Music scenes across the state are beginning to rise from the pandemic ashes and central Texas is no exception.
Venues are opening back up and live music is making a sometimes slow but steady comeback, but will things ever return to the way they once were? Will the Temple-Belton-Harker Heights-Killeen area ever become a regular destination for high-level entertainment?
“The local scene is strongly dependent on the local population,” says T.W. Sullivan, booking agent for O’Briens Irish Pub in Temple. “If the local population doesn’t support it, there’s not a lot the venues or the bands can do about it.”
Sullivan, who turns 70 years old in August, has lived in Temple since 2005. He was born in tiny Waskom, Texas, just inside the border with Louisiana, and grew up in Shreveport. After college, he moved to Houston to go to work for a natural gas pipeline company before taking early retirement.
A musician for most of his life, Sullivan has played guitar and mandolin in various bands over the years, including the highly regarded and now-defunct local group, Hedley Grange.
“In 9th grade, I bought a used Sears Silvertone electric guitar and amplifier for $40,” Sullivan recalls. “My mother was mortified.
“She felt like anybody that played the electric guitar was playing devil’s music. I ended up getting a real nice acoustic guitar (Gibson J-45) for Christmas that same year, which was 1965. By April the following year, I had collaborated with six or seven buddies of mine I went to school with or was in a Boy Scouts troop with, and we had a little band.
“We thought we were the next Monkeys or the Beatles. We played grand openings for pharmacies, restaurants, things of that nature … getting paid $25-30.
“I played in bands, mostly guitar, through high school and into college. When I moved to Houston, I kind of fell into a couple of bands there. Later, I went about 15 years without playing in a band at all, due to work obligations and other things, and eventually started playing guitar at churches and things like that.
“In about 1996-97, I started playing at our church and played there for eight or nine years. And, of course, you start playing with people and little ensembles crop up – playing wine bars and coffee shops, restaurants and honky tonks.
“I moved to Temple and tried to stay away from it, but ended up playing in Hedley Grange, a popular band here in Temple and Belton. I did that for about four years (2012-2015) and finally reached my limit. Haven’t played in a band since.”
With his love for music and years of experience in the industry, Sullivan – who also has a law degree from the University of Houston – continued to be involved in the local music scene and for the past eight years has been in charge of hiring bands to play at O’Briens, one of the few remaining indoor live music venues in the area.
After being crippled by COVID-19 and the massive Interstate 35 construction project that prevented easy access to downtown Temple, the popular pub on East Central Avenue is thriving once again.
Sullivan says that success is due in large part to a change in the way bands are booked and paid.
“When I started playing with Hedley Grange in the fall of 2012, the going rate for a band in Bell County was $400 for four hours. If you were one of the top three or four top bands that everybody knew were the top bands, you might get $500. That’s it – and you had to play for four hours, which is a long, long time.
“You know what the going rate is now? It’s the same – if not less.
“When you compare this area to other areas, there are just not a lot of venues for bands to find a place to play. It is tough for a band or a musician to find work.
“One big problem is, you pay a band what the going rate is, and that band cannot bring enough people in to buy what you’re selling, and you lose money each night. Pretty soon, you either go out of business or you stop hiring bands.
“If these bands are not bringing in enough customers to buy that high-dollar beer or whiskey or food that we’re selling, we’re gonna lose money. At some point, we can say we like these musicians (and) we like what they do, but sooner or later, you’re going to lose money.
“There was a bar in Harker Heights that had a stage, and they started hiring bands. Decent crowds; decent place. At some point, the owner was losing enough money that they couldn’t afford to pay bands, and so they closed.
“This guy comes in and literally mortgages his property and his house, takes the money and reconditions the place and changes the name. He gets on social media and gets to know a couple of local yokel musicians. He starts saying, ‘Hey, I’m opening up this new place. We’re gonna pay the musicians what they really truly deserve. We’re going to take care of these musicians because they’re the lifeblood of what we are.’
“Sure enough, the musicians started coming in like a bunch of pack rats. They were all over this guy. Hire me; hire me. He was paying $400-500 a throw to hire all these bands. The fact of the matter was he was losing money every night. He lost so much money that he couldn’t stay in business, and he lost everything he had, including his house and his property.
“What O’Briens started doing was we went to a $200 guarantee versus the door. These musicians think that we are giving them $200 and the door. Well, we didn’t say ‘and’; we said, ‘versus.’
“We’re going to collect money at the door and at the end of the night, we’re going to add that money up. If it’s over $200, you have a choice of either $200 or what the door was. If we collected $500, you get $500. The potential for a band to make more money is greater that way than it would be somebody that just pays a flat fee of $400.
“For local bands, we were charging a flat $5 a head (cover charge). If a hundred people came in, you made $500. If two hundred people came in, you made $1,000. If they can bring a crowd, they’re gonna make money. I paid a band one time $1,500.
“It saved us from losing money. It allowed us to continue in business.”
Along with venue owners, musicians have an equal if not greater responsibility for bringing in customers. In fact, Sullivan said, it is primarily up to a band to promote its own gigs and not leave marketing up to the venue.
“If you’re a musician and you’re hired by a bar, the only reason that bar really hires you is to attract customers. You can get a tin can and bang on it, and if people will come in and pay money to hear that, we’ll hire you. Who cares?
“Obviously, you have to be talented … and talent doesn’t always mean the ability to play chords on an instrument and sing. Talent sometimes is just your charisma; your stage presence. Connecting with your audience.
“When you’re taking a break, you should be out there patting people on the back; thanking them for coming out; working the crowd. If bands would become more astute of that fact and stop relying on somebody else doing what they should be doing, I think they would be a lot better off.
“The local gentry will not come out and see somebody if they don’t know who the hell they are. You could be the greatest thing since sliced bread and if nobody knows who you are, they’re not going to show up.
“We had a band that came and played for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, and we gave them a check for $1,900; they sold $700 in merchandise; and collected $450 in tips. You tell me any place in Bell County that pays you that kind of money – you ain’t gonna find ‘em.
“If you wanna play at our place, you’re going to bust your ass to get people in. That’s why we hired you to begin with.
“If you want to say, ‘I’m a band (and) my job is to play; not to promote,’ we’re not going to hire you.
“A bar has a lot of overhead. You’ve got to pay for insurance, which is commercial rates. The TVs and the monitors that you see … if you’ve got cable, you’re paying commercial rates for that. Electricity is commercial rates. It’s expensive as hell.
“People say, ‘Well, hell, I can go buy a 12-pack of beer for eleven bucks.’ A 16-ounce beer (at a bar) cost damn near eleven bucks. That’s because you have to mark it up to cover your overhead.
“When you hire any band – any band – if he ain’t covering expenses, you can’t hire him (again).”
As for the future of live music in central Texas, Sullivan said the region definitely has potential. To create a thriving, top-notch scene, however, will require some fundamental changes in philosophy and business practices.
Things like over-saturation of the market – venues booking the same bands over and over – and guaranteed fees are hurting instead of helping, he said.
“Most of the venues in Harker Heights/Killeen will pay flat fees and there’s a big painting on the side of the wall, No Cover. When they hire the same bands all the time, it really hurts the scene itself.
“Don’t you get tired of the same band over and over and over again? Playing the same Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix songs? You can close your eyes and you don’t even know who’s playing. It’s just background noise. There’s nothing new or fresh about it, and after a while, it just gets old.
“A lot of new and upcoming bands looking for a place to play can’t find them. They’re not even being considered because those places are hiring the same bands over and over and over. These musicians don’t understand that. They just want to get a gig. And they know they’re going to get paid whether they draw a crowd or not. There’s no incentive for them to get out and hustle and bring people in.
“You need to promote yourself as if everything you get is a result of your own promotion. Don’t leave it up to the venue or the management of the bar or whatever. If you’re being paid for doing what you do, it’s better to do it yourself than to rely on somebody else to do it for you.
“Bands sometimes don’t get that. When I played with Hedley Grange, we’d have tickets to sell before shows. At practice, I’d give each guy 25 tickets to sell, and I remember one of the guys one time said, ‘I’m a bass player; not a salesman. I can’t sell.’
“I kept thinking, ‘Dude, this is money in our pocket. If you don’t want to do it, don’t expect people to give us money.’ It’s that simple.
“Word gets around fast. If a band is playing some little hole-in-the-wall bar over in Killeen and they are constantly packing the place, those (people) who do the hiring know about it. They all talk.
“I send messages to a lot of people who do the hiring: ‘You need to hire this guy.’ Why would I recommend somebody playing our place to play somewhere else? Because the more they play, the more well-known they’re getting. When they come back to our place, they’re going to draw a bigger crowd.
“I want those guys over in the bar in Harker Heights or Killeen to draw a crowd, because that crowd is the one who pays $7 a beer at our place and that’s where we make our money.
“Honestly, I kind of look down my nose at some of those places in Killeen-Harker Heights. The reason for that is to a large degree, they’re the culprit that’s created the disparity in our music scene. They have willingly paid that flat $400 and brought down the overall level and aggressiveness of talent.
“They’ve instilled a sense of complacency in the bands that play there. They get a gig and they don’t hustle and get out and promote it. Why should they? They’re gonna get paid no matter whether they pack the place or nobody shows up.
“There’s two types of people who own a bar – an idiot, and a smart person. The idiot is going to go out of business, and there’s a ton of them. The smart person treats it like a business. They buy a product from a distributor, and they sell that product for a profit. That profit is where they make their money.
“The live music scene is a fickle beast, if there ever was one. It is a cutthroat business like nothing you’ve ever seen.”