Over the course of the past year, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have discovered that there is indeed a music scene in Denver. What accounts for this revelation, we couldn't rightly say. Of the two, The Post has been most proactive in upping its music-savvy profile, possibly due to the infusion of youngun staffers like John Moore (who now covers the theater beat, but who engineered the paper's recent search for, and coverage of, the best underground bands in Colorado), reporter-at-large Ricardo Baca and club columnist Kat Valentine. The efforts got a considerable boost recently when the Post aligned with the News (to whom it is conjoined in a JOA) to present the "Post-News Battle of the Bands," a seven-week-long pyramid-style series of shows that will, in theory, ultimately reveal who Denver's most popular musicians are. After having been selected by visitors to postnewsbattleofthebands.com and a panel of judges, 25 artists are vying for the title of victor.
Clearly, there's much to celebrate about all of this. Judging by the volume of mailing-list spam Backwash has received on the subject (with acts urging supporters to vote, vote, vote for them), the bands involved think so, too. Obviously, the Post-News event has parallels to Westword's annual Music Showcase event -- which has an awards component. The more the merrier, we say. Attention from mainstream media is better late than never, and there's no doubt that working artists benefit when hugely circulated daily newspapers acknowledge their existence and lend some support.
But we'd feel a little better about things if the event's engineers had factored financial support into the equation as well. Although the band battle has a corporate sponsorship with a multi-national liquor corporation and has enjoyed substantial play in both the Post and the News -- something that boosts both papers' image among a coveted younger readership -- none of the bands performing in the series of Wednesday-night shows will be paid a red cent for their efforts. Both relative unknowns (including Acoustic Semi and Sons of Armageddon) and more popular artists (Yo, Flaco!, Carolyn's Mother and Rubber Planet, who won the first round) will all be paid with the usual form of performance-related commerce: exposure.
"We never really had any conversations about compensating the bands," says Stacey Sedbrook of the Denver Newspaper Agency's new media department. "I think if we decide to do this next year, that's something that we would definitely consider looking into. Actually, none of the bands really asked us anything about compensation. Our feeling was that when artists are participating in awards programs or contests, they usually aren't paid. It's something we discovered is the norm and really just the standard in the music industry."
Kids, consider this reason number 859 not to quit your day job: Sedbrook is, sadly, right about that. Yo, Flaco! manager Krista Koehler says that Seagram's and the Denver Newspaper Agency are hardly alone in their decision not to shell out for the showdown. She says that contests are rarely a paying proposition, and she should know: Koehler can hardly keep track of the contests Yo, Flaco! has competed in, from the Jim Beam talent search (which the band won in 2000) to the American Music Awards quest for unsigned talent in 2001. (Yo, Flaco! was chosen as one of the top three finalists in that campaign.) In every case, she says the Flaco flock has performed gratis.
"On the AMA tour, we weren't even allowed to sell CDs on the road, and we were out with them for six weeks," she says. "I think that often the companies feel like the bands should feel honored just to be a part of it. When it comes to charity events and things like that, our policy is that unless we have something else scheduled for that date, we never say no, because we just want to do the greater good. But with contests, we always just know that we'll play for free, too. It's like you don't expect anything -- and we'd be floored if we did get something."
Koehler says Yo, Flaco! has reaped the benefits of contest affiliation: Its relationship with Jim Beam is ongoing, and it was invited to perform live on ABC as a result of its involvement with the American Music Awards. Koehler says she still sees reasons for her band to take part in the Post-News conference.
"You do get some benefit from all of the promotion and publicity," she says. "We are just kind of happy to be involved, because at the very least, it gives the guys a nice ego boost. Like, 'Hey, these people still really like what you're doing. Of everyone else, they picked you.' That kind of thing has some value."
Sure, but wouldn't it have even more value if it came with some actual cash? In the case of the Post-News Battle of the Bands, the newspapers, the sponsor and the venue all have some financial incentive to participate. The final winner will walk away with some decent booty: The title prize is $1,000 in cash, ten free hours of studio time, an entry in the Hard Rock Cafe's national battle of the bands and -- get this! -- a paid show at the Dove. (Couldn't the "best" band in Denver aquire that on its own?) We just wish the same were true, to some extent, of all of the performers. (Though free tickets to the upcoming showcases are available on the Web, the Soiled Dove pockets whatever money is collected at the door after expenses for sound and facilities are covered. The Denver Newspaper Agency is, in essence, renting the Dove for the showcases. The $5 admission charge helps cover that expense.)
According to Frank Schultz of the Soiled Dove, the challenge of paying artists their due can be daunting. He almost always loses money on his Sunday-night Locals Launch series, where new acts perform pro bono in an audition-like setting in hopes of currying favor with the Dove's booking staff as well as audiences. Much of the club's revenue comes not from its live music attributes, but its food, drink and upstairs patio, which often resembles a frat party in Cabo. From a promoter's point of view, he says, it can be difficult to balance business with boosterism.
"I have always made a huge effort to appear as though I support local music, because I genuinely do support it and care about it," says Schultz, who offers the Dove's facilities and a buffet dinner for monthly meetings of the Colorado Music Association. "But it can be tough sometimes when you're talking about events that don't bring in any money. Where are you going to get the money to pay everyone? You've already got these really marginal budgets for things like the People's Fair. Sometimes that exposure is the best thing a band can hope for. They may play for free, yeah, but they play in front of 500 people and sell thirty CDs. It's viable."
So, it seems, is pursuing another line of work.
The Detroit Cobras have refused to quit their day jobs, despite having recently found themselves shooting out of the music-industry hypeline. In fact, when it comes to their musical careers, the members of the Motor City quintet seems completely and totally devoid of ambition.
For starters, the band doesn't see much reason to bother writing its own material: All of the songs that appear on its full-length debut, Life, Love and Leaving, are covers culled from the five players' collective vinyl bins: Ronnie Mack's "Cry On," Mary Wells's "Bye Bye Baby," Ike Turner's "Can't Miss Nothing" and other not-quite-smash hits of the late-'50s, early-'60s soul canon. Love, Life and Leaving boasts a scrappy recording -- by design, one assumes -- and apes the textbook garage aesthetic that's currently de rigueur among Motor City's insular hipster band culture. (Not to nitpick, but the band doesn't appear to have run a spellcheck on its liner notes; hence the credit for "Shout Bama Lama" to "Ottis Redding.")
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Additionally, the Cobras don't really dig touring, and the band's phone is not even outfitted with a companion answering machine, which is why Backwash finally gave up on reaching the group for an interview. If the fivesome has a mission, guitarist Maribel Restrepo has said in recent interviews, it's to give purpose to their drinking and bar-hopping, which sounds perfectly reasonable to us.
Somehow, despite all of this surface disinterest, the Cobras have become the newest It band to emerge from the same bombed-out, downtrodden downtown scene that spawned the White Stripes, thanks in no small part to their inclusion on Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, a comp produced by the Stripes' Jack White. The band was recently cited in a Spin cover story that stopped just short of describing the Michigan soul capital as hallowed musical ground. The Cobras have reportedly been fielding calls from label reps bent on luring them away from their present suitor, Sympathy for the Record Industry. (Maybe it's a good thing they don't have that answering machine.)
This is all fine and fun, but a little odd considering the Cobras are essentially a cover band, albeit one that's more impressive in a live setting than on record. The band definitely has a trump card in vocalist Rachel Nagy, a former butcher, exotic dancer and self-described non-musician who stumbled into her frontwoman role in an effort to spite a talentless former friend. Nagy likes to taunt crowds with both her sexuality and her notorious on-stage outbursts about asshole audiences and mangled body parts. To some, though, the music may smack of caricature, lacking the bombast of the Bellrays or the heart of the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs and other soul-punk patriots. Those folks are likely to credit the Cobras' success to the fact that sometimes a band is just in the right place at the right time -- like, in Detroit, right now.
The Cobras will probably not be the catalyst of a rock-revival revolution -- as Spin would have us believe -- but they will certainly make for a couple of nights of raucous entertainment: The band appears at the Lion's Lair on Friday, October 25, and Saturday, October 26, as part of that venue's tenth-anniversary celebration. Happy birthday, kitty cat.