Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The International Songwriting Competition – Worth It or Not?

Today is ripoff day. A ripoff differentiates itself from a scam by not being downright illegal. The $25K grand prize for the International Songwriting Competition may or may not exist, the latter case which would vault it into the former category. The promoters of the competition claim that the judges include Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Loretta Lynn, Black Francis, McCoy Tyner and Toots Hibbert, but even if that’s true, and those luminaries voted en bloc, they’d still be outnumbered many times over by a crew of schlockmeisters from the soon-to-be-defunct major labels. Ultimately, contests like these boil down to a glorified lottery. What chance does a musician’s hard-earned $25 entry fee stand? A look at last year’s winners provides the answer – and the organizers’ decision to make this information public may turn out to be the marketing disaster that shuts them down for good.

The grand prize winner was a generic trip-hop song. The production is laughably obsolete – the drum machine shuffle was over by 1996, something you would expect judges ostensibly the caliber of Messrs. Waits, Hibbert et al. to be aware of. Perhaps far more telling is that the song’s writers, fortysomething pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall already had a gold album and a major label deal in Australia when they entered the contest. Is this contest simply a lower-budget version of the Grammies, a major label circle jerk with zero acknowledgment of what the listening public might prefer? In other words, considering its association with the major labels, is the deck stacked against artists who don’t fit the cookie-cutter corporate mold?

The song that won in the rock category, by Kristopher Roe of the Ataris was even worse, an even more cliched emo-pop song. “The only thing that matters is following your heart, and eventually you’ll get it right,” Roe strains, affecting an intensity of emotion that his band’s third-rate Good Charlotte imitation reaches for halfheartedly before giving up. “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up,” Roe asserts, a tautology for the comfortable upper middleclass children he envisions as a customer base. In case you’re not familiar with the band, they achieved some recent notoriety by recording an earnest Green Day style cover of a Don Henley song. The ersatz emotion recurs with the second-place winner, Quebecois emo-pop band Tailor Made Fable’s A Case of Mistaken Identity. At least the third-place winner, Irish band Chrome Horse’s Reflections of a Madman shows  some passion, even if the verse is a blatant ripoff of the Ventures’ Egyptian Reggae.

A look through the rest of the winners didn’t turn up much of anything worthwhile either. The second-place winner in the World Music category wasn’t remotely exotic: Leni Stern’s 1,000 Stars is a vapid semi-acoustic pop song in the style of the grand prize winner. Americana winner Kevin Meisel’s Cruising for Paradise is a third-rate Jimmy Buffett pop number with a little mandolin overdubbed to give it that down-home Americana flavor. Jazz winners the LeBoeuf Bros. Quartet’s Code Word at least shows some promise, even if it it’s not exactly edgy. And in case cutting-edge lyrics are your thing, for a laugh, here are the winners in the Lyrics-Only category.

In case you haven’t figured all this out by now, the winners here may actually be the best of what the judges had to work with. Consider – would your favorite cool band be caught dead entering a generic corporate talent search like this one? Imagine for a minute a first-class group like the French Exit at Emergenza. They’d clear the room in seconds flat.

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September 18, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 108 Comments

Don’t Pay to Play

Went to the MEANY Fest last night at Arlene’s. All I knew about this was that they’d moved it from CBGB, and that if you emailed them, you could get on the guest list (typically, bands and the club each have their own lists). As it turns out, it’s a competition: more about that later. Wanting to see Devi and to give the club a chance to redeem themselves after the sonic fiasco that was the Sloe Guns show here last week, I went to the MEANY site and signed up using our email (we get enough spam here, never mind giving them my personal email). Sure enough, the door girl didn’t have any record of it. This time around, however, she’d apparently done a couple of lines of meth off her baby’s belly, which seemingly calmed her down to the point where she finally handed over a wristband for club admission.

The good news is that the sound was good tonight, with the regular sound guy here running things. But there were bad omens everywhere. The bands were only getting half-hour sets to play (as opposed to the 40 minutes to an hour that Arlene’s gives bands onstage). Despite this, the night was running an hour and a half behind schedule, even though the clock had yet to strike nine. While the band’s email listed a 9 PM showtime, there had been two other acts put on the bill before them. To their credit, Arlene’s runs pretty much on time: you’re always assured of seeing the band you came for without much if any delay if you get there at showtime. That wouldn’t be the case tonight, and that was a drag. My days of showing up right when the club doors open, and then standing for hours and suffering through the likes of the Suburbs or 54-40, just to make sure I was in the front row when the Church took the stage ended a long, long time ago. Call me unadventurous or closed-minded, but that’s what the internet and myspace are for. If somebody I trust (NOT a promoter or a band manager) tells me that I should check out such-and-such, I’ll google them, I’ve got better things to do than sit through one wretched wannabe after another without being able to stop the track when it’s obvious that the band really sucks.

After taking what seemed an eternity to set up, trumpeter/pianist and Tom Waits wannabe John McGrew and his competent if uninspired backing band played a set that ran about as long as it took to get the band going (even though the club has a backline, with all the bands using the club’s gear instead of switching over to their own amps and such between sets). The wait grew longer as Uncle Pumpkin took the stage. While we don’t usually do negative reviews here, Uncle Pumpkin warrants an exception. This corporate rock act with a silly analog synthesizer from the 70s is stupefyingly bad. Watching them live was a vivid reminder of how equally vomitific corporate radio has become. This band sounds exactly like every other loud, tuneless corporate act that the corporate stations play but never tell you who they are or what song they’ve just played, as if you’re supposed to know who they are by osmosis or telepathy or something. Even though their vocalist (I wouldn’t call him a singer) doesn’t bray or mumblemouth the lyrics, Pearl Jam style, Uncle Pumpkin could easily win this whole thing. Which is saddening beyond belief.

Bad music may be good comedy, but this kind of comedy gets old awfully fast. There was no way in hell I was going to sit through a whole set of this shit. And on a Thursday night (or pretty much any night, even a Monday, if it’s late enough), there’s absolutely nowhere in my old neighborhood to go where you can have a drink and get away from the throngs of tourists. There was a girl in the back of the club with ballots for the audience to fill out, so I stopped there on my way out to vote for Devi. The promoters told the crowd that voters had to choose two bands, which stumped me: McGrew hadn’t earned my vote and I didn’t know any of the others. And while scanning down the list, I noticed that the promoters had scheduled a band for 1 AM. Meaning that at the rate the night was going, they were probably going to take the stage somewhere around three.

Now if you’re in a band whose fan base is a bunch of drunks who don’t mind staying out late and going to work the next day on hardly any sleep, and if you’re also a drunk who doesn’t mind staying up late just to play a brief, half-hour set in the wee hours and then going to work the next day hungover on no sleep, that’s great. But let’s say your fan base isn’t likely to stick around til 3 AM on a rainy night when they have to get up for work the next day. What do you do, play to an empty room? That’s absolute fucking bullshit. This is exploitation. Fuck you, MEANY Fest. You chose the right name. I gave my other vote to the 1 AM band.

And a little googling afterward uncovered something considerably more revealing: each band that played tonight paid MEANY Fest $40 to play this gig. And that’s bullshit. I predict that within five years, since the only young people who can afford to come to New York now are independently wealthy, clubs are going to start making bands pay if they want to do a show (CB’s Gallery tried to do this with their downstairs space in their last couple of years, without much success).

But til then, there’s absolutely no need for this kind of shit. You want exposure? The promoters put a Tom Waits wannabe back to back with a corporate grunge-pop act, followed by a melodic indie rock band with psychedelic tendencies. Tell me that anybody from the first crowd is likely to stick around for the next band, and so on. Talk about bad segues: it’s Brownie’s, 1999, all over again. That’s no way to build a fan base. At this point in history, bands can play the Dives of New York tour, a new venue every month and never run out of places to play. And the way to build a fan base in New York isn’t by playing live shows, anyway: the new permanent-tourist class here doesn’t have any interest in music, or film, or art, or literature. They’re into what everybody else in New Jersey, or wherever they come from, is into: they watch tv. The only way for New York musicians to reach a wider audience is to reach out to that audience and go where they are. Because musically, artistically or otherwise inclined young people can’t afford to come to New York anymore. You have to go out of town and find the pockets of coolness where these people are hiding. They’re out there, trust me. And they’ll gladly pay a $10 cover and buy your merchandise and regale you after the show about how good you were because you ARE good, especially by comparison to the Clapton wannabes and cover bands which is usually the only kind of live music you can find outside of urban areas.

So forget all the gaudy promises on the website, the prizes, the record deals, the hookers, the blow. Don’t waste your money on MEANY Fest, or Emergenza, or any of these scams. These assholes are just looking to make a buck at your expense. Let’s put them out of business.

October 12, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Rant, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments