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If you're not a record-industry insider, news that the Association for Independent Music convention is being held in Denver from Wednesday, May 13, through Sunday, May 17, likely ranks just below a repeat of Full House on the excitement scale. But folks familiar with the ins and outs of the business understand that the conference is a big deal. AFIM, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and formerly known as NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors), is the largest organization devoted to the dissemination of independent music on the planet. And Pat Martin Bradley, AFIM's executive director, expects upwards of 1,000 musical movers and shakers to descend on the city for the confab (including onetime Elektra Records head Jac Holzman, who delivers a keynote address on May 14). "It's a great opportunity for members to meet and network," Bradley says. "We try and encourage working together with labels, retailers and so on, so we can connect people within the retail marketplace."

Upon their arrival in Denver, conventioneers (many of whom are registered at the Adam's Mark Hotel, the bash's official headquarters) will be confronted with a full slate of activities. On May 13, attendees new to AFIM can participate in a series of so-called crash-course panels intended to show them the lay of the land. More panels, workshops and a trade show at the Adam's Mark take place throughout the next three days, with special events planned for each evening: May 14 is capped by a reception at the Denver Museum of Natural History; May 15 features numerous showcases at area venues; and May 16 wraps up with AFIM's annual Indie Awards ceremony. Those up for prizes include worthy unknowns; notables like Ani DiFranco, Bruce Cockburn and Coolio; and several artists with Denver connections, including Colorado-bred bluesman Corey Harris, rapper Common, whose father, ex-Denver Rocket Lonnie Lynn, still lives here, and Boulder's Tony Furtado. "We have almost forty categories that we present awards in," Bradley notes. "For us, it's comparable to the Grammys. And this year, for the first time, the awards will be simulcast on the Internet." (The computer address is www.onlineauditions.com.)

Bradley concedes that few of the nominees will be present when the awards are announced; instead, the baubles will be handed to representatives from their labels, who make up the backbone of AFIM's constituency. Rather than signing up individual members, AFIM invites companies to participate in its ventures, and at present, approximately 1,300 firms have accepted the offer. Of that number, around 750 are independent imprints ranging from obscure startups to powerful outfits such as Rounder Records. In fact, Rounder chieftain Duncan Browne will co-host the Indie Awards with Westword profile subject Webb Wilder ("Wilder Things," September 18, 1997). The remaining members are divided between distributors, retailers, marketing and promotion companies, manufacturers and suppliers--"basically any company that's involved in the independent music business in any way," Bradley says.

There's no shortage of issues facing participants. For instance, independent retailers are dealing with increasing competition from chain stores that often attempt to price them out of existence; as a result, mom-and-pop stores have been forced to band together with shops across the country in order to survive. Retail operations and labels are also trying to get a handle on the Internet, which has the potential for changing marketing strategies across the board. "It's a double-edged sword," Bradley contends. "In one sense, it'll level the playing field for retailers, but it also gives labels a direct line to consumers, which might pull people away from retail sales. How that's going to balance out is anyone's guess."

The money at stake over these questions isn't small by any means. During part of 1997, independent distributors accounted for 21 percent of the total U.S. album sales--a larger slice of the pie than any single major in the same period. According to Bradley, this achievement was fueled by an unlikely coalition of music styles. Alternative rock, hip-hop and electronica played a large part, but so did new age and gospel/contemporary Christian, whose sales were under-represented by publications like Billboard for decades. Unsurprisingly, indie cheerleader Bradley is upbeat about these figures. "I think consumers are becoming more and more aware of indie music and indie labels," she claims. "They're paying more attention to what's out there and what label it's on. The Internet has certainly contributed to that. You can go online and search for a genre of music, and you'll definitely find more indie labels than majors connected to whatever you're looking for."

Concerts being staged for the AFIM convention underscore the eclecticism of indie music. Entertainment at the May 14 reception at the Museum of Natural History will be provided by Tim Ryan, a signee to Warner-Western, and the local boys in Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The next evening, the Paramount Theatre plays host to a Celtic extravaganza starring an international cast: Natalie MacMaster, Steve McDonald, Milladoiro, Susan McKeown and Liam O'Maonlai of the recently reunited Irish rock band Hothouse Flowers, whose new album on London Records is due later this summer. Friday will also see a blues spectacle highlighted by Denver's Sammy Mayfield, who'll play his own set as well as back up New York-based belter Marla BB, a gospel turn at the Adam's Mark and a new-age showcase at Borders Books in Englewood. And scheduled to perform at the Indie Awards are disco divas Sister Sledge, alt-rocker Christine McKinley and local favorite Mollie O'Brien. (Many of these gigs are open to the public. Call AFIM at 1-800-607-6526 for details.)

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