And in fact, the Denver-based regional arts organization was already in the early stages of discussions for what ultimately resulted in the creation of its latest program, Independent Music on Tour (IMTour), an innovative, locally based grant-facilitation program that will provide a select group of independent, tour-minded musicians with some financial aid for touring, as well as other professional developmental support. Partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, WESTAF, a private nonprofit, is one of six regional arts organizations that oversees the re-granting of NEA dollars.
In November 2009, WESTAF, in association with the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs (now Arts & Venues Denver), presented its Listen Local study, prepared by Ryan Stubbs and Dr. Bryce Merrill -- then bandmates in the group Everything Absent or Distorted (a love story) -- the results of which spurred the initial discussions, which centered around Denver's Creative Vitality Index (CVI), a metric crafted to examine the "relative economic strength of the region's creative economy, including for profit and non-profit creative sectors."
The study concluded that while the Mile High City's CVI value exceeded that of cities like Seattle, Austin, Chicago and Portland, Denver's inherent geographic challenges had the potential to impede any sustained touring efforts, which the study deemed key to ongoing success. "It's eight hours to get to Omaha from here," notes Dr. Merrill, WESTAF senior associate director. "You know, if you're on the West Coast, you can just sort of city-hop, and that's great. But Denver bands really are challenged to get past these long drives."With this challenge in mind, Stubbs and Merrill helped assemble a task force led by Shannon Daut (now the Executive Director of the Alaska State Council on the Arts) that included a cast of local luminaries (Chrissy Deal, Ben DeSoto, Dave Ratner, Eli Mishkin, Erin Barnes, Lisa Gedgaudas, Tony Garcia, Michael Schenkelberg, Storm Gloor, Ginger White, Steven Seiphert, Eryc Eyl, Jim Palermo and Laura Bond). With each member well versed in various facets of the local music scene, the task force began engaging in earnest discussions about touring in the West.
Thanks to the focused efforts of that core group of individuals, who helped put together the framework for WESTAF's latest grant program, IMTour has come to fruition. Geared toward acts that are already actively engaged in touring, the program basically connects artists with non-profit presenters in twelve of the thirteen surrounding regions in WESTAF's purview (Colorado is excluded from the program, as the impetus of IMTour is interstate touring), including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The application process for IMTour begins today and runs through Friday, April 13, at which point a national panel of industry professionals made up of everyone from talent buyers and festival promoters will award the grants to five acts at the end of May. Each artist selected will receive up to $3K towards professional development and touring essentials such as booking, press relations and merchandising.
They'll also be paired with two non-profit presenters outside of Colorado, who will apply for a $2500 grant to present the acts, a large portion of which will be used towards artist fees and travel. "About three weeks ago," reveals Dr. Merrill, "we put out a call for non-profit presenters in the west to send us a letter of intent to participate in this program -- obviously, they didn't know who the bands were, so they couldn't really formally apply for these bands -- but we got [responses from] about fifty presenters."
While the amount of the individual grants aren't necessarily game-changers in terms of value, they will certainly bolster the efforts of an act that's already established or provide the infrastructure for an outfit that's on the cusp of taking things to the next level. "If the band needs to have cash up front to get on the road," says Dr. Merrill, "then we'll work with those non-profit presenters to front the bands the cash."
Although there's no fee to apply, naturally, there's are a number of pre-requisites to be considered for IMTour, some a little more obvious than others. Foremost, prospective musicians must be based in the Front Range (Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Ft. Collins, or the surrounding areas) and not be affiliated or signed to a major label. Likewise, since one of the main facets of the program is connecting the artists with non-profit presenters, the prospective applicants must also not have extensive experience touring in the realm of non-profit arts (if you know what this means, you're probably not the type of act they're looking for). Finally, the program is dedicated to artists that are creating original music.
In addition to the preliminary requirements, there's other criteria for adjudication: The grant awards will be determined based on the artists' level of creativity -- a high premium is placed on innovation and approach to the craft -- and musicianship, as well as how tour-ready each act is and how career-focused and oriented it is. Right now, the pilot program is exclusively devoted to Colorado musicians, but depending upon IMTour's success, the program could be broadened here and subsequently employed by other regions.
"That's certainly the hope," says Dr. Merrill. "It's such an experiment, that we wanted to be able to curate the process of selecting the bands locally and then have a lot of interaction with these bands as they're preparing to go on the road and interact with these non-profit presenters. So we thought we could do a better job of curating that roster of bands locally. But we certainly hope in the future, given that WESTAF's focus is this whole region, that we could say bands from Washington could then tour and Colorado non-profit presenters could apply to present them. But we'll have to see how we do this year first."
Dr. Merrill and the other members of the WESTAF team -- Trevor Trumble, Daniel Aid, Andy Thomas and Jen Toews -- are certainly off to a very good start.
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