In almost every filmic biography of a successful recording artist -- from Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter to Richie Valens in La Bamba - there's a pivotal scene in which the protagonist first hears his or her song on the radio and knows, in that instant, that life has forever changed. (Usually, these moments take place while said protagonist is driving down a beatific small-town avenue in an old chrome-laden car, preferably a Chevrolet.)
The link between a hit single and instant stardom might not be quite as immediate or tidy as Hollywood has suggested. But there's no doubt that radio play and commercial success live as conjoined twins in the music business. That's why label gangsters used to ply program directors with mounds of blow; why the federal government intervened to prevent the widespread practice of payola in the mid-'60s; and why major labels routinely shell out millions of dollars to independent radio promoters who place select songs into rotation on commercial radio -- to the tune of approximately $100,000 per station annually.
It's also why independent artists, lacking those millions, have a less-than-zero chance of landing on the airwaves -- and why, at any given moment, perfectly putrid singles are spinning four times an hour in major markets across the country. Ever turn on the radio and wonder how the hell that tuneless warbler from Theory of a Deadman found his way into your car stereo? Chances are you can thank an independent radio promoter.
The indie-promotion system is technically legal, but critics see it as a payola-like shell game that places a middleman between radio stations and label execs and still involves the exchange of shitloads of cash. Disgruntled musicians like Don Henley aren't the only ones who have voiced their opposition: In January, senators Russ Feingold, Orrin Hatch and John McCain questioned the practice in a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that also touched on the general consolidation of power in the radio industry; throughout the hearing, Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide, was cited as the most powerful force in the industry -- and the most problematic.
Whether looking to quell that particular issue -- or to appeal to the Federal Communications Commission, which will, in June, vote on softening regulations that limit the number of media outlets that any one entity can control in a market, including television and radio stations and newspapers -- Clear Channel waved a white flag last week when it announced that it would soon sever its ties to independent radio promoters. In a statement, Clear Channel president and chief operating officer Mark Mays said that his company "heard Senator McCain and Senator Hatch loud and clear, and we now recognize that these relationships may appear to be something they're not. We have zero tolerance for 'pay for play,' but we want to avoid even the suggestion that such a practice takes place within our company."
All of Clear Channel's current contracts are due to expire by the end of the summer, at which point the company will have a new method in place for shaping its playlists. In theory, the move will loosen the noose that's strangulated local programmers in markets such as Denver. Might program directors one day be allowed to add songs just because, you know, they're good songs? We'll see. By its own estimate, Clear Channel currently reaps about $20 million from indie promoters each year. That's a pretty hefty chunk to simply write off. Statements on the company's Web site already allude to a "new restructured relationship with the recording industry" that involves "specific group-wide contesting, promotions and marketing opportunities." To some, the notion of Clear Channel becoming even more directly embedded with the major labels is an ominous one.
In the meantime, we rarely find a compelling reason to touch that dial, not even to turn it to the "on" position.
Cold Funk explores your mind: On a Wednesday night, Cold Funk's hair enters the basement-like lair of Anavama Restaurante Mexicano before he does. The gigantic 'fro that crowns his head leads the way while the rest of him -- from the too-dark shades to the heeled loafers -- follows with Superfly swagger. Working the room, shaking hands Al Sharpton-style, he takes photographs of the small audience that's turned up for the fourth installment of the weekly "Cold Funk Comedy Party," which he hosts with members of the Denver band Fox Colfax.
A semi-professional comic artist who performs regionally, the 'fro's owner is allegedly named Rex in real life, but everyone in Anavama knows him as Cold Funk -- or, as he likes to call himself, Cold Funk the Original Soul Funk Brother. Sometimes he's just "Afroman."
Like his hair, Afroman's personality is big. He understands the value of a good entrance, and he knows how to pitch.
"I am gonna be a hoot tonight," he tells the crowd that's gathered around a small stage that normally hosts caballeros and damas dancing to work off their dinner. "I live on spirit and funk, and the Cold Funk Comedy Party is an event that Denver needs. Not wants, but needs. Like, you may want a bag of potato chips, but you need to go to the bathroom. That's what this is.
"It's a different kind of church," he continues. "There's a war out there; we need this. It's variety. It's all positive. There's no negative energy."
Cold Funk is, in fact, a hoot as the host of the Party, a series that germinated two years ago at the now-closed Jimmie's Boathouse in Glendale. During the newly fangled Wednesday-night cabarets, he serves as an MC and performs his own standup -- a roving set that's likely to touch on interracial romance ("I need to find a white woman to have my children so I can get the grant"), hecklers ("We could get deep, or we can keep it Disney," he said to one female audience member who made herself a part of the show), and something called "Cap'n Crunch tendencies."
A New York native who came to Denver by way of Atlanta, Cold Funk says he saw some holes in the city's culture when he came here -- as in, there was very little to do besides go to a rock club and hear rock music, or go to a dance club and hear dance music. ("Denver's social life is like an out-of-body experience," he says.) Lining up a purposely eclectic and revolving roster of artists, from acoustic-blues musicians to hip-hop MCs and other comics, he cultivated a casual, living-room vibe at Anavama.
Cold Funk says his event is drawing bigger crowds each week. Backwash suspects the Party is just getting started.
The lonesome ballad of DirtyBill: Don't be surprised if the ceramic elves in your front yard seem a little emotional right now. They're probably just lamenting the absence of DirtyBill the World's Most Famous Lawn Gnome, who was abducted from the stage during a Disco Biscuits performance at the Gothic Theatre on April 6. Presently, DirtyBill's whereabouts are not known; though friend and caretaker Jourdan Adler is optimistic that his little buddy will be found, he is, for the moment, completely distraught at the loss.
"I feel like I lost my child," he says. "Someone took the most positive thing and did the most negative possible thing to it. He's been kidnapped."
DirtyBill, Adler says, is no mere piece of brightly painted, bearded plastic: In 1999, the statue was liberated from a yard in New York; later that summer, when Adler and some friends took him on tour following Phish, he became a hotshot of the hippie world. Since then, DirtyBill has traveled the globe and even led a campaign to serenade Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio on his birthday at a September 2000 show in Vegas; a recording of that effort wound up on the band's 2002 release Live in Vegas.
"The first time we took DirtyBill to a Phish show, we put him down in the hallway, where our crew kind of hung out," Adler says. "A couple came by and asked us, 'Can we bless your gnome?' As soon as they blessed him, people walking by put stuff at his feet, like a shrine. The word got back to Phish, and they announced from the stage that there was something going on with this gnome in the audience. He's kind of been a part of things ever since."
Adler says DirtyBill isn't known just to Phish heads: In the past couple of years, he's rubbed his elfin nose against Alice Cooper, Jon Bon Jovi, Sound Tribe Sector 9, DJ Logic and local bands Phix and Rexway, among others. A chance encounter with Courtney Love initially inspired Adler and his partners to spread the DirtyBill word through their Web site, DirtyBill.com, which is based in Denver.
"[Courtney] was the first celebrity we came across," Adler says. "I was in New York City seeing Phish at Radio City, and I had DirtyBill in my backpack. She was there, and she saw him and kind of freaked out. She was like, 'What can we do with him? Can we put a message behind him and send it out into the world?"
The DirtyBill phenomenon recalls other experiments involving mobile objects -- including a well-traveled bust of German composer Richard Wagner (www.deuceofclubs.com) and the infamous Mr. Frog, who was abducted from a yard and periodically sent his bewildered owners postcards of his exploits around the globe. And like many who become involved in such high-concept pursuits, Adler admits he's become somewhat obsessed with his beloved DirtyBill. He's offering a $1,000 bounty for Bill's return, no questions asked (individuals with information are encouraged to visit dirtybill.com), and has even filed a report with the Englewood Five-0.
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"I told them, 'I don't expect the Englewood police to be out looking for my yard gnome,'" he says. "But I hoped that if I could find the person who had it, that they would help me in apprehending it and getting it back. As soon as they looked at the site and saw what it was all about, they were like, 'Oh, absolutely, yes. We will help you.'
"The whole thing has gotten kind of ridiculous," he says. "I took him with me everywhere I went. He was a part of the everyday life of a lot of people."
Will DirtyBill find his way home? You never gnome.