THEY MAY HAVE MORE EXCLAMATION POINTS, BUT WE HAVE ALL-CAPS!
TALENT-SCOUTING THE CATTLE CALL
A&R man. Like baseball scout or film crew location manager, it's a vocation with a mythical, they pay you to do that? aura. How difficult could it be to watch bands perform, make snap decisions about ability and likeability and tap the ones that actually have "it"?
I figured I'd see for myself at last week's Amplify!! Independent Music Comp-Fest, which brought together more than 80 acts at four Downtown venues for a blitz of 15-minute showcase sets that would make even the most zealous music fan's head spin. Choosing Thursday night at Celebrity for my little experiment, I arrived just before 8, hunkering down in a booth along one side of the mostly empty room. Let the games begin.
Neverwonder (Long Beach, California): Hard(ish), grungy modern rock. Female vocalist with some Gwen Stefani attitude but not her fashion sensecombat boots and a bustier? Guitarist and bassist have no stage presence, and they're not doing anything terrible exciting with their instruments, either. Songs are mostly easy on the ears, but lyrics like "Can you see me?/Can you hear me?" could hardly be more generic. Chance for success: mild, though the singer has some star power.
Yea Brother (Mission Viejo, California): "What the f--k is up, Vegas?" Talk about your lame opening lines. Four dudes. Frontman's necktie seems so played out. Okay, they're an emo outfit. Oh, wait, they play heavy rock. No, here's a poppy punk number, which actually sounds like something I might hear on TRL. Ya know, if these guys went the Yellowcard route they might get a few songs on the radio, and I bet that tall, blond bassist could sell a poster or two. Chance for success: mild to moderate.
Seaclipse (Seattle): A decent band name, or is it? Wait a minute, Seaclipse isn't a band, it's a rapper. And he's yanking off his shirt. And performing the rest of the set bare-chested. Perfect. Dirty South party tunes, backed by a track doing most of the heavy lifting. Seaclipse poses for a photograph mid-song. Pretty humdrum stuff until ... what's this? A Mariachi sample with a thumping dance beat? Spanish rhymes? This actually might work as a novelty club hit ... or maybe not. Chance for success: mild.
Outlett (North Hollywood, California): That guitarist seriously might be the devil. And that behemoth on bass can play, too. Actually, these metallic hard-rockers have a good thing going ... and then the singer opens her mouth. Not that she can't belt it out, but her vocals aren't elevating the tightest band of the night. Imagine Lita Ford fronting Judas Priest. And what's she got now? A drum, specifically a djembe? Strapped to her body? Okay, so she can play it, but that doesn't mean she should. Chance for success: mild.
Mandy Baby (Arlington, Texas): Now this is different. A tall, blond white chick ... rapping? Lyrics go from hackneyed ("yeah I got some money but you gotta work to get it") to silly ("everybody in this bitch do a white girl dance"), but the room is filling up and the crowd can't stop staring. Her flow is a bit clumsy, but not too terrible. With better producers and songs it's not hard to see her getting on MTV, or at least into the CD racks of 13-year-old boys everywhere. Chance for success: moderate.
The Upwelling (New York City): Tech issues. They seem agitated when they hit the stage. Three-piece, but the drummer and keyboardist are trapped behind their instruments so we've only got one guy moving, and he's striking funny guitar poses. Still, these are the best melodies I've heard tonightaching, anthemic tunes, somewhere between Brit-pop and indie, with the occasional Weezery "woo-oo" chorus. Interesting stuff, but near-impossible to market, unless the bloggers somehow catch on. Chance for success: mild to moderate.
So there you have it. No sure-fire stars to my eyes and ears, but only time will tell whether I really have the A&R touch or if six future platinum-sellers just paraded before me. Either way, my thought coming out is pretty much the same as it was going on. They actually pay people to do this?
APPLES AND ORANGES
I don't claim to be an expert on music, contests or what the kids will like on a national level. But when one Beauty Bar regular turns to another with an exasperated and expletive-laced exclamation after an evening of 11 entirely disparate bands and their quickie 15-minute sets, I must concur: "What the f--k was that?"
Amplify!! had all the right intentions—to help unsigned bands gain experience and exposure by hosting a fest/comp (that's festival slash competition) in which everyone is a winner. In theory, the audience would get to hear bands from various genres and the bands would get the chance to be heard by a variety of potential fans. Amplify!! even arranged for big-name industry guys to hold panel discussions on everything from publishing and artwork to touring and getting an agent.
The official winners would be determined not by the predictably locals laden audience but a panel of judges, qualified to crown the champions because they're "industry professionals." With $100,000 in cash and gear up for grabs, it was worth a go for more than 80 up-and-coming bands. And that's where the whole thing fell apart. Eighty-plus bands at four separate Downtown venues over just two days meant a cacophonous series of three-song sets that attracted meager audiences and elicited mild applause from the other bands in attendance.
From these preliminary performances the judges picked eight finalists. Why anyone would be expected to compare a surf-rock/pop-goth outfit like Radio Reset, to the Garbage/Cranberries/Alanis-a-la-Jagged-Little-Pill-inspired Superstring, to the hyphy antics of ATLAS, I'll never know. And neither did the handful of people politely clapping. Though the rosters were mostly rock, the stark contrast of crunk rappers and kids with an alt-indie agenda confused an already cramped showcase. The finalists reflected that mixed-bag aesthetic with locals Panic!-at-the-Disco-esque Fletch in fourth place and electric guitar enthusiasts Magna-Fi coming in at third. Beatbox extraordinaire, Vegas' Verbal Ase, took second. And to absolutely no one's surprise, Mod-rockers and out-of-towners Black Market won first. Though few would argue with the results, how the entire event was carried out might be a source of contention.
Here's hoping the folks at Amplify!! put on a more concise conference next year. If only to condense the crowd and keep the kids from cursing.
DISPATCH FROM DEADSVILLE
Jillian's, 8:04 p.m.
Thursday. The café is dead. As Pasadena, California-based band The Days in Between loads in its equipment, there are maybe 10 people in the room who aren't in the band, and most of them are wearing some sort of official lanyard around their necks.
This isn't a good sign. It's Night 2 of Amplify!!, and attendance at its premier venue is beyond weak. On the other side of the building, at the arcade stage, about 15 people are watching a laughable hip-hop act called Hardnox. Most of those audience members bear badges as well.
Amplify!! creator Tim Driver admits the audience turnout for the band showcases is weaker than he had hoped. "But now we know to go to a different format next year," Driver says.
Maybe one place to start would be grouping bands together in a somewhat palatable format. The white-boy rapping of Hardnox is followed by some mainstream pop-punk from Milwaukee's Now You Have Audio, which is followed by the Cookie Monster metal of Canobliss. Some might call this diversity, but I'd call it schizophrenic at worst, annoying at best, and one sure way to scatter crowds.
Things are a little better over on the café stage, where the generic alt-rock of The Days in Between is followed by the bluesy country-rock of Mylin. With a fiery little blonde belting out lead vocals and strumming a guitar, a small crowd of about 30 gathers as Mylin demonstrates pop songcrafting, studied musicianship and the importance of presence.
Despite the lack of potential new fans, not all is hopeless at Amplify!!
"We came away with a better understanding of some things," says Eric Lilavois, lead singer of The Days In Between, about the conference panels and workshops taking place before the nightly showcases. "And the networking opportunities were great."
Back at the arcade stage, as Canobliss' lead singer is growling out his teenage angst, the hardest-rocking members of the audience are two security guards flanking the stage, both alternately playing air guitar and air drums. If nothing else, their enthusiasm makes up for the giant empty spaces these bands have to face. Somewhat.