In opening remarks that christened Music Lowdown 2002 last Saturday, Colorado Music Association director Jeff Campbell rested his hands on a lectern, surveyed the crowd and shook his head, a sly smile forming on his lips.
"Man, who would've imagined this?" he asked. "Musicians up at 9 a.m. -- on a Saturday."
True, much of the congregation gathered in a recital hall in the King Center -- the year-old arts-and-performance facility on the Auraria Campus -- was puffy-eyed, bleary and wanting for caffeine, thanks to a leaking lemon of a coffee urn near the Lowdown registration desk. (The coffee caper was one of a few technical glitches that occurred during the event, the first of its kind in Colorado and an all-volunteer effort.) In the packed hall, more than 150 students (many of whom are enrolled in the University of Colorado at Denver's music-industry-studies program), songwriters, band managers, recording-studio owners, journalists and agents sat with notebooks, business cards and their own CDs in hand.
Throughout the next 48 hours, the attendees -- and the speakers -- would do a lot of sitting. The Lowdown offered seven discussions on a variety of topics, with panelists pulled from both the local and national corners of the music-industry universe, including representatives of publishing firms BMI and ASCAP, label executives from TVT Records, Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe imprint and Boulder's What Are Records? It was a South-by-Southwest-style approach to divining answers to a couple of now-familiar questions, such as: Just what is going on in American music -- in both a business and creative sense? And then: What does it all mean to the legions of aspiring artists who want nothing more than the chance to have their music heard?
Predictably, some of the answers were bleak. In panel after panel, speakers pointed out that major corporations have conglomerated the music industry to the point that only five record companies remain; many of the deals those companies might offer to starry-eyed bands are complicated, cutthroat and designed with the shareholder, not the songwriter or performer, in mind. Meanwhile, they said, commercial radio has lost its soul to demographically driven bean-counting and endless repetition of the same old stuff. The megalithic media company Clear Channel -- which largely controls both the radio and the concert-promotion industries -- was repeatedly referred to in devilish terms as the kind of faceless corporation that has robbed both artists and audiences of uniqueness and challenge. (Both KTCL DJ Katey Wheelhouse and Mel Gibson -- who manages Denver blues artist Hazel Miller and also handles press for Clear Channel Entertainment -- received playful "boos" from the audience when they were revealed as Clear Channel employees.)
The Lowdown offered plenty of brooding material for local artists who struggle with the "Should I move away from Denver?" dilemma. New York, Nashville and Los Angeles were uniformly referred to as the places where the real music industry lives, although some panelists pointed out that the competition in those cities is daunting for any musician just starting or struggling toward legitimacy, whereas a city like Denver has the advantage of being accessible, friendly and unsaturated. Mark Brown, popular-music critic for the Rocky Mountain News, made the brave confession during a panel on publicity and media that his editors often won't run stories on local artists unless "something else falls through," owing to a perception that a band is for some reason "more interesting or newsworthy if they're from Milwaukee" than from the city where the paper itself is published.
Much of the advice given to aspiring artists had a similarly sobering tone. As W.A.R. president Rob Gordon pointed out during a panel on independent artists and record labels (and citing a Billboard article from 1997), few records actually sell more than 5,000 copies. That figure falls well short of the costs involved in producing, promoting and distributing most albums released by any label, from a small indie to a larger imprint. In many cases, artists whose sales don't recoup the cost of their promotion and advances actually end up owing their record company money -- or are simply dropped altogether.
But there were hopeful moments, as well. In a discussion moderated by Paul Epstein, the billowy-haired and quick-witted owner of Denver CD retailer Twist & Shout, panelists explored the ways in which artists can use new media and the Internet. The consensus of this panel seemed to be that while Internet sales and distribution outlets aren't likely to replace traditional brick-and-mortar operations like Epstein's -- as once predicted -- there's still tremendous opportunity in the digital realm. KGNU music director Elaine C. Erb, for instance, suggested that listeners are growing tired of the automaton-type programming of commercial radio and turning to community-driven indie stations -- where a listener can request a song by phone, speak to a human being while doing so, and actually expect to hear the request played on the air. "Radio used to be really, really fun," Erb said. "Our feeling is that, if we're getting calls ten times a day about some song that we may or may not be playing, that song is probably a hit, that our listeners are on to something that we should be playing. We think the listeners deserve some credit."
Lowdown attendees in search of direct comments on their work had that chance, too. As the closing portion of both Saturday's and Sunday's programs, brave souls who submitted music to a Demo Derby listening marathon received a spontaneous critique from the panel as everyone else listened. The sessions were instructive for the general audience as well as those being critiqued. Ron Sobel, president of North Star Media in Studio City, California, broke down the system many A&R and industry people employ when listening to music for the first time. On a scale of one to ten, he said, most songs are about a two or a three. Every now and then, you hear a five or a six. And if you are really, really lucky, a seven. "Now, at that point," he said, "I have to ask myself: Does the world really need another seven?"
The final panel of the weekend involved a discussion led by former UCD professor Dick Weissman on how artists can pursue grant writing, commercial, TV and film work as alternative methods to making a living from their music, and one of the central ideas that had percolated in prior talks again rose to the surface: In a nutshell, the most important thing for any musician to do, whether established or just beginning, is to work on craft; to get better; to work hard, practice, find an identity, write songs, make art. That has to come first, they said -- the managers, publicists, publishers, music writers, booking agents, A&R reps and record contracts come later. And they will.
After two days of talking about music, it was nice to actually see some. And although the annual Westword Music Showcase got off to an eerie beginning on Sunday -- with ashes and bits of charred pine trees from a number of area wildfires raining down on those who showed up early -- the festival's eighth installment turned out to be the most successful and musically diverse yet.
Cabaret Diosa and Halden Wofford and the Hi Beams played to small and sooty crowds on the outdoor stage. If either band was disappointed by the small turnout during the daylight-hour sets, it wasn't evident in their performances. (Perhaps some people feared a volcano-like weather phenomenon, as a fire-element counterpart to the blizzard that plagued last year's Showcase?) Wofford and his mates, most often found playing the small corner area at the Skylark Lounge, filled the large stage with faithfully rendered old-timey Texas swing and honky-tonk music. Toward the end of the performance, Wofford told the crowd that he and his band were looking forward to checking out the other acts: "Who are we excited to see?" he asked. "Oh, yes. Hemi Cuda. That's our band tonight."
Towering over the crowd in the packed LoDo's Bar & Grill, Hemi Cuda was many people's band that night, as it turned out. Sporting sci-fi Barbarella wigs and itsy-bitsy matching pleather outfits, Karen Exley and Anika Zappe churned out the most unabashedly lusty shows of the evening, a power-chord and harmony-happy chugfest that was both sludgy and sweet. Later at LoDo's, a pared-down DeVotchKa whipped the crowd into a Slavic froth with some instrumental gypsy whirling-dervish music, led by Tom Hagermann's histrionic violin playing. Blister 66 closed the venue's bill and began its set with the announcement that the band would no longer be playing "bar" shows, opting instead for twice-annual concerts at larger rooms like the Ogden Theatre. Frontman Chris Dellinger encouraged fans to vote for the band (nominated in the Hard Rock category) so that it could officially retire from Music Showcasing. (As a four-time winner, one more win would push Blister 66 into the Music Showcase Hall of Fame, which was established in 2000 with the induction of Hazel Miller.)
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Down the street, B-52 Billiards racked up the crowds with a lineup that began with a set from Rachel's Playpen. Though nominated in the singer/songwriter category, Rachel Simring (sporting a sassy T-shirt reading "Dump Him") relied primarily on cover material, including songs written by Patty Griffin and Concrete Blonde. A Georgia transplant with a big, powerful and emotive voice and more-than-adequate skill on the guitar, Simring will be a powerhouse once she figures out exactly what she wants to do -- and infuses more of her inherent ballsiness (witness the T-shirt) into her sound. The Railbenders debunked the theory that it takes four players to make a full sound with a beer-swilling, careening set of true-blue rocking country music, complete with the band's famous cover of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." And though the drunken dancing began in earnest at all of the venues around 10:30 p.m., B-52 earned the highest fancy-footed-lush-per-square-foot ratio with a nearly mosh-pit-inducing set from King Rat. The Dialektix finished out B-52's roster with a set that included the unintentionally amusing breakdancing of performers in the hip-hop group's entourage. Note: Skipping in a circle does not pass for "breakdancing," even if your crowd is blotto.
The Soiled Dove remained packed all evening, and for good reason. First, Space Team Electra displayed why it's such an enduring presence: Frontwoman Myshel Prasad is still an engaging performer, all glittery makeup and clamoring guitar, even if the music sounds much as it did three years ago. Wearing red, Wendy Woo was the only performer of the evening (besides the Dudes, who headlined on the outdoor stage) to play an encore, and it's easy to understand why: The dancing ladies in the front row might have physically harmed her had she left the stage for good the first time. The Tarmints's dark and strobe-lit set was a foreboding mélange of music as frontman Kurt Ottoway presided over the crowd with a Nick Caveian eye. There's an intensity to the Tarmints that's not for the weak of heart...unlike Mr. Pacman, who came next, decked in "space age" motorcycle helmets and sporting wafer-thin Casio keyboards and Commodore 64 computers. In a questionnaire published in the Music Showcase supplement last week, Mr. Pacman described its shows as "sloppy and irrelevant." That's partly true. But they are creative, purposely low tech, funny and refreshingly free-spirited. We would like to play another round.
Next door at Market 41, Jet Black Joy unleashed one of the evening's most aorta-rumbling sets, a blissfully blistering thirty minutes of good, old-fashioned heavy-metal madness of the Lemmy variety. The band offered a free CD to the first audience member to properly identify the capital of Indonesia (it's Jakarta) before resuming the ass-tearing. Nice work, fellas. Later, Tinker's Punishment took the stage and offered the exact opposite kind of show: precise, clean and careful renditions of pop fare. Tinker's is a capable young band (and, as evidenced by the front line of dewey-eyed girls, manned by a bunch of cuties) that always works hard; Sunday was no exception. E_lab worked up some sexy roboticism for one of the night's only technologically heavy performances, with Shane Etter, the main programmer and songwriter, manning a keyboard and mixer while a trio of ladies with multi-hued hair took turns shaking it on stage. E_lab's performance was colorful, and creative, in a number of ways; we hope to see this group in live settings -- and out of the laboratory -- more often.
We also hope to see you at the Westword Music Showcase Awards ceremony on Thursday, June 20, at the Bluebird Theater. Winners in each category will be announced during a special presentation by Sid Pink, which includes the induction of Brethren Fast into the Showcase Hall of Fame. Until then, check out www.westword.com for the bands in their own words (culled from questionnaires included in the Showcase supplement), as well as more photos of the festivities. And get some sleep.