Venues veer national acts locally
National acts flock to Norman despite a still-developing scene.

by Danny Marroquin

August 22, 2005

The initial assumption is that the music scene in Oklahoma City and Norman has come a long way. With bands like The Decemberists, Green Day and Widespread Panic breezing in, it's easy to look on the brighter side. But talking with managers, promoters, students and musicians an unshakeable thirst for more becomes evident for many who care about the local scene.

Bands are coming through that may not have and students are noticing it, but the cold fact that not enough people are supporting local music is still achingly evident, and thus only a handful of happenings will continue through the year.

In the past five years the MAPS project has brought key additions to the rock scene to downtown Oklahoma City. The Ford Center can stand next to Madison Square Garden for arena rock shows and Bricktown Live, The Green Door and The Bricktown Events Center have welcomed bands on the cusp of exploding.

Justin Billinger, a local promoter who books performances at Bricktown Live and just hosted the first annual East Bricktown Music Festival, said the recent gamut of performing artists is an improvement over the cover bands that once ruled the bars of Oklahoma City.

“Before there was always just cover bands,” Billinger said. “That's what you had to be to play in Oklahoma City and the surrounding areas. It would be a band trying to sound like someone else playing the typical Violent Femmes song. And when they are going to play three 45 minute sets, the band took a break, [the club] played rap music so that all the people could be entertained.”

Billinger said with venues like Bricktown Live, The Green Door and The Conservatory originality is now being embraced.

“We have three great venues that support bands whether they are 12 year old kids in their garage or guys on the streets for years wanting to play. These venues are an opportunity for bands."

In a recent interview, Norman musician Adam Sarmiento of musical project I and I said there was a lack of AM/FM radio play for local talent and nationally known independent artists. A musician who has traveled across America, Sarmiento noted some college towns have three college radio stations. He plans on spreading his debut album “We Are” to College Music Journal, distributors, where the songs will hopefully land radioplay on other college campus, even though he currently resides in Norman.

In August 15’s The Daily, KGOU programming director Jim Johnson said the campus-based national public radio station has to appease its listeners while those wanting modern music typically listen to the Wire, a student-managed Internet radio station, thus leaving a modern music show off the KGOU line-up.

Billinger also noted the lack of radio support for the Oklahoma City scene.

“Tulsa's music scene is 10 times better than Oklahoma City or Norman,” he said. “They don't have dance clubs there. Everywhere you go you have a guy sitting on a barstool in a corner playing an acoustic. Also, they have radio support. The Edge [104.5] will spin music and pump it up even if it hasn't been on TRL. That's why Cain's [Ballroom] in Tulsa gets better shows.

“We'll try to get the same shows, say Bright Eyes, and we'll try to pay them more money, but they'll go there because they are getting spun. We don't have that support.”

Charlie Rapp, international business and finance junior, loves music, but growing up in central Oklahoma didn't attend many concerts. He said seeing one of his favorite bands The Kings of Leon come to Bricktown Live last semester was a sign of improvement.

“There's definitely a lot more music and a lot more venues now,” Rapp said. “The Ford Center came and they completely redid the Myriad. The new Green Door is bringing more shows. There's a lot more shows and a lot more variety.”

One Norman resident, Dylan Mackey, has observed just about every other music scene in America as a tour manager and engineer. Mackey has taken bands like Modest Mouse, M.IA., and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead on their respected tours. He believes the scene in central Oklahoma scene needs general understanding of rock and roll etiquette and a love for the music. Also, other cities offer central hubs for music, whereas central Oklahoma's are scattered acr

“The quality has always kind of meandered along,” Mackey said. “But we don't get bands in the frequency Lawrence and Texas gets because there's not a club worth playing in Oklahoma. In Lawrence there's a neighborhood that facilitates the sharing of knowledge of shows, there's four clubs within a few blocks of each other. It's self-propagated. Here if you want to know about a show, where are you going to go? OKC

You're not going to drive up to the Conservatory on the north side of town just to see what's going on and promoters know that.”

Mackey said club owners in Oklahoma aren't as likely to take risks and in the Norman scene there is a reluctance to market to the Greek community.

“Just look at the amount of people in this city,” he said. “You should be able to have shows here. You have 30,000 some people coming to school here. When you have a demographic that large with expendable money, it's a no brainer that there should be a club here. All the frat and sorority kids listen to music, they have money. In Austin those are the people that go to shows. It's an illusion that you have to be super cool to go to rock concerts.

“We can totally have a successful scene,” Mackey said. “We need somebody with some money to come in.

People have to know how to make rock and roll work. There's bars around the country that do it for a living.

Some day we can do it right.

Mackey noted the success of Andy Nunez's Opolis but said because of its 100 person capacity and limited funding, it can only contribute a small share to the scene.

Still, musicians continue to come to Norman and some make it a home.

Mike Hosty, of the Hosty Duo, has played in Norman since 1990 and has sat in on countless bands, including The New Tribe. He has noticed a fall from the early 90's, where Norman clubs were hip to house original music.

“At the time [I started] roots rock, blues and world type music was big on the music scene in Big 12, then Big 8, college crowds,” Hosty said. “Liberty Drug was a stopping point for all these bands. The Chainsaw Kittens, The Nixons and Flaming Lips were doing very well outside of Norman and bringing attention to the town. Everyone played with everyone, and bands were interchangeable. Bars paid musicians better and the music showed.

But it was a culture of discovering new music live and in person. The focus has changed to a more indirect approach through the internet and packaged tours as opposed to local small clubs.”

Hosty said though venues like The Deli, Othello's Buzz's, Brother's, Mr. Bill's and Louie's sponsor live music, the scene needs involvement.

“Central Oklahoma bars need to understand if they want a premium product, they are going to have to pay for it,” Hosty said. “And if they do, they will find out that the 'if you build it they will come' is true. People in central

Oklahoma want to see national touring acts. The TIF project on Northbase offers an extraordinary opportunity for Norman to make a step in that direction. If 'spectacular' is a word they are looking for to draw people to the TIF, that could be more spectacular than 'LIVE MUSIC'”.

“As more folks come in every year for school, there is always a new band on the scene, so it is always growing,” Hosty said.

Hosty, himself, remains comfortable sitting in Sunday nights at the Deli for Hosty Solo among other regional touring he does.

“Many of my friends have left to become 'Texas Music' bands or try their luck in a bigger market,” Hosty said. “I am glad I stayed to be close to my family. Norman has always been a tight nit with high levels of musicianship.

Most people only realize it when they leave Norman on the bigger cities to find other local scenes pale. It is easy for a fish to grow big unencumbered.

“Norman is kind of a stepping stone for bigger and better things. But sometimes, the bigger and better is staring you right in the face.”