Feel the Noise
They are a young band. They have a Web site and a mailing list and a few starry-eyed fantasies, like the one in which the A&R guy comes to their best gig, stands in the back, with a low-slung hat maybe, smoke curling from his silhouette. You know: the discovery. So when this band--we'll call them Band A--noticed the ad for a huge upcoming festival, they sent in their demo and their $25 application fee, along with a thousand other local bands who saw the ad on Web sites and at rehearsal spaces. With 400 of those applicants, Band A received the following news: Congratulations, and welcome to the first-ever Dallas Music Festival.
The Dallas Music Festival--"the biggest music festival Dallas has EVER SEEN!!!" read a recent e-mail--kicks off Thursday. Four days, 400 bands, 20 venues. For the price of $15, festivalgoers can take in everything from upstarts to buzz acts like The Mermaid Purse and Jibe to nationals like Starlight Mints and Edwin McCain. Each band gets a robust 40-minute set. The festival has flown in suits from Maverick and Interscope and Columbia for two Saturday panels in the hope that one of the bigs might see some hot local talent and whip out the checkbook. In many ways, the Dallas Music Festival is something to be excited about--a celebration of the talent bristling downtown and a city that has spawned more marquee acts than dear old Austin for some time now.
Yet, Band A dropped out of the festival.
"From the viewpoint of the people running this festival, this is a way they can assure they make money," says the lead singer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear that speaking out against the DMF would hurt his chances with future club bookings. "As a band, this is not the way we want to make music."
The problem came when Band A met with a festival organizer at the fest's Deep Ellum office. "We're doing things a little differently with this festival," they were told. Unlike most festivals, bands at the DMF were asked to sell their own tickets, which would in turn determine their booking. Sell 60 tickets, and Band A would be rocking out at Club Clearview with a headliner (who, for obvious reasons, did not have to sell their own tickets). Fewer than that? It's Elm Street Bar for you, my friends. For every ticket sold, the band kept $5. Each ticket cost $15.
"Fifteen bucks!" gawks the guitarist, who also asked to remain anonymous. "It's hard enough getting people to pay a $5 or $6 cover."
Bands that sold the most tickets would be put in a "special showcase" prior to the industry reps panel on Saturday afternoon. So it would be a really, really good idea to sell 60 tickets. Got it? Good.
"It reminded me of being in German club in high school and selling Gummi bears," says the lead singer.
"I went into that meeting really pumped up," says the guitarist, "and I left wanting to throw those tickets in the trash."
Upon first whiff, the approach is a little fishy. After all, the notion of taking advantage of musicians is as old as rock and roll itself. And who could be more vulnerable than young local bands?
"Trust me, when I first heard it, I didn't like it either," says fest publicist Sabrina Gunaca. Founder of the slim local glossy National Noise, Gunaca is a rabid local-music enthusiast who has worked for the past four months out of the fest office in Deep Ellum. "But it serves two purposes. It makes [the bands] money, so they're not playing for free. Also, it shows us where we need to put the band. I racked my brain trying to think of a more fair system. We have 400 bands. Can someone else come up with a better plan?"
Most festivals use a committee to book shows according to talent or reputation, but Gunaca sees that approach as equally flawed. "I know this is not what people are used to, but if you sit down and you think about it: What is the fair way? I don't think it's fair for a group of six people who are putting on a festival to decide what their favorite bands are and those are the bands who get the good time slots. That's not fair."
Scott Beggs, who books shows for the Entertainment Collaborative, has no problem with it. "Unfortunately, a lot of artists think that all they have to do is show up to the gig," says Beggs, who also helped book the festival. "I think it'll wake up a lot of bands who don't realize how much self-promotion is required to make it."
"Self-promotion? You don't need to tell us about self-promotion," says Band A's lead singer. "We played over 40 shows last year. We spent all our spare time trying to get exposure. The idea that because you didn't sell tickets, you're playing some small bar ..."
"That's insulting," says the guitarist. "Rich kids from Plano are going to be headlining the club."
On his cell phone, promoter John Michalak defends his festival's approach. "We don't force bands to sell tickets," Michalak says. "We do reward bands who do with better time slots."
"Every band has an equal opportunity at this festival," business partner Dan Bliss adds.
Together, Bliss and Michalak are the men behind the Dallas Music Festival. Although Bliss is from L.A. and Michalak from Cleveland, the two have been in town recently, working to put the fest together by Thursday. As the team behind Sugarlight Productions, they are also responsible for the nationwide Battle of the Bands competitions, in which unknown bands compete for crowd appreciation across 16 cities--"from Seattle to Tampa," Michalak says--including Dallas, where recent winners at the Galaxy Club and Club Indigo include Skard Soul and Ruckus. Sugarlight also began the Cleveland Music Festival four years ago, and the DMF is their first festival franchise.
"There were two things we liked about Dallas," Michalak says. "First, there's a lot happening. I'm not sure there's another local market--other than, maybe, Austin--where there's so many great local unsigned bands. Second, there's Deep Ellum, all these clubs within walking distance." Whatever you think of Michalak's approach--which skews more toward commerce than art--he and Bliss must be commended for such a massive undertaking. The Web site predicts the festival will attract "over 1,500 musicians and 15,000 fans." Michalak won't disclose the festival's budget. But, he says with a sigh, "It's big."
To assure attendance and program bands that were largely unknown to them, Sugarlight borrowed the model of their Battle of the Bands--in which the number of tickets a band sells determines its time slot. Though the method makes sense on some rational level, it's tough to get past its crass commercialism, tough to stop tearing it apart.
So what if some frat boy sells a hundred tickets to his dad?
"It has happened on occasion," Michalak says. "There's gonna be flaws in any system."
Another disquieting aspect to the Dallas Music Festival has been its proximity to the North Texas New Music Festival, which just took place in Deep Ellum in October. "Recently, more than a few people have gotten the two festivals confused," New Music Festival organizer Teresa Hale writes by e-mail, "but there are actually several major differences." For one, the New Music Festival is free for participants and attendees who get tickets in advance. For another, it has fewer national acts than the DMF. But by placing its debut so close to the New Music Festival (surprisingly, it originally was slated within two weeks of the New Music Fest), the DMF has given the appearance that it attempts to overshadow the competition. For their part, DMF organizers plan to move their date next year, possibly to summer, to distance themselves from the New Music Fest and the spring's juggernaut, SXSW. But they have nonetheless suggested a certain us-vs.-them scenario in people's minds: the local grassroots fest vs. the corporate outsiders. For Band A, who raved about their experience at the New Music Festival, the fact that the DMF was run by out-of-towners only added to their disillusionment. The idea was, "What do people from Cleveland and L.A. know about Dallas music anyway?"
Beggs isn't playing that card. "Someone's bringing new talent into the city. I don't care if they're from California or Canada. Well, I do care if they're from Canada," he says with a laugh. "But as long as they're good Americans, I don't care."
Gunaca understands the general apprehension. The festival is new, and they're doing things differently from the way they've been done before. "Dallas has had a lot of broken promises," she says. "But the bands who were apprehensive will want to be on board next year. Same with the venues."
Of course, the best test--the only test--will be the success of the festival this weekend. These days, it's hard to knock anything that gets people out, that gets bodies in the club, crushed and jamming and smoky and sweaty. Who can spend much time arguing when there are so many good bands to see?
"I guess when you think about it," says the guitarist for Band A, "the worst thing that could possibly happen--the absolute worst thing--is that a horrible band could get a good slot."
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