North by Northwest Music and New Media Conference
Disassembling The Hype (NxNW's web site)
By: Alex Steininger
Every year much is made about South by Southwest's sister music conference, North by Northwest, here in the in the Northwest; too much, if you ask me. Bands flying in from all over the world, all those that don't know better eagerly anticipating the A&R guy from some big label singing them and making them stars, and the idea that somehow your little indie band can stand out amongst the masses is ridiculous. Sure, it happens; very rarely, but it just might happen. More realistically though, everyone goes to what is familiar with them or they just opt out and go to dinner with friends before calling it a night.
I'm not saying people don't work the shows and A&R guys aren't out there, because the minute I say that someone will prove me wrong. But, come on, do you really think anyone cares? The North by Northwest Music and New Media Conference is a glorified local band showcase (with non-local bands playing, too) and a chance for all the industry type folks to hang out and get drunk together at the various bars around town.
Of course, then there are the conferences, which are during the day. They, my friend, serve a purpose and are very helpful to bands, potential record label executives, and anyone that has ever been curious about the music industry. They offer more insight and hope. But, for the $180 price tag NxNW charges for a badge, people off the street aren't going to go for it, and nor should they.
Bands get the option of a $100 or one badge (which gets you into all the shows and conferences) and a wrist band (which gets you into the shows) for the rest of the members. That's helpful for the bands, but for the consumer, the show still revolves around the music.
Last year I spent every walking moment hitting panel after panel on various music business topics like couch tours, publicity, and a few others that aren't coming to mind. This year, I was tired, had to work, and just didn't feel like dealing with downtown parking during the Thursday, Friday, or Saturday that the panels took place. So, instead I mapped out a plan of attack to hit the clubs.
After looking over the list of bands playing this year, I was taken back at the lack of interesting bands that could draw. I'm sure there were some great bands I've never heard of, but when you're me, you go with the familiar (there, I admitted it).
Thursday night Slackjaw and Alien Crime Syndicate were playing Berbati's Pan, but since I had work early in the morning, I wimped out and passed on these two bands. Honestly, I was disappointed in myself. Never having seen Alien Crime Syndicate live, but listening to their EP constantly since its release earlier this year, I really wanted to see them live (and heard they rocked hard). But, my body said no, so I passed.
Friday night though, it was Satyricon all the way, all night, for the Wicked Witch/Cavity Search Records showcase where such local talent as Janel Hell, Mandarin, Pete Krebs and the Gossamer Wings, Richmond Fontaine, and King Black Acid were to play.
Grabbing a bite to eat before the show, I lost track of time and missed Janel Hell, which is one of the biggest mistakes anyone can do. Her folk-pop music, with just her voice and a guitar, is stunning. She knows how to write tender, passionate music that has the audience starring in delight.
I did, however, make it in time for Mandarin's set. I was told this was going to be Mandarin at their best, though due to equipment failure and time restrictions, the band didn't live up to the high standards placed upon them by themselves. And even though the set was shaky at first, near the end, when they recovered, their brand of emo-pop-rock 'n' roll shined and showed why this band's popularity is steadily growing and why a buzz should be soon to follow.
Next up was Pete Krebs and the Gossamer Wings, fresh off of a tour. Last time I saw this band, they were a four-piece keeping it very poppy with a country tingle. This time around they trimmed down to a trio, lost some of the country, kept the pop, and just rocked out. Now, we all know Pete Krebs (former Sub Pop recording artist for Hazel) can rock out and do the punk thing, too. And if there were any doubts, they were erased with this high-octane, fire-starting set that was non-stop rock bliss from start to finish. Never have I seen the band this intense.
To follow Pete Krebs and the Gossamer Wings isn't an easy task. Not one I would want to take on, at least. But for Richmond Fontaine, the broken-bottle slinging, punk rock listening, bar familiars that they are, no task is too daunting for them. With their third full-length only days from its release date, the band came on and played plenty of the new (to a very receptive crowd) as well as enough old material to keep the fans singing and drinking along to the music. As frontman Willy Vlautin explains it, "I hate it when I go see a band and they play all their new stuff. That's why I like to mix it up; it's what I like bands to do when I go see them." Of course, the band was nothing short of a crowd pleaser.
At this point I was growing tired though. I could have mustered enough energy to enjoy King Black Acid's acid-jazz-psychedelic music, but at 1:30 am with my eyes closing fast, it just didn't seem like the right thing to do. So, once again, against my best judgements, I passed and went home to get some rest. How's that for a rock and roll boy? Pretty pathetic, eh?
Saturday night I wanted to see the 44 Long set at Jimmy Mak's because they're one of the best roots rockers out there, and if they can't do it, nobody can. Friends from Seattle came down, so I opted for dinner with them again, knowing I'd get several more chances to see 44 Long in the near future, and those I would not pass on. But, I'm sure they put on one hell of a show, and if you were there, you're one of the lucky ones.
With NxNW all said and done, you may think I look back on it as a bunch of miss opportunities to see bands I really wanted to see. But, that isn't the case at all, as King Black Acid, Janel Hell, 44 Long, and Alien Crime Syndicate (though not as frequently) will all be back several times over. And that is why its nothing more than a glorified local band showcase with a lot of hype. Where's the big names that SxSW brings in?
I enjoyed it this year. You can't not enjoy seeing Richmond Fontaine, Pete Krebs and the Gossamer Wings, and Mandarin on the same bill. It was a blast. But it was one show out of a whole basket of shows. And, to make the conference really work, they need to have bigger names to draw attention to the festival, so some of the great talents who got passed on this year will get more recognition in the future.
Don't worry though, they'll be back next year and I'll be right there. You can count on it.