Music conferences can be useful: Participants see and hear new music, make important connections, and reconfirm their career choice. They also drink too much, stay up too late, and spend a fortune on cab-fare—and sometimes less licit purchases.
What follows is a glimpse at three different music festivals and their various pitfalls, pluses, and temptations. In the first tale, Richard A. Martin embarks on an impossible mission—writing a music festival program—and gets crazy from the heat. In the second, Kerry Murphy reports from a conference that's avoided the long arm of the industry. And in the final piece, Tricia Romano lets it all hang out on the dance floor. Should you decide to undergo a little indulgence of your own, check out the list of music festivals on page 30.
The Date: July 1998
The assignment: Fly from Portland, Oregon, to Austin, Texas, to write about as many of the 300 bands scheduled to appear at the North by Northwest music festival as possible in a one-week period.
The goal: To get a head start on the NXNW official program guide, which will eventually contain 100-word blurbs about each of the performers; said performers have sent CDs or demo cassettes, which are on file in Austin.
The personnel: The South by Southwest staff, which oversees, books, and manages NXNW; cockroaches the size of Chihuahuas.
The variables: Full-on heat wave temperatures, 100 degrees or higher; the SXSW temporary office, a beat-up trailer with a wall-unit air conditioner and wood paneling.
Housing: A friend, who will be out of town, will lend you his shed-like one-bedroom home; the bedroom's air conditioner is nonfunctional; it's advised to sleep on the ratty futon under the wobbly ceiling fan in the living room.
Transportation: A generic rent-a-Buick, with CD player (thank God) and first-rate air-conditioner (praise Jesus!).
2pm Sunday I arrive at the quaint Austin airport, gleefully noting the "Live Music Capital of the World" greeting on the wall. As expected, I walk outside and a blast of torrid air smacks me in the face. The Buick's climate-control system takes a while to kick in, and I arrive at my temporary home to find that the inside environment would be suitable for a lizard.
4pm Sunday Anxious to get started, I arrange to meet one of the festival bookers, Charlie, at the trailer/office, about a half-mile away from my hovel. Charlie lets me in, sets me up with a rickety boom box and some headphones, then walks me through the main room into a side office that doubles as the "library." Here, the performers' CDs and demo tapes are filed by a number that corresponds to their registration folders, which occasionally provide helpful info such as press clips or bios. Charlie bids me good luck, then splits.
8pm Sunday Stepping outside the trailer for a smoke, I marvel that the heat hasn't let up by more than a degree. I've now listened to about five CDs, written 500 words on my laptop, and set a goal to have finished at least 100 blurbs by week's end.
9am Monday I arrive at the trailer, which I now have to share with five Texans who are feverishly working to put together a cohesive schedule with the ostensible goal that it will also be dazzling. Calls to big-shot managers fail to convince well-known bands such as Cracker and the Foo Fighters to sign on, despite my Austinite friends' best efforts. I'm having some doubts about reaching my goal.
5pm Wednesday I'm getting punchy. Every rock critic clich頩n the book has been reused, recycled, and even translated into rusty French. Forty-five blurbs done and a daunting schedule ahead.
7pm Friday Tomorrow morning I leave this swampy hellhole of a city, which under normal conditions I love so much I consider it a home-away-from-home. I've listened to and written about 112 rock, punk, ska, folk, electronica, and reggae acts—and one really bad New Age blues guitarist from Finland. I sympathize with the organizers of this crazy festival. I also hate them, for they are conduits for the often-unlistenable music that filters into my ears. My job is only one-third done. Now, I must return to the cooler environs of Portland, where the festival guide must be completed. Music— my love, my hobby, my career—has become my foe.
RICHARD A. MARTIN
There are few industries more indulgent than the music business. Period. It takes a certain type of person with a certain masochistic streak to work in a business that requires a professional office presence half the time and late-night, smoky-club attendance the other half.
The truest rite of passage for anyone seeking a career in music is to go to a convention, the be-all and end-all of indulgences. Most music conventions are professional grand-standing endeavors, full of label showcases and repetitive panels. I've attended my fair share of conventions, and they all call up blurry memories of lubrication by schmoozy chatter and endless expensed drinks and meals and vain attempts to catch countless bands at countless different venues every night. The week after a big convention is the true test of one's music business mettle, as the troops return home exhausted and are expected at the office the next day. Conventions can be fun, but really, if you've been to one, you've been to 'em all.
That is, unless you've treated yourself to the gathering called Noise Pop, which happens annually in San Francisco in late winter. More festival than convention, Noise Pop is actually a pleasure—designed for anyone who loves the music more than the business. In fact, there's little industry presence at Noise Pop, which is precisely how organizers Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland want to keep it.
This year was my first Noise Pop, and I went not as an ambassador of Sub Pop, where I work, but as a writer, which was a treat in and of itself. With 42 bands playing over the course of six nights, and no droning panels to attend, I found myself in the midst of my own little utopia, spending the days lazing and recovering, and the nights eating and drinking and marveling at the music.
Scattered around town at venues of various sizes, the shows each had a distinct personality. There was a who's who of pop show, featuring Imperial Teen, the Push Kings, and Dealership; the requisite "buzz-band" show with Creeper Lagoon, Grandaddy, and Death Cab for Cutie; and the "It's Saturday afternoon and we're all hungover, so let's exceed the recommended decibel limit" with Kingdom First and the Murder City Devils.
With no label fanfare in sight, I was astonished at how much fun a "convention" could be. The real beauty of Noise Pop is its bona fide community feel; the clubs are packed nightly mostly by music-loving locals, rather than throngs of business-card-toting ladder-climbers. The unifying vibe of community and fandom held it all together—in stark contrast to the other, more corporate beasts that operate as an arm of the music industry. As one who has over-indulged in music time and time again, I was regret-free and content with my Noise Pop experience. And I even made it to work on time the next day.
Beach blanket bingo
Everything about South Beach screams excess. From the sun-drenched populace—whose winter pallor is darker than most Pacific Northwesterners' summer tans—to the pastel pinks and fluorescent yellows of every building down Washington Street, it's as if only the most extreme will do. I imagine that to gain entrance to the city, you have to present an application to the mayor while wearing a thong bikini, preferably in bright fuchsia.
It is amid these surroundings that the annual Winter Music Conference occurs every March. Thousands upon thousands of dance music aficionados, artists, DJs, and industry types converge on the city that spawned Miami Vice.
They say the palace of excess leads to the road of wisdom. This being my first trip to the conference, I indulged myself in a few absolutely unnecessary extras to prepare for my trip: a head of multicolored braids to better snag attention with, a couple of new outfits, and a brand spankin' new cell phone (which actually proved to be indispensable). Indeed, I behaved in Miami in ways I would not elsewhere—certainly not in Seattle. I schmoozed, traded business cards, and said things like "Let's do lunch." I sat out on the sidewalk and made long-distance phone calls to my dad in Las Vegas to talk about absolutely nothing just because I could. I hailed cabs to take me five minutes down the street. I even spent $8 on weak drinks and shrugged off the $10 cover to get into the terrifically terrible Subliminal Records party, only to leave a minute later.
For all of my extravagances, I was surprisingly well-behaved, but had a better time watching my friends and acquaintances behave very badly. One NYC friend drank and ate mushrooms through the conference and was absolutely off-his-rocker every time I saw him. Still another, usually reserved friend (whom I'd call a musical purist) was spotted dancing happily to Fatboy Slim with a shit-eating grin on his face. Then there was the lovely Scarface moment I witnessed at a boathouse somewhere near where the BeeGees' mansion is supposed to be, during which a roomful of the world's most notable jungle producers had a few indulgent moments themselves.
Everyone seemed to be on their worst behavior. Maybe this is because, other than the handful of friends you travel with, nobody knows you—and if they do, they're so busy with their own naughtiness, they don't care what you're doing. Miami gives you license to chuck away your own respectable self for a new, unimproved version—one that doesn't hold so tediously to accountability, responsibility, and all those things that hamper us on a daily basis. So friends didn't fret about staying up till six in the morning, then stumbling to the beach to drink more champagne—only to wake up a few hours later burnt by the morning sun.
This "new me" attitude extended even to the conference's most well-known artists. On the final night, Groove Jet, a wonderfully over-done and over-the-top bar, hosted the Respect is Burning party, which featured Dimitri from Paris and Romanthony. Diehards and left-overs populated the club, including a rash of UK producers. Roni Size and his Full Cycle/V crew with Krust, Die, and Dynamite waltzed around swigging bottles of bubbly and cavorting with the Playboy bunnies for hire. I turned with amusement to watch the gigantic Krust shake and wiggle to Dimitri from Paris, and said with a laugh: "I can't believe I'm watching you dance to house music." To which he replied: "And you never will again!"