NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Conferences and Music
By: Alex Steininger
Portland, Oregon -- With a thriving music community already receiving healthy participation, anything that draws attention to the 'scene' is a good thing. Enter in North by Northwest, the annual music/media conference that focuses on the up-and-coming starts of tomorrow.
Buzz words penetrating every performance, hopes of being signed and plastering your face all over MTV on the minds of every budding musician, North by Northwest may not be all it is glamorized as, but with its growing status amongst the music community, it proves to be a vital festival that has nothing but good intentions.
Taking place August 20-22, I got a chance to scour both the clubs and the conferences to check out what everything was all about. There were a lot of good moments, and some things that can be improved, so here is my interpretation of the events that took place.
Working Thursday morning, I didn't have a chance to attend any of the panels. But once night hit, I put the pedal to the metal and started to absorb the musical life that was clearly visible everywhere throughout Portland.
Starting out with the Panties at Stage Four, I got to catch the last three songs. Popping in during an instrumental jam number, I began to wonder if I made the wrong choice in picking this band to begin the evening with. But when this guitar/drums duo busted into their next two numbers, I was quickly reminded why I came to check them out. Very impressive, the pop hooks had razor blade edges, allowing the right amount of pop to leak out, before cutting you up with some ferocious guitar riffs.
Watching as the crowd quickly disappeared as the Panties left the stage, I decided to stick around and check out Seattle's Speed Twin.
With just a bit of knowledge regarding the band, from the tiny bit I had heard about them, they seemed like a positive act to check out. Sure enough, they were...during some portions of the songs. However, with their obsession of metal and Glam rock, they somehow were able to sink a few otherwise quality power-pop numbers with their muddy guitar work. But that's not to say they didn't sparkle during other times. With a nice pop drive, the majority of their set was quite intriguing. Sitting back and enjoying their set, a few times they almost got me out of my chair to get up and jump around. But being as shy as I am, and with so little people in the audience, I didn't feel like making a spectacle of myself.
Half way through their set, I decided to walk up a few blocks to check out the Negro Problem, a NxNW buzz band for the past few years. Folk-rock with both a serious nature, and a humorous side, the packed house was sitting back and absorbing the atmosphere.
Taking in a few songs, I loved the music, but my body was craving something a bit more aggressive. So I walked back down to Stage Four and caught the last few songs on Speed Twin's set.
After that, I went to my vehicle and tossed around a few notions, before settling on Stage Four's Love Nut, a tremendous power-pop band from Baltimore, Maryland. And boy was I glad I stayed, because their music was both refined and sweet. Each song a new candy morsel, I was on a sugar high just from watching their forty minute set.
So blown away by their set, and what a tremendous set it was, I hung around after the show to talk to the band and get their publicist's number. As a result, you can read their CD review in this issue (October 1998).
In the mood for pop, I once again headed down to La Luna to check out Outpost Recording's newest signing, Marigold. Four twenty-year olds on stage playing decent Brit-pop, after four songs I was ready to sleep. The music was soft and submissive, too fragile for its own good.
But I stayed for the whole set, always expecting the next number to wake me up. But that never happened. As I stumbled out of the club at 12:40 am, I was contemplating the drive down to Rocco's Pizza to check out Bitesize, some Berkeley pop-punk band. Against my better judgement, I passed on some extra sleep and headed down to the little pizza parlor to check them out.
Dueling female/male vocals, Bitesize truly kept with their name, offering up songs that were two minutes or less. Always a nice thing to experience, especially when you're half asleep. But their set was able to instantly wake me up. Centered around catchy, three chord pop hooks, Bizesize knew if they were going to sustain an audience they had to get you singing along within the first thirty seconds. They did it too, which was all the more amazing.
The female had a cute, innocent school girl voice going for her, which was quite the turn on, while the male had this annoying voice that destroyed a few of the songs. After about five numbers however, I learned to cope with the male's vocals, and soon even began to understand them.
Ending their set at 2am, it was time for me to take the voyage home and get some sleep.
Up bright and early on Friday morning, I was ready to do last night all over again. But this time with the morning portion of the festival added to my itinerary. Arriving at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland around noon, the meeting place for suits and musicians to make new contacts, I instantly went to the trade show to see what everything was all about. Absorbing the atmosphere, and visiting every sponsors' table, I was quickly surrounded with free promotional items. Everything from CD's to pamphlets on various services quickly found shelter in my NxNW bag.
As I am in the beginning stages of starting an independent record label, I visited all the tables dealing with CD manufacturing, graphic designing, and how to self-release your stuff. After collecting around ten pamphlets, I soon made my way to the Grand Ballroom II where a panel was about to begin.
Artists: When Your Dream Becomes your Job
The two biggest names on this panel were host Howie Klein, president of Reprise Records, and Everclear front man Art Alexakis. The remaining guests were musicians in various stages of their careers.
Not sure what to expect, as this was my first panel, I was prepared for a very formal gathering. However, this was not the case. It was a very casual atmosphere. It got off to a rough start, with Howie Klein basically holding everyone's hands before they became comfortable with their seat on the panel.
Some interesting points were made, but the bulk of entertainment came from Ithaca, New York's Johnny Dowd. A truck-driver who has owns a very successful commercial trucking company in his home state, music is his was of expressing himself. Very amusing, his adventures with the microphone helped ease any tension that was in the room. As he tapped and thumped on his microphone hear the base, where no sounds could be picked up, Art Alexakis ended up loaning him his microphone. As Art tested Johnny's microphone, it was soon discovered it in fact worked. But not convinced, Johnny soon took a stab at his microphone, hitting it dead center, and a loud thump came out. Playing with it a few more seconds, and looking like a kid exploring something for the first time, the attendants soon began to fill the room with laughter.
But that wasn't the only funny thing that came from his. When asked how he got into writing music, his response was, "Well, I was writing poems and funny books. Then I started to put guitar to the poems, and then I knew it had to be a song."
These should have been a sign of the forthcoming events, because the weird and amusing soon helped branch off the panel into a whole new direction, as the internet was discussed in great detail. Straying from the topic at hand, and covering everything relating to the internet, the panel ended on that note.
Not what I expected, but a good panel none the less.
Next up was the 2:30pm panel in the North Galleria, Promoting Your Band: How to Publicize, Not Antagonize.
Moderating this panel was Dren McDonald, president of San Francisco's independent Vaccination Records. Two local hip-hop experts, Small Axe Productions' David Parks and Five Fingers of Funk's Pete Miser, local publicists Lisa Lepine and Carl Hanni, as well as FourFront Media's Christopher Knab helped round out the panelists.
This time around, the panel seemed to stay on focus. Where as the previous panel strayed off into unrelated internet chat, this one pointed out the benefits the internet can have on a promotion campaign.
"Web sites are press kits. Use them as such," offers Lisa Lepine. "However, etiquette is important. Be polite!"
"You need to have sound samples on your page, tour dates, a bio, and other basics like that. These are a must," adds Christopher Knab.
But the internet is only a small portion of your promotional possibilities, and this squad was able to offer up many more suggests for the rock-star hopefuls in the crowd.
"A simple thanks can go a long way. Artists hardly ever say thanks, but there are times when you need to let the writers know how thankful you are for the press they have given you. Heck, put their name on the CD, they love that stuff," suggests Knab. "Do a lot of research. Stop sending CD's to people who give your style bad reviews. Know your audience!"
"Certain people won't always get your music, or what it's about. They're not worth your time. With others, there are ways around it without antagonizing. Educate them. Invite them to a few shows, help them learn about the music so they won't be inaccurate when writing about it," says the playful Pete Miser, with seriousness covering his face.
NIGHT TIME -- that's right, now it was time for the music to begin. After visiting the trade shows and the conferences all day, I was eager to check out some live music. My first stop was at the Roseland, Olympia, Washington's ska band Engine 54 was playing at 9pm, and they're always a guaranteed thing.
Warming the crowd up with on the first number, by the time their second one came around the horn players were letting the notes flow. Packing a tremendous saxophone, the whole room started to steam. Playing a lot of new material, as well as tracks off their latest CD (RUN FOR THE MONEY), the dancing was alive and well at this show. "Burn It Down" and "Rudeboy's Serenade," both off of RUN FOR THE MONEY, were the highlights of the night. Highly energetic, and with enough traditional ska foundation to make ska purists happy, their blend of ska is a refreshing slice amongst all the clones.
Sticking around the Roseland Theater for The Disliked, a group of ska-punk kids, I wasn't sure what to expect. Never having heard them before, I was interested in what they were all about.
Playing through a few songs, it took the crowd awhile to get into this band. After all, Engine 54 is a tough act to follow. The first batch of songs were heavily pop-punk, with only traces of ska, while the next batch leaned more towards to ska side of things. Each with their own qualities, it was hard for me to concentrate on the band while their friend sat on stage and danced, occasionally adding what he believed to be backing vocals. Quite pointless if you ask me, maybe if they dropped him off stage I could focus on the music.
Getting in the car and driving to the [now closed] Stage Four Theater, I was eager to see what Spectator Pump had been up to in the last year or so since I'd seen them last. Female-fronted, dynamic rock 'n' roll, this three-piece sure knows how to fire up a crowd with their heavy power chords and thickly layered beats. Two guitarists and one drummer, the sound did lack the bass it needed, but they still managed to do without.
Jumping around like a cat after a mouse, the dynamic female behind the band had everyone's eyes center stage. The second guitarist did a good job of helping to add meat to the sound, while the drummer worked his way around the kit, keeping the rhythm section as muscled as he could. Quite a live act, it's amazing how they bring their songs to life and just surround you with power that somehow falls flat on their recordings.
Once again heading up to La Luna, I wasn't prepared for what was about to take place. Sure, Five Fingers of Funk blew me away with their funk approach to hip-hop, complete with horns, but their live show takes their amazing presence one step further.
Dropping phat beats after phat beats, these guys were nothing short of amazing. I can safely say these guys are one of the best live acts I've ever seen. Pete Miser was a pro at working the crowd, always interacting with them, resulting in a higher level of energy pouring out from everyone involved. The rest of the band was quite talented too, each taking on their instrument as if they were the king of their domain. Well executed, nothing stood in these guys' way. For the first time in the past two nights, I saw a crowd that was into the music 110%. Nothing was about hype here, everything was real and about the music. Easily stated as the best hip-hop band today, Five Fingers of Funk put on one hell of a show that was never matched the entire festival.
Finishing Friday night up with another show at Rocco's pizza, Longview, Washington's The Jimmies were a can't miss. Standing around until 1:20am, I wondered if they were ever going to come on. As the anticipation mounted, and the little pizza parlor began to fill past its capacity, The Jimmies finally took the stage. Well worth the wait, they mixed in a lot of underground favorites with a handful of new songs.
Ramones influenced pop-punk, they know how to get your toes tappin' and your ears devoted to them (as well as your eyes). Driving through each song with more and more passion, Barry's guitar was on fire, while Chris' vocals put a deep spin on every alcohol-filled tale they busted through. A favorite among Northwest punk rocker's, musically this had to be the best show up to this point. Strong hooks, lots of content, and a menacing stage presence, these guys are the down to earth rock starts that are loved by all who know them.
Finishing off their set around 1:55am, I once again headed back home to get a few hours sleep before waking up bright and early to do this for the third, and final night.
Making my way back to the trade show around 12:00pm, nothing seemed to interest me. I'd covered all the booths yesterday, so everything seemed to boring to me. Determined to find something of interest, I headed on over to the acoustic stage. Up at 12:20 was Marc Olsen.
A clean-cut guy, he sat up on stage with his acoustic/electric Gretsch and began to play some very good folk-driven music dealing with his childhood, the woo's of growing up, and beyond. A tremendous voice, I definitely had achieved my goal and found something that interested me. Listening to his whole set, while watching my watch for the next panel to begin, I didn't really have time to savor every note's morsel, but enjoyed him nonetheless. Powerful and emotional, he gave me a great wake up call and started the morning off right.
Heading on over to the Grand Ballroom II, Retail Sells: Promotion At Street Level was about to begin.
Moderating this event was Donna J. Ross, National Director of Alternative Sales for Capitol Records, and local music store owner Terry Currier.
Stating from the beginning that too many other panels had focused on the internet (boy was that the truth), they made it known that they were going to stay away from the topic and cover street level promotion.
"The people at the front counter are your allies. If they're enthused about your product, it will pass on to the consumer," stated Eugene's small record store owner, Bob Lee.
"People on the other side of the counter have a lot to do. Don't be irritating. The little things matter, such as bringing a tape for them to listen too, giving them a promotional copy of your disc to preview and possibly play in store, as well as bringing your own staples and tape to hang up posters around the store," added Ozone Records' Janel Jarosz.
"I can't stress this enough, get a barcode! It can track your record. Soundscan can now track your venue sales as well, so although Soundscan has its flaws, you need to know how to use it," offered Adam Abramson, Director of Sales for Atlantic Records, regarding tracking your record and it's sales.
Covering many more aspects of promotion, from consignment to the business side of selling your self-released material, this panel was full of good information. Straight and too the point, although a weak turn out may have forced this information into evaporation, there was plenty to be had from this one.
Heading back to the acoustic stage, Lael Alderman helped pass the time between panels. A folkie with tremendous vocal range, and a child-like demeanor to help carry his words and help them impact the listener even more, he played each song like it was his first one. Full of adolescent glee and emotional situations, his music was the perfect gap between that of children's emotions and those of a full-grown adult.
Now it was time for the panel I was waiting for, Smoothing Out The Bumps on a Couch Tour. Although not a touring artist myself, tour stories are always my favorite. What better place to hear more stories than a panel on tour stories, so I quickly jumped on over to the Grand Ballroom II after Lael's quick set.
Hosted by Erin M. Haley, someone who has never been on a couch tour herself, the panel seemed to be going downhill before it ever started. Ironically, Si Abra(h)ms crossed out the non-existing 'H' on her name card, while Portland musician Sean Croghan laughed off the fact that the 'H' in his name was missing.
Haley quickly introduced everyone, and then turned the mic over to Sean Croghan, former Crackerbash front man, and now the man behind Portland, Oregon's power-pop quartet Jr. High. Having been on both good and bad couch tours, and one of the two on the panel who actually has been on one, it was Sean who made the panel begin to look bright.
"Local success does not mean national success. Even on a major label, you're going to have shows with no one there. I've seen many bands break up from being non-prepared for tours. Before you go on tour, do two things: work on the songs and be prepared to put on the best show possible. Even if you're playing for 3 people, treat it like it was for 300, or even 1,000. Even if you're playing for someone's dog, try your hardest to get their attention and keep it," begins Croghan. "Also, the van will be your home for the next two months, so know what to bring. If you can stand it, bring some books. Walkman, Discman, anything that will help you realize your personal space. You're going to be spending twenty-three hours together until your forty-five minute set, so you'll need to find your personal space. After sound check go walk around, do something away from the rest of the band members. Also, bring your vitamins! The body doesn't like white bread and ketchup, only to have you trash around on stage later that night." "Being prepared is the key. Bring a club light for your merchandise, don't count on them to provide you with one. Also, ask about parking in advance. In places like New York, there are clubs that don't provide parking for the bands. You need to go out and find your own. So know the situation before hand, otherwise you might end up parking miles away from the club," suggests Debbie Pastor, the other person to actually have road experience. "Each Day is a new day, so forget yesterday. Just think of tomorrow and you'll be fine. Another important thing is to not stress about the money. Play it down but be smart about it! They'll be days when I'm walking around with 10,000 in cash in my pocket, and no bank is going to cash it. They think it's drug money and won't touch it. Realizing I have a lot of the band's money in my pocket, I never forget about it, but I walk around and down play it. That's the only way, otherwise you'll stress out and crack worrying about the money."
"For the first week and a half it seems like an 'endless' party. After that you just want to sleep. You'll come to a point where you're going to hate to stay at people's houses and all they want to do is party. You're like, 'yeah, that's great and all, but I want sleep.' Eventually you'll start fighting with band members over who gets the rough job of sleeping in the van. 'No, I don't mind at all, I'll sleep in the van. NO, seriously, I'm sleeping in the van. It's my turn to be tortured,'" laughs Croghan.
Turning into an interesting panel, only through the efforts of Sean Croghan and Debbie Pastor, there were a lot of laughs to be had.
Moving on to the most informational panel of the whole conference, Making A Name In The Indie Label Scene, this panel blew away all other panels far and away.
Hosted by Jonathan Love, VP of Artist Relations for New York's Push Records, there were many other knowledgeable characters to help make this a very solid, straight-to-the-point panel. Some of the other panelists included: President of NAIL Distribution, Mike Jones, Chicago's Sugarfree Records owner Thaddeus Rudd, Lazy Bones Productions' Scott Schorr, and Bloodshot Records Nan Warshaw.
"You need to start with a business plan, as well as have passion for music. Money doesn't hurt either," laughs Love.
"There is no one recipe for success. Things can start accidentally and turn out to be more professional than if you'd have sat down and planned everything step-by-step," Rudd throws in on the question about how to start your label off on the right foot.
"It's hard, but anyone can do it," smiles Rainforest Records president, Ray Woods.
"Contracts are a necessity. If majors come along, you need options. Otherwise, you'll get nothing. But if an established band comes along and is offering you more than you can offer them, sometimes a record by record deal is the best you can get," describes Warshaw.
"Bands need to understand that labels don't create demand, they amplify it. If you can't get any press on your own, don't expect a label to suddenly make you stars," brings in Woods.
"Interns are the key!" laughs Love.
"Everyone should own the YELLOW PAGES OF ROCK. Read, read, and read! Knowledge is power. Some other great books to get are 'This Business Of Music' and 'Music, Money, Success.' They'll help you out a lot.
An amazing panel, as I am trying to start up my own independent label, I walked away from this one with pages upon pages of notes, for both future reference and for this article.
Now it was time to go get something to eat. Heading for some Chinese, I sat and looked over my notes, before heading to Pioneer Court House Square for the Golden Delicious show.
Drawing a tremendous crown, VH-1's free stage seemed to be the hot place to be around 7pm. A free show, more than 75% of the attendance seemed to be non-NxNW attendants. But that didn't stop Golden Delicious from putting on an amazing bluegrass show. Getting everyone to dance and move along with the music, the music helped amplify the crowds fun, while the big stage and good lighting system helped push the arena-concert feel to the max.
Local music hero Pete Krebs was hot on the guitar, while Kevin Richey played the banjo with a rock 'n' roll zing. A humdinger of a show, the crowd roared for an encore, and although Pioneer Court House Square was under a tight schedule, they allowed the band to come out and do one more number.
An amazing show, I decided to skip the rest of the shows and rest up for Jr. High's 12am time slot at the Tonic Lounge.
Hands down the best show at this years North by Northwest, Jr. High's frenzied power-pop is as clever as it is sly. Full of angst, sharp hooks, and real-life feelings you'd be hard pressed to have not experienced before, you can't help but be instantly attracted to their music.
Tucked way up front, exactly where I wanted to be, I had a great view of both the audience and the band, as to see both their reactions to each other.
Opening up with "Today Is The Day," the packed house instantly began to pay less attention to their alcohol and more attention to the music. Blasting out the sonic pop booms that filled the room, other essential Jr. High numbers began to soar out from the speakers. Playing selections off their CD and 7", as well as some new songs, "Walk Like A Man," "Writers Song," and "Gotta Problem" kept the crowd going.
But the real amazement of the show was seeing Oscar-nominee Elliott Smith, hot off the heels of his latest solo album (XO -- Dreamworks Records), singing along with every word. Deeply into the music, he took time to sip on his beer, before jumping right back into the songs from the audience.
But more guests would show their face this night. Tahoe Jackson, the local soul diva, came up on stage and traded vocals with Jr. High's front man, Sean Croghan. Both of them have such lovely voices, and to hear them work together it was amazing. Slowing things down a bit, this gave the crowd a chance to settled down, before bursting back into "Storm Warning" and ending the show.
Hanging his guitar up in the air, Sean began to use it as a punching bag. Capturing the band's attention until the final note was poured out, they are truly performers in every sense of the word. Musicians first, yes, but prominent performers as well.
Finishing the night off at La Luna, I took a trip down to see Sunset Valley. Fresh off the heels of a West Coast tour that netted them some heavy press, they were back to show the indie-pop fanatics at home what they were made off.
Closing off the evening with some solid pop, they had the energy and stamina to keep things rolling all night, but coming from a Jr. High performance, the band was up against some heavy competition.
Enjoying their set, but still coming down from Jr. High's performance, after their set I made my way back to the car and drove home to catch some sleep before work the next morning.
A great festival, it left some things to be desired, but still provided a lot of bang for the buck. I look forward to next years festival, because if the past festivals have been any indication, each year it only gets better.