A Room of Our Own

As we've all concluded by now, Denton's music scene is amidst change. The cyclical nature of it all has house show venues at a high and DIY spaces and music venues at a record low. The differences the three types of spaces offer music lovers are a vital piece in understanding the diversity of this - or any - music town.

Here, again, are the facts: Denton lost four venues (Banter, Hailey’s, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, and J&J’s Old Dirty Basement) in the last year. The recent—and first-ever—Denton Music Town Hall sought to answer two questions: why is this happening, and how can we stop it? Meanwhile, Denton house venues are thriving. It’s almost impossible to go a weekend without seeing a house show in your Facebook events feed. In January, a two-day music festival called Band Together Denton will be hosted solely in house venues. As citizens of a city that has made a conscious and concerted effort to market itself as a place for live music, what is to be made of this?

One of the difficult aspects of the rash of venue closures is that different types of venues serve very different purposes. “You have to make the distinction between a house show, a DIY venue, and a live music venue. The three are completely fucking different,” says Rubber Gloves owner Josh Baish. Indeed, bigger distinctions than funding and type of physical space must be noted. Certain venue types, such as DIY and house venues, give voice to bands that might not otherwise be heard.

Fun Button bassist Zachariah Walker, who is also involved with scheduling and hosting shows at local house venues Purple Palace and the Jagoe House, points out that house venues and DIY spaces are indispensable for bands just starting out. “Fun Button’s first show ever was at a packed house show, and was well received,” he says. “After a few of those we had fans who knew our name and would actually pay five dollars to go see us at a venue.” House venues also make great breeding grounds for more experimental genres; Denton’s noise scene is currently blossoming in living rooms and garages across town.

But smaller venues will always struggle to host bigger acts, and house venues tend to be impermanent, as they are often “staffed” by residents who may not be lifelong housemates. Not to mention the ever-looming threat of property damage and legal issues: “At the last Casa de Fun Button show, we broke two windows and the house forever smelled like beer,” Walker says. “I also got a $350 ticket for ‘disturbing the peace’ last month…so we have to be aware of how late shows go and what days of the week they’re on.”

As incorporated businesses, live music venues obviously do not face the same sets of issues. The challenges in keeping these venues afloat are much more complex. Baish speaks of Rubber Gloves in terms of tenuous success fostered by lots of idealism—he bought Gloves when he was in his early twenties. “I was completely naive, I had no idea. I was 23 years old. I was like, ‘Hey, I wanna buy a rock club!’” he says. “I’m not a businessperson. I’m not a money person. For lack of a better term, I’m an artist. That’s the way I think, the way I feel.”

Gloves’ overall success happened rather organically. Denton loves music, and people were always there ready and willing to hear it. J&J’s co-owner Jaime Ham describes the Old Dirty Basement’s DIY success in these terms. At the outset, Ham’s dream for the basement was a hole-in-the-wall jazz bar. “Denton musicians basically took over and made it what they needed it to be,” Ham says. “I always let the bands have total creative freedom down there. I let the community take over…the basement made itself and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” Ham feels that he was simply a witness to something bigger than his role as a business owner. When his wife Jessie began booking shows eight years ago, she echoed that feeling. “We had a hands-off approach,” he explains. “Our friend and manager Andie, as well as other employees, would occasionally book shows, and we loved that.”

Both venues served Denton for about two decades. Gloves spanned an impressive 19 years as a venue and even had its most profitable months on record right before its closure. Baish attributes the bulk of the club’s sudden profit boom to two major factors: a makeover, and the hard work of booker Garrett Gravley. Baish speaks highly of Gravley and his almost machine-like ability to turn out show after solid show. “Shit started gelling when Garrett came in,” he says. “He had a knack for [booking], a talent. We started seeing a lot of younger kids, bands we didn’t know about, that kind of stuck with the ideology of the place.”

And Gloves’ shiny new paint job was not without purpose. Baish recognized that Denton’s demographics were changing. As Denton continues to market itself as the best small town in America and a burgeoning tech startup community, folks from across the country and beyond are viewing Denton as more than an artsy blip at the tip of the Golden Triangle. The city’s population is booming, which has created a steep hike in property values and a different set of cultural demands. (And according to Dr. Michael Seman’s comments at the Music Town Hall, this is no real estate bubble. This is the new status quo for the city.) Baish and his staff realized that Gloves’ divey atmosphere would need a touch up if the club was to maintain its standing. “The whole idea was to claim the space as the venue in Denton,” Baish says. “It was a concerted effort to try to make Rubber Gloves what we could.”

J&J’s had similar plans. The Hams had been planning renovations and improvements to the basement for months before they were told that they’d lost access to the space. That news, which came down about a week before the basement was lost, was more than frustrating for the couple. “It was taken away for whatever reason or pet project certain parties have planned for the space,” Ham says. “Denton is changing, and we were ready to adapt and change with it…but we never expected to get shut out completely.”

It’s easy to look at J&J’s and cry foul, especially in the wake of so many drastic and sudden changes. What may be most frustrating about this entire mess is that it’s, well, messy. Money is certainly a factor, and many folks have observed that certain businesses appear to receive preferential treatment. Baish notes that LSA is allowed to “flood the entire square” with live music, but Gloves had officials with sound meters prowling around during their last weekend of music programming.

Denton’s live music venues, DIY and otherwise, aren’t shutting their doors for any one reason. J&J’s landlords have plans for a new basement business, Banter’s owners closed the shop for personal reasons, Hailey’s has been transformed into a new concept altogether, and Gloves met its end due to the complexities and demands of divorce. It might be easier to conceive of a massive set of losses if their causes could be distilled—but they can’t.

If there’s a vaguely bright spot in all of these changes, it’s that commercial interests and economic fact cannot outpace the production of art itself. Noise tickets and destruction be damned, house shows are alive and well in Denton. New businesses such as Midway Craft House, The Bearded Monk, and Hangout Bar & Dine have begun hosting live music. 

J&J’s still hosts shows in their lobby and doesn’t plan on stopping. “We are still here, we are still a part of this community. So as long as we have the space, we have decided to not stop hosting shows,” Ham says. J&J’s hosted the first of these shows over the last couple weeks. 

Gloves still functions as a block of rehearsal studios where bands can practice long into the night amidst the calls of the trains. And we shouldn’t forget that when Gloves was formed in 1997, it was about as DIY as it gets. “The showroom was a concrete floor and nothing else in the beginning,” Baish points out.

There’s a possibility for any space to become a community treasure. The clout afforded to a venue, any venue, can only come with history. That’s the simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful truth of the matter—as Baish notes, “You can’t buy history.”

Header image design by Shaina Sheaff