"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."