You’ll likely be hearing some very familiar voices this winter alongside the usual rotation of nationally syndicated pop on your radio.
That’s because six friends in our hometown music scene have been tapped to be the face (and voice) of a new city campaign against the pandemic. Over the next few months, original tracks they’ve written and performed for the “What Will It Take” campaign will play on radio and television stations across San Antonio, putting them on well-deserved public blast. And while the city-sponsored elevation of our neighborhood talent is certainly a story, this isn’t the story here, at least not the important one.
It would be the easier thing to write a simple celebration of our friends’ new spotlight, but there is so much more to unpack here. What’s left to be said is too important to leave unwritten.
That was the difficult thing; it took far too long to find all the words, and some of them were not particularly a pleasure to write, nor I expect for you to read (but I hope you do). I’ll save the hard stuff for the end, after a spoonful of sugar.
Let’s start with what we can celebrate.
This spotlight on local music is part of a new campaign by the City of San Antonio to tackle rising COVID rates over the holiday season. For the multimedia portion, someone had the good idea to reach out to local musicians to create original jingles that would promote pandemic safety.
To ensure the best chance of reaching the people, that someone also had the wisdom to know the artists must represent a diversity of local music, as well as be equally representative of Spanish listeners, lest the message be impeded by boundaries of language and genre. From those requirements, they settled upon these six artists:
- Alyson Alonzo, with her bright and disgustingly infectious earworm accompanied by two minutes of incorrigibly typical Alyson antics.
- Mikey Vibe, slinging the sad signature twang usually reserved for pleading for his lovers to come back, now pleading for you to wear a goddamned mask.
- Andrea Vocab Sanderson, our soulful and current poet laureate, her incomparable presence on the iconic Hays Street Bridge.
- Azul Barrientos, veritable queen of San Antonio folk, the sound of her strings and the dress of her figure a scintillant defiance of the dark.
- Santiago Jimenez Jr., the National Medal of Arts awarded steward of Tejano, spreading his accordion like a net to catch those who stick to tradition.
- Shelly Lares, the embodiment of your FOMO, but assuring you that Market Square will always still be there waiting for you, so be safe first.
With their songs in regular rotation on most Clear Channel radio and local television stations, these artists are undoubtedly enjoying an invaluable signal boost. To them, however, as those I spoke to overwhelmingly expressed, this was more than a gig.
This was an opportunity to get off the sidelines and make a difference.
Alyson was more than happy to help spread the message. For her, it was personal.
“My nephew lost his father to COVID, so it hit close to home. I wanted to set an example for my kids too,” speaking of the children she teaches by day. When asked for further comment, she had this to say:
I want to sayyyyyy I’m so down to make more jingles and also I love my city and I hope everyone is FOLLOWING THE DIRECTIONS I WROTE and staying safe.— Alyson
As wonderful a bit of news this is, the reality of this story represents more than a happy announcement. For many, it was a breath of fresh air years in the waiting.
And for two reasons.
The first: the simple joy of seeing the people I’ve been missing (to say nothing of the joy of seeing them succeeding) while doing my part to quarantine, and therefore sequestered from the old norm of interacting with them: my shoe faintly tapping against the barstool, ear cocked towards the stage, a tumbler of whiskey and an small smile both periodically brushing across my lips.
The second, and far more important: I recognized in it a simple but important gesture:
What Will It Take represents a meaningful step forward by the city towards embracing local artists.
In early 2016, when game-changing momentum for the city was building under the SA2020 initiative, the community joined hands and started making calls for city leaders to step up and champion local art and music.
San Antonio was on the cusp of an unstoppable development race whose branding relied on the image of a city wreathed in culture. Whether that culture still remained its own by the end of it — or had been phoned in from the big box store — was a serious fear. It was too easy to imagine our scrappy but unprepared locals left behind in the dust, and that unique and authentic identity built by their hands usurped by fresh, well-funded, and well-rehearsed imports.
It was this dire but pure certitude that energized the early movement and was felt palpably in meeting spaces. But the reality of that path proved less evenly paved than imagined, and in the time that’s passed, the vision of that success is nowhere near as crisp as that first day and, for many I’m sure besides myself, has been incrementally colored by steadily encroaching doubt.
But now presented with an achievement more than token, What Will It Take feels like the signal we’ve been waiting for, and we can finally recover some confidence that those clumsy but earnest steps weren’t taken in vain.
For Mikey Vibe, it comes as some much-needed encouragement. He says, especially from his place of perspective that regularly interfaces with those in the industry facing hard choices, the gesture was a welcome sign of support:
“From every aspect of people affected — the local venues, from your sound engineer to the door person, to the bartenders and service industry, and of course the bands and musicians who are struggling to pay their bills — it’s not only a financial burden, but a mental one. We’re all asking ourselves how we will get through this. … So I think the campaign not only showed that there are people here working tirelessly to do what they can to help, but that there is an understanding that the music scene is struggling overall.”— M.V.
Hopefully this is a sign of building momentum, and we’ll see city leadership expanding plans of including its local, living elements of our culture into opportunities and the general success of the city. Time will tell.
It’s just a shame that it’s happening under these circumstances. And on two counts here as well: not just under the shadow of a public health crisis, but in the shadow of crisis to our music scene itself.
As it happens, that is precisely the heart of troubling matter behind the campaign’s message.
As long as people are dying in the pandemic, so too is the spirit of San Antonio life.
There’s a message of double tragedy in all the jingles. In all likelihood, it’s not intentional — but that makes it even more sobering when you catch it. It might be Shelly Lares’ video that encapsulates the theme in its best form: we all want to get back to dancing, so-to-speak.
She appears to be doing just that, in a familiar and vibrant Market Square festooned with fluttering strings of papel picado under a blue sky. But her boots tap out a rhythm alone with none in answer; phantom accordions play on without players; the tables are set, the lights are lit, the chairs are empty; this almost idyllic if not eerily deserted Market Square reminds us of what we are losing, day by day: the very heart of life in San Antonio.
And this is the common thread between all of the artists’ entries:
Alyson, alone, editing videos in her room. Mikey, alone, playing to an empty Woodlawn Theater. Vocab, alone, on the bridge that has served as a community gathering space for generations. Azul, alone, iridescent against a void. Santiago, alone, on the massive pavilion that once hosted a festival lineup of Nina Diaz, Femina-X, Fisherman, Volcan, and Black Market Club all in a single day.
They’re waiting on us.
No one’s happy that we can’t go about business as usual. It’s almost easy to sympathize with the misguided temptation to rebel against quarantining. No one would notice if you went out just once. You seem healthy enough. You hang out with clean enough people. This disease only gets caught by other people, the ones who live in statistics. Right?
I won’t mince words here. We’re killing ourselves. Undeniably, there are hard decisions to be made; shutting down and shutting in can seem like a painful surrender when trudging ahead in limp mode offers the temporary illusion of survival.
But the longer we take to get back to true normal, the more damage is being done to our scene. Permanent damage: iconic venues are shuttering forever one by one, bands are losing connection, artists are losing the will to create. All the while, the spirit of San Antonio — the music, the dancing, the shared experience of the night, the things that make us who we are — languishes.
Stopping the spread isn’t just about saving lives, it’s about saving the San Antonio lifestyle. The sooner we get it under control, the quicker we can do damage control on our scene.
It may already be too late.
As this winter approaches, a chill of a different sort is settling in.
“Our good times have been taken away from us,” Mikey Vibe poignantly lamented earlier this week.
Bobby Rivas, a regular bandmate of his (and who also had a pretty great run as a FEA guitarist), is just as worried. “You know, the way the times are, and the way we used to be, doesn’t… ” he starts, searching for the words. “We were out. We were in clubs. We were in bars. We were close to people. That is not the reality anymore.”
On last Sunday’s streaming performance at Cibolo Studios (hosted by our friends at Sup, S.A.?, give them a follow), Bobby and Mikey talked at length of their recent experiences. The picture they paint is a dire one.
During interviews between sets, the pair recounted experiences of just how different things have been and, sometimes, just how strange. Some connections have closed, new ones have opened; the new taboos of interaction; an unsettling radio silence from peers in the industry.
“Both of you guys have evolved so much as musicians over this past year, because you were forced to,” said host Amanda Yanez, doing her best to shine some positivity into the mood.
So far, the evolution sought by struggling artists has mostly taken the form of livestream performances like this one (you can still watch their Cibolo Studios performance here if you missed it). But stories of success here are few, and evolving can only do so much; it was only the few that happened to be already meek to survive that which claimed the majesty of dinosaurs, and it is increasingly looking very much like our music scene is facing an extinction-level event.
“The reality is,” Bobby says, “the places you can play are big rooms where you can be six feet apart and get a table and do that. And it’s a different world and we’re definitely missing the old mosh pits.”
Bobby has had a fair bit more experience than others in the field recently, eking out a living in sweetheart-duo HoneyBunny. As hard and he and Bridgette have been hustling, however, the exasperation in his voice speaks louder than the words.
What Bobby says is the new norm, for now. Yet for how long? It could get better; it could also get much worse. It’s important not to read from this a skewed take on the health of live music. Some musicians, like HoneyBunny, are fighting for dear life. The vast majority of others, however, have given up entirely. The scene isn’t limping, it’s flatlining.
Of the sparse gigs that HoneyBunny a handful of still-visible bands are landing, the venues are by majority outliers in the suburbs beyond the 410 loop. By happy accident, the shopping center and roadhouse-style layouts characteristic of these afford the spatial qualities that meet safety mandates. For now, they are safe harbors for what’s left of live music, but I can’t help the nagging feeling that their unequal solidarity is stressing the system, pressuring their less fortunate counterparts to take a more fatalistic view of closure and make unsafe decisions.
Contrary to them, very few venues in the center of our city are more than dark closets that skirt the limit on occupancy— ironically, once qualities that made them memorable, now a sentencing. And we’re losing them. Not just businesses and names, but the memories, microcosms, and the shelter of stability they provide for our legacies.
And that, I think, is the most pressing worry of this reality. What will our music scene look like on the other side? What will we end up losing forever, and what will we get rushing in to fill the voids?
I won’t try to speculate further. The armchair recommendations I do have come from a place of poor experience, so I’ll hold them. For the same reason, I won’t tell you what you should or should be doing, except…
If you see an opportunity to help, help. If you have the means to support, support. And most importantly, if you have the fire in your belly, organize: I don’t know what the good ending to this story looks like, but I do know that if it exists, every version of it will have started there.