Former Councilman Chris Medina requested the formation of the commission in February 2016. He was inspired by similar initiatives in Austin and Nashville, where the city-run music divisions have served their music communities for the past decade. The music commission aims to listen to the music community’s concerns to decide how best to address them.

A Musical Study

As part of Medina’s request, $25,000 was allocated to San Antonio Sound Garden (SASG) — a music-focused nonprofit — to study the local music industry for less than one year. 

The study’s findings ultimately propelled the creation of the music strategic plan, a dedicated music office within the Department of Arts and Culture and most of the ongoing initiatives, but it has received some criticism. 

Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
The music office, located under the Houston Street Garage on the corner of Navarro and College streets.

Henry Brun — the chair of the city-appointed music committee, which advises the commission — said the SASG study failed to include important areas of the city's music community.

“The Tejano industry was basically left out of that study. You know, the Tejano industry is huge in San Antonio. We're the Tejano capital.” Brun said. “The conjunto festival, one of the largest music festivals in the world — when you start looking at that whole demographic, it's not really included in the study.”

However, Brun said he agreed with the study's overall findings. 

“You may have different populations, but the needs are pretty similar," Brun said. "You know, the needs are not based on the particulars of a genre."

Adam Tutor, the executive director at San Antonio Sound Garden, said the group hosted a community feedback session specifically for members of the Latino music community. 

Leaders from the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, RAICES, the Conjunto Heritage Taller and other organizations attended the meeting. Results and recommendations from that meeting are in a section of the SASG report titled “Latino Inclusion in the Music Industry.” This case study is on page 32 of the 55-page report.

Tutor said the study was primarily intended to elicit community engagement and feedback for the formation of the music commission. He argued that a truly comprehensive study would take more than one year and $25,000.

“Again, we didn't claim that this is the overall, comprehensive, ‘what's the true reality of everything that's happening,’" Tutor said. "That would take several years to gather and much more time and resources."

Plans Into Action: Parking, Spotlights And Directories 

Last August — more than two years after the initial city council request — the 11-member volunteer music committee and the Arts Commission approved the music strategic plan. Around that time, the two-person music office was established within the city’s Department of Arts and Culture to carry out the plan.

The music office began working toward the 12-month action plan the same month it was approved. As of August 2018, San Antonio musicians can obtain a permit to temporarily park in commercial parking zones while loading and unloading equipment, something they couldn’t legally do before. This initiative is intended to increase musicians’ access to venues in the downtown area.

Chris Alvarado, a jazz drummer and the leader of the Dirty River Dixie Band, hasn’t gotten his permit yet, but he appreciated the city’s recognition that musicians need easy access to venues. 

“You know, I've been playing downtown for five years, and we just pull on the side of the road, and it's probably not a legal thing to do,” said Alvarado. “I have been confronted by police that, 'You can't park here' when we're playing the Esquire Tavern and stuff. But yeah, it's been pretty bad, so that's a great part of that initiative, and that's the one I've heard of.”

The same month the loading zone program was rolled out, the music office also started the Local Music Spotlight program. Musicians can apply to have their music played during city council meetings and the city’s on-hold phone message. If accepted, the artist’s music is also featured on TVSA — the city’s web-based video streaming platform — during certain city advertisements.

Reina Fernandez is a local R&B artist also known as Simply Rayne. She is one of the 19 local artists who had music featured on the Spotlight Program. 

Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Reina Fernandez, also known as Simply Rayne, and her manager, Patricia Fernandez.

“It's another great route to get more opportunities to perform, so I think it's a great idea,” Fernandez said. “It's definitely gotten me more exposure.”

The third initiative produced two online databases — one for artists and one for music businesses. As of September 2018, musicians and music businesses can build a profile in the online, city-run music directories intended to increase gig opportunities and better connect the local music community.

Simply Rayne was booked for the recent mayoral and city council inauguration through the artist directory. Simply Ranye’s manager, Patricia Fernandez, said the directory made her job as an artist manager a lot easier. She said she wishes she had known about it earlier in Simply Rayne’s career. 

“Had I known that there were a database at that time, it would have saved me many hours of research and time to connect with the right resources and right people to help advance my artist's skills and her talent,” Fernandez said. 

According to the city’s music office, both directories will soon connect to a state-wide music database maintained by the Texas Music Office. The music office said this connection should expand the number of listings in each directory.

The city-run music business directory currently has 80 listings. There is only one listing in the venue section of the directory, and the listing is actually an insurance agent — not a venue. According to a 2018 study by Dr. Stan Renard, an assistant professor of music marketing at UTSA and a member of the music committee, there are 303 venues in San Antonio. None of them are listed in the city-run business directory.

The state-wide database maintained by the Texas Music Office currently has 803 business listings for San Antonio and the Hill Country, which includes Eagle Pass, Seguin, New Braunfels and Uvalde. 

One goal that will not be met before the August deadline is the creation of a standalone website for the commission. The website will be developed in fiscal year 2020.


Where To Go From Here

One problem facing the music office is that many San Antonio musicians are still unaware of these initiatives. Of the seven musicians TPR interviewed, only two had heard of the music commission. Of those two, neither were aware of all three ongoing initiatives. 

Kris Vargas, a jazz trumpeter and vocalist for the Dirty River Dixie Band, was one of those artists. He appreciated the city’s attention to the local music community but hoped the music office did more to make artists aware of these programs.  

“That sounds really cool, but I really hope the city is taking the time and the money to not only establish it, but then push it forward,” Vargas said. “Get something going so that when people Google 'San Antonio music,' right away the city initiatives pop up.”

Alex Paul Scheel is an indie guitarist and vocalist for Pop Pistol, Femina-X and Xes Xes. He hadn’t heard of the music office’s programs, and he said the music office’s outreach efforts should be informed by the communication style of the current generation of young musicians.

“You can't do the same things you did ten years ago," Scheel said. "Everything you do now has to be in a different way, and it's very tough. You got to make a meme or something."

The music office has reached out to musicians through social media, print, television and radio. Henry Brun, the music committee chair, wants the music community to take advantage of these programs. 

“We want to eliminate all the possibilities of someone saying, 'Oh, I didn't know about this.' Because this is for everybody. This is not just for a few chosen ones,” Brun said.

For longtime professional musicians who have worked without these programs, the city’s newfound attention to the music community is welcome. Brun includes himself as one of those musicians. He formed the Latin Jazz Playerz in 1989 and has been active in the local jazz scene ever since. 

“This is long overdue, and being a music advocate as I've been for so many years, for me it brings a big smile to my face to see these things happen and seeing the city being proactive when it comes to doing something for us that are out there working every day,” Brun said.  

Last year, the Texas Music Office recognized San Antonio as an official “Music Friendly Community” for the city’s efforts to support its music scene. San Antonio is now one of eight such communities in Texas. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony