By Noah Hubbell
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By Tom Murphy
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Dick Weissman, who's lived in Denver since 1972, is a performer, the chairman of the music and entertainment studies department at the University of Colorado-Denver, and an author of several books, including The Folk Music Sourcebook (with Larry Sandberg), Music-Making in America and The Music Business: Career Opportunities and Self-Defense, a new edition of which was published by New York's Three Rivers Press in 1997. As such, he's got deep roots in Denver music--but that doesn't mean he's blind to the scene's shortcomings. Making a Living in Your Local Music Market: How to Survive and Prosper, a Hal Leonard publication that's scheduled to arrive in stores on July 15, updates a tome that first appeared in 1989, and among the additions is a chapter titled "A Tale of Two Cities." In it, Weissman contrasts Denver with Seattle, attempting to explain why the latter exploded musically earlier this decade while the former has barely made a blip on the national radar screen. His arguments may not be easy for Colorado boosters to hear, but Weissman isn't one to pussyfoot around. "It just hasn't happened for us," he says. "And there are a lot of reasons for that."
The factors Weissman touches on don't have anything to do with talent; he believes that there are plenty of gifted musicians living and working in these parts. Instead, he focuses on matters of infrastructure that he sees as necessary for a self-sustaining scene to develop. Seattle, he notes, has a number of first-rate studios; locally based, nationally known musicians such as Bill Frisell and Peter Buck who are active in the community; and homegrown producers, lawyers, managers and power brokers who have the ears of folks at music companies on the coasts. And Denver? "There isn't a single major studio here that's still around from when I first got to town," Weissman says, "and there aren't any producers here who the labels see as capable of executing a major record. We also lack independent labels as strong as Sub-Pop and the kind of celebrity musicians who might attract attention--and we come up short in the business area, too. Chuck Morris is very credible, but in L.A., Chuck would be a very small player, while here, he's king of the heap. That's not to say anything against him, but to have a scene like this work, you need at least half a dozen people on his level--managers and entertainment lawyers who are considered players in those big towns, and who can get their phone calls returned. And they just aren't here.
"There are also problems that are unique to Denver--like the geography situation," Weissman continues. "There are no major markets within 500 miles of Denver, whereas Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are really considered to be one market. And that's not to mention population. If Denver had a population of five million, it could break records on its own, but right now it can't. And the radio situation is also a major impediment. There are no commercial radio stations that have really embraced local music, and until just recently, there hasn't been any college radio at all--and the new Boulder station [KVCU-AM/1190] hasn't made much of an impact yet. And Denver doesn't have any widely read newspapers or magazines like The Rocket that are fundamentally devoted to music." Finally, in Weissman's opinion, Denver seems to lack a certain indefinable spirit that helps scenes coalesce: "I once wrote about something that happened in Memphis; a studio was doing a major project and didn't have enough microphones, so they called someone at another studio and the guy said, 'Let us bring some more over'--and they did. I can't imagine that happening here."
Given the number of strikes Weissman calls against Denver, a couple of obvious questions arise: One, is Denver forever doomed to be a musical backwater? And two, why would any musician in his right mind try to establish a career in such a forbidding place? In answering the first query, Weissman points to the example of Minneapolis. "There, you had Prince getting a record deal when he was 17, becoming a big star, and coming back to Minneapolis to build a studio and start a label--and then two guys he fired, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became killer producers. Boom, you've got a scene, and all it needed were those three people. That could happen here, too, just like it happened there. We just haven't been that lucky."
As for the second issue, Weissman feels that each performer needs to carefully consider his goals before deciding which path to take. "I try to get musicians to look at who they are and what they want," he says. "In other words, you might feel a lot more comfortable and secure in Denver than you would fighting the game in the big city. Maybe if you stay in Denver, you might manage not to be married fourteen times and take so many drugs that by the age of fifty, you don't even remember your own name. And if you can find a niche for yourself, you might be able to make a nice career for yourself in a place you want to be."