by Morgan Davis
Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos
Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, Mohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo, veteran booker and artist Aaron Miller (aka Multi-tracker), Continental Club icon Dianne Scott and today we bring you a conversation with Danielle Renae Houtkooper, who handles marketing for Spider House, an iconic venue that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: We’ve been beginning these by asking people about their journey to Austin. When did you come to the city? And why did you come here?
Danielle Renae Houtkooper: I moved here to go to college, I got into UT like late into my senior year of high school. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to go to college. I thought “Maybe I’ll just run away and do some cool stuff!” But I had straight A’s and took all these fancy classes and I didn’t think I could disappoint my mother quite that much.
Ovrld: That’s always a good incentive.
DH: Yeah, definitely, don’t want to make mom sad. So I moved here for college and it just felt like I fit in. You don’t get that a lot in El Paso. You’re either a sore thumb or you’re pregnant with 12 children by the time you’re 19. I’ve got this really cool life that I don’t think I could get anywhere else so it was really easy to want to stay after I finished college.
Ovrld: You’ve worked for a lot of companies that are pretty prominent in Austin events including the Drafthouse and Spider House, and I’m curious about how you started working for those two especially.
DH: With the Drafthouse, I had just gotten a job with this place called Alligator Grill, I think it was on Lamar. On my first real serving shift day, I walked in and all the furniture and stuff was being walked out and they didn’t tell anybody! [laughs]
Ovrld: That’s a pretty standard Austin service story [laughs]
DH: Yeah, absolutely. “This restaurant is closed now, goodbye!” Oh, excellent. The Drafthouse was down the street and it was very cold outside and I was sobbing like a maniac and I went up to the ticket booth. It was the old South Lamar location. I walked up and just asked for a job application and these poor men in the booth were just like “Uh, yeah, just take it, stop crying.” And I was like “I know, it’s gross, I’m sorry.” One of them was very standoffish and the other one was very sweet and said “Email HR and let them know what’s going on.” Didn’t even ask what was going on, didn’t care, just was like “Let them know what’s up with your life.” And then I got hired like a week later.
I had a lot of great things come out of that company. I waited tables there for years and my boss at the Drafthouse was just a friend of mine and he would just always be there doing events and stuff and when I was looking to let go of actually waiting tables and get on with my life— which is so hard because you can make so much money doing it!— he offered me a chance to do the special events stuff and I’ve been doing it for two and a half years now? It’s really fun. It gave me the opportunity to forward that to other things.
With Spider House, I was nannying and writing full time and through a series of unfortunate circumstances I was unable to do the nanny job anymore. I was just kind of panicked. I started doing extra work around town, for movies or shows or whatever I could get my hands on. Working in food trucks, walking up and asking venues “Do you want me to work the door for you tonight? I will work the door for you tonight, I will do that! Cash? Yeah! Absolutely!” And Shelly [Hiam], our art director, I had just met her previously at a Sleater-Kinney show over at Cheer Up Charlie’s and she mentioned that Spider House was looking for somebody that works in marketing. I had done marketing and social media for a non-profit I had worked for in the past and they asked “Can you do this?” And I said “Yes, I can do that. You need this? I can do that, and this, and this…” And they were like “Can you really?” And I was like “Absolutely, I can figure it out.” It was so weird, it was just this great opportunity that kind of fell into my lap. Our [20th] anniversary this year fell on my one year anniversary at Spider House.
Ovrld: Perfect timing!
DH: Yeah, I was running around, having a perfect time all day.
Ovrld: I think a lot of people in the industry struggle to understand what goes into marketing and why it’s necessary and what makes it help. Can you give a breakdown of your job and what your weekly tasks are?
DH: My job is kind of odd because I’ve just got to do everything I can to make a show successful. I feel like a lot of the time, bands are worried about venues promoting their show or “They didn’t do it enough, they didn’t do this thing” but I want you to be successful. Not only for the venue for yourself, because how cool is it to say “We were the place where they started?” Because you never know, they could always be the next whatever great big thing. For me, once a show is booked I sit down and look at what’s coming up, what needs to be sent out, we rely a lot on social media, so we use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that. Twitter’s been really great for us, which is surprising because it looked like it was in a downturn for a while.
Ovrld: I think it was mainly that a lot of people who weren’t actually using it that much left.
DH: Yeah, I think so. But it’s a great marketing resource for us because I’ll send out a Tweet and all of a sudden a ton of people will have seen it and liked it and it’s people whose handles I’ve never seen before, too. So we’re getting a lot of unique likes and clicks.
Ovrld: There’s a lot of engagement on it.
DH: Yeah, exactly. Same thing with our Facebook page. So really it’s the little things like making sure it’s on the calendar, making sure it’s on places like Showlist, the Statesman, the Chronicle. And then reaching out to different news sources and saying “Hey, we’ve got this thing coming up and you should write about it because it’s going to be really great!” And then again, just putting it out there for everyone to see on a constant basis. A lot of my job I could do from wherever but it’s always good to be at the venue because then you have your finger on the pulse more than you otherwise would if, say, I lived across the country. “Oh, okay, I guess I’ll just write about this for you.” Here I can actually engage with them and say “Hey! I talked about this album you guys are coming out with all week so maybe mention it during your show so that the people who came specifically to hear new music from you will hear that music and then know where to buy it.” That kind of thing. It’s all a very symbiotic relationship, I think.
Ovrld: Do you think Austin is a harder city to get notice for events in just because of the sheer number of events happening?
DH: Oh, absolutely. The competition is fierce. There are days where you look at a bill that you put together months ago that you’re really stoked about and then it so happens that everyone ends up at a similar event someone is doing some other place downtown wherever and it’s disheartening. Maybe the other venue just had a better built in crowd for a certain genre of music. And maybe sometimes you have the better built in crowd. And maybe no one even knew that band existed and you’re just pulling your hair out trying to get people to show up. There’s been times where I’ve seriously contemplated just standing on a corner with a sign trying to get people to come to a show. “Hey! Come to our show! Try it! Maybe you’ll like it!” Put on a chicken suit and all, try to grab people’s attention. I mean, that’s all my job is really, trying to grab people’s attention. Make it new and make it exciting for them again, especially in a city with so many bands and so many opportunities and everything. I mean, if you’re not unique, there’s no reason for someone to want to pay attention to what you’re doing.
Ovrld: Spider House is one of the longest lasting venues in Austin, it’s been in the same location for 20 years now this year. Why do you think it’s been able to survive as long as it has while other venues have disappeared or had to move or change?
DH: I think part of it is that we’re in this unique location so we have this nice mash up of the new Austin and the old Austin. And the students, during the school year, are really big for us because people who go to UT or ACC or anything are aware of it. And they come here and they start coming here to get coffee and study and eventually they come to get a couple beers and then they realize “Oh, there’s a thing next door! What is it?”
It’s funny because personally, even just coming here to hang out at Spider House before I started working here, you’d see it on people’s faces and in their demeanors they change over the years and I think they’re able to grow with the venue and I think that’s why it’s been able to thrive. There’s something for everybody. And with the different events and stuff we have here— because we have live music but we also have burlesque and movie nights and all these things that grab your attention— if you’re here for one thing and you hear about something else, it’s like “Oh, yeah, it would look cool if there were lights and fog coming off that stage. I should look into that.” So I think being our little weird corner of Austin definitely helps.
Ovrld: Does the eclectic variety of shows the space provides make your job more difficult? Or more fun?
DH: It makes it more fun, definitely. Honestly, I’m really lucky to have gotten the opportunity I have with my job because it’s sort of like a mini version of working in a bigger venue. Take something like Bass [Concert Hall] or whatever. They have a complete variety of events on any given night and they have all these people and resources and things just pumping into it whereas we also have a bevy of different shows every night and we don’t have those resources so you just have to get creative.
It’s one of those things where I learn from my mistakes very quickly, because there’s not a lot of room for mistakes. You have to make sure that if this isn’t working, you move on and do something better. It’s been interesting, it’s definitely been a learning process. But I’m very happy to have had it.
Ovrld: In the eight years you’ve been here in Austin, what are some of the changes you’ve seen with the city? What are some of the new challenges and obstacles? What are some of the already existing challenges that have expanded?
DH: Something that I have noticed has been a big problem has been the changing scenery of Austin. We have a lot of people moving here because they like the city so much. But when that influx happens, the city changes and then they get here and maybe they don’t like having live music next to their apartment every day. Here we try to make sure the neighborhood association is pleased with us because they’ve been here so long and I’m sure they’ll continue to be here for so long, so if we make sure we have a good relationship with them, I’m sure we’ll be fine.
If I’m not here working or I’m not busy doing something for the Drafthouse or something, I’m at a show. It’s weird because it used to be you could go out all night and hit up DIY venues and they just don’t really exist anymore. I mean, they do, but they’re really underground, and to find them you’ve got to work for it. But for the most part, it’s been something that has been lacking. Part of it is that a lot of those people who were able to curate that just left. Which is understandable because when a culture is changing and everything, maybe you don’t want to be part of that new culture. It’s been disappointing in that sense.
Ovrld: From your experience and perspective, what are some of the things that make a show really go off well?
DH: For Spider House or just in general?
Ovrld: Both? But specifically Spider House.
DH: Generally you want a good crowd, you want them to be excited to be there. People complain about them being on their cellphones a lot but that never bothers me because usually if people do have their cellphones out they’re recording the band to share it, like “This band is so cool, look at this!” I’m less excited about people who are just sitting outside like “Oh, it’s cool, I can hear them over the loudspeaker.” It’s one of those things where it’s like “No, but they’re here, they’re here to entertain you!” Some of the better shows are when people are actually in here, actually paying attention, actually excited to be there.
I wouldn’t necessarily say bar sales, because you don’t need to drink to have a good time, but bar sales are definitely part of it. Making sure bands get paid, too. We’ll have free shows and the bands will take part of the bar and that’s where we do encourage everybody, like “Hey, you should definitely get that drink that you probably don’t need, but…the band needs money and we want them to go home happy.”
On the flip side, on a show with a cover, you always want to make sure that your list isn’t too long. We’re pretty strict on that. Yeah, you want your girlfriend to come in, maybe your mom, but maybe not like your second cousin and his daughter or whatever. I think that’s really important. If the bands aren’t getting paid, they’re not able to do their job. I’m failing them in my job if they’re not getting paid. So that’s a big part of it too.
Ovrld: The final question I’ve been asking people is what advice would you give yourself now when you first moved out here?
DH: I guess just enjoy the moment more. I can’t say I have any regrets in anything I’ve done since I moved here. I’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes but it goes by so fast. And it changes so fast. And I think it’s important to sit there and just savor that moment you have. If you’re at a show and you’re having a wonderful time with your friends and this band that you love, enjoy it, enjoy that moment, remember that moment. That goes for anything really.
You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.