On crumbling stairs in an empty lot, Ben Klink sings, plaintive and raw and swallowed up by “Infinite Spaces.” He never opens his eyes. Just strums and lets the words tumble like no one is listening. “Your outstretched fingers are about all that I can bear …” I watch the video over and over, stunned that something so beautiful came from an iPhone in the hands of Mike Ziethlow.
When I met Ziethlow in the spring of 2011, he was doing acoustic covers of Ice Cube and Biz Markie on a plastic milk crate. Busking on the Strip was just a way to get by after his online-poker winnings were frozen in the federal government’s industry crackdown. His passion project was on a virtual sidewalk known as Kickstarter. He needed $5,600 to finish an EP, five of his songs brought to life by 16 musicians, ranging from Michigan singer Camila Ballario to Imagine Dragons guitarist Wayne Sermon. But Ziethlow was already $6,000 in and only halfway done. So he shared his vision on Kickstarter, including videos of his adventures on the magical milk crate and thoughts about the business of music:
As we listen passively in a car ride, I can’t help but comment, “Another song about drinking and/or putting your hands up in the air? Really?” It’s just that I want pop and dance music to speak to me. But that dream may just have to fade back into the ether. The way I see it, the market shapes the music, and album purchasers with my taste just can’t outnumber the droves of teens and younger with allowance money to spend.
Ziethlow made the EP. His goal was not “elitist, difficult art.” He just wanted to make music people would love and get it into the hands of the lovers. That’s still what he wants, but the ripple he’s working on is so much bigger than a CD.
Six months after I watched him play his guitar for tourists just outside the doors of the Flamingo, he was launching Vegas on the Mic with an open-mic night at Money Plays. Ziethlow didn’t just want to give artists a stage and an audience; he wanted to hook them up with high-quality recordings of their sets to use for promotion. “I used to drag my desktop computer out to the bar, plop it down and record the artists,” he says, laughing. “I pitched the open mic idea to a dozen bars, but Stan [Henderson] at Money Plays has always had a soft spot for music and local music especially, and when I told him my idea he was like, ‘That sounds great. Bring it on in.’ He’s let us really make it our home.”
The event now happens every Thursday and Friday night, with artists signing up at 8 and music starting at 9. Ziethlow says the crowd doesn’t get smaller than 40 and can swell to 100 on a good night, and hundreds of musicians have taken advantage of the opportunity to be recorded live.
Thanks to Ziethlow’s ever-expanding vision, the recording equipment has gotten a lot more impressive. He put together a best-of CD after the first year, and presales through an Indiegogo campaign funded a quality camera. With that camera, he created Vegas on the Mic’s eponymous TV show, which airs on Fridays at 1 a.m. on MyLVTV.
“Indie artists, filmed beautifully, the sound is great, and that’s all there is. We don’t need to do drama; we don’t need to do infighting. No interviews, no introductions. Just show the music. … It tells a story along the way of Las Vegas, because there’s five artists an episode and five locations,” Ziethlow says, adding that the featured artists are selected from monthly showcases of the best talent from the open mic.
More than 30,000 people watched a recent episode, and Ziethlow has plans to pitch the show nationally as an “underground late-night TV show like Austin City Limits,” with call stations in LA, New York, Nashville, Portland, Austin, Boston and any other musical strongholds that might be interested in Vegas’ local scene. Sponsors have stepped up to help him purchase everything from more cameras and lenses to microphones and a mobile audio recording setup so he can leave the enormous desktop at home. Those who have given money or equipment or other support range from Money Plays and Cowtown Guitars to local recording studios like Odds On and Camel Hump, as well as international audio giant Shure. Ziethlow didn’t have a fancy presentation. He just told them he wanted to create something where any musician with talent and grit could “come in off the street for free and climb to as much success and renown as they’d like.”
The “free” part is the head-scratcher. How can a guy who shops at the Goodwill and survives on cereal afford to help other starving artists? Ziethlow says he lives simply with his schoolteacher wife in their 875-square-foot North Las Vegas apartment. He jokes that he’s probably the only executive producer of a TV show who doesn’t own a car (or a TV). He gives 100 percent of the credit for what he’s able to do with Vegas on the Mic to sponsors and the many volunteers who help him make the events and the show happen, guys like audio engineer Sal Rotolo and cameraman Mike La Putt.
Some of the volunteers are artists. They tell me that Ziethlow’s in it for the love. When he coordinates live gigs, like a recent showcase at CES, or sets up auditions for The Voice and The X Factor, he doesn’t take a cut. If he does make money on a performance, it’s because he’s filming it for the show as part of a sponsorship. And if a label calls about an artist, he doesn’t charge a finder’s fee. “I’m an artist first. I don’t want to be that guy that takes 25 percent off the top. … I want to see them hit every goal in their mind, every dream,” Ziethlow says. “Of course I want one of our artists to just break. But at the same time I want them to be happy, and if Ben is happy just playing his songs and whatever it is, that’s cool.”
At Camel Hump, watching the crew shoot footage of singer-songwriter Sonia Seelinger, Ben Klink admits that he’s not so comfortable with the cameras and the spotlight. Of course there’s some vanity involved in wanting to play music for others, he says, but he comes to Vegas on the Mic because he likes Ziethlow and the community.
“Vegas on the Mic makes you want to play more. I’ll write stuff because I have a place to put it instead of just out in the garage,” Klink says. “A lot of people who do play, who are real musicians around town, know that it’s a great audience to play for because people are there to listen. People are there to hear you.”
The way Klink sees it, Vegas on the Mic draws rising talents like Jesse Pino (formerly of Left Standing) and Chris Mendoza (of Patchwork) and newcomers like Seelinger and Cameron Calloway because of the way it gives back to the artists, not just with free recordings and exposure but with the scene it’s building. “I think Vegas needs a mid-level culture. When you build a body of musicians that are at that level, you’re also building people that go see music. I’m from Portland, which is a big music city. You go to a show, and half the people that are there are also in bands or are artists doing whatever, and that’s what fills bars and that’s what creates more venues for people to play,” Klink says. “I think it’s this base that Vegas is missing to be the city that maybe they think they want to be.”
Ziethlow pops his head out of the studio and asks Klink to take over his camera so he can do a take with Seelinger. We step into the small, hot space, and Ziethlow says, “You’re walking into the smelliest room right now.” Klink adds, “There’s been a lot of terror in this room.” Everybody laughs. The crew is on its fifth hour, but the mood is light, especially after Seelinger busts out an impromptu song about “jazzy penises.” She looks and sounds so sweet that I can’t believe what she’s singing over a favorite chord progression by Regina Spektor. She got involved with Vegas on the Mic after she showed up to support Chris Mendoza and another friend challenged her to perform. Now she’s busy writing songs for an EP of her own, not to mention mastering her skills on a camera she bought so she could work on Ziethlow’s crew.
“We’re all volunteering. We’re all just helping out because we care about this. And it’s really fun to do. … I’m gonna see artists, and I’m gonna hear some new music, and I’m gonna talk to some people and have good conversations,” she says. “This is really great ’cause it highlights the people that are from here. So I think that’s the niche for Vegas on the Mic. It really encourages locals to come out and perform.”
Ziethlow tells me that Seelinger’s sound reminds him of Iron & Wine and Nick Drake. He says last week’s episode of the show was all tears and goose bumps from it getting so emotional because of what the artists were bringing. I ask if it’s hard to be behind the camera and the soundboard so much. He says production has always been his favorite part of the creative process, so Vegas on the Mic hits the right points. Plus, it feels really damn good to be the one holding the ladder.
“When I was playing on the street I thought to myself, there’s no real ladder to climb for an artist. At least if there was, it seemed unapproachable,” Ziethlow says. So he built one. Even as Vegas on the Mic hits its stride, it continues to be an experiment. There’s the national pilot, a beer sponsorship in the works and fantasizing about a franchise that would spread the love. “There’s no stopping. You always want to learn; you always want to grow. No such thing as ‘made it’ in my mind.”