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I'm sitting in on the second meeting of the Arizona Rock Coalition, a "grassroots movement" with the goal of sending 30 Valley bands to the South by Southwest festival in Austin next year, the first major step on their journey to rock stardom.
And I can't believe what I'm hearing.
Last March marked my fifth time out to the infamous music industry wank fest, where players go to congratulate and fellate one another. SXSW used to be an exhibition of the best up-and-coming talent across all genres; now, unknown acts end up playing for sparse crowds, while N.E.R.D. packs the house down the street.
When I first heard about the A.R.C., via e-mail from a stranger named Sally Michael, I was intrigued, because for anyone to think they could get 30 bands from the 'Nix official gigs at the SXSW they've either gotta be crazy or have some sort of inside track -- and without an influential record label or manager's backing, there aren't really inside tracks to getting into SXSW.
The first missive I received read, "We are sending 30 bands to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Last year over 1200 bands competed, unfortunately none were from Phoenix. The Coalition will change that statistic next year."
Ummm, pardon me? I was there in March, and several Valley artists, about the same number as every year, had slots at the festival. Blanche Davidian, Fallguy, Graves at Sea, Mary Lemanski, Jessi Colter and Shooter Jennings, and pedal steel legend Jon Rauhouse all had officially sanctioned gigs.
The Arizona Rock Coalition's missives promised "extremely valuable information about applying to the South by Southwest." I missed A.R.C.'s first meeting, but I couldn't skip the second.
Upon entering the A.R.C. meeting, we found there was a $5 charge, which is understandable given that they rented the room, but should have been mentioned in the A.R.C.'s repeated solicitations for attendance.
When the confab came to order, there were 14 people in the room, excluding Sally Michael, her brother Charge, and their father Greg, a local business attorney who is the brains behind the A.R.C., and was the MC for the night.
When we had entered the room, Sally had handed each of us a "Band Checklist for Stage Performance," a summation of the brainstorming done at the first A.R.C. meeting. It's simply a list, which caused me to emit a Homer Simpson-ish "D'oh!" An excerpt:
"Lyrics with meaning
Transitions between songs
As the kids say on the Internet, OMFG! Could these people possibly be more naive? I would soon find out.
Greg Michael began his monologue by explaining his motivation for assembling the A.R.C., which was that his son Charge had a band (Charge Michael and the Guests) that he thought should make it -- "fame and fortune" were his exact words.
I listened to Greg Michael extol the virtues of the SXSW, which he'd admittedly never been to, nor heard of until a year ago. While listing the ways the festival launches bands, he said, "I believe the Refreshments won that thing," obviously not realizing that the SXSW is a showcase, not a bigger, louder American Idol.
Greg Michael's tirade continued while I struggled to keep my mouth shut -- it was his party, not mine, and I was saving my rebuttal for my own venue. Some choice sound bites included explaining that when bands make it, other bands from the region ride their coattails to success. Get real -- if that's the way it works, why aren't a plethora of bands jostling to be on Jimmy Eat World's coattails?
Once his praises of the festival's influence ended, I was still confused about what exactly the A.R.C. was going to do to help the bands get into the festival, which has just started accepting applications. Give them checklists?
"Umm, Robbie, is my sex appeal coming across on this demo?"
"Great, Darren, how's my showmanship coming off?"
Other than planning two future meetings, one on making an effective demo CD, and another on making a good media kit, the vagaries that Greg Michael mentioned were getting together a fund (via benefit concerts) or corporate sponsorship to help the bands that get accepted to defray their expenses.
When Greg Michael suggested that the attendees break into groups to brainstorm, my group broke off and headed out the door, startled by the ignorance of what we'd just witnessed.
A few days later, Greg e-mailed me and said that a new goal was to send 30 local bands to the SXSW whether or not they made the cut, and throw an unsanctioned showcase of their own. A nice idea, if you ignore the fact that there would be absolutely no motivation for industry types to show up without free kegs of Shiner Bock, Austin's omnipresent local brew.
The strange thing is, I'm sure that the Michaels are sincere. They've simply not exercised due diligence researching what the hell they're talking about.
I suggest to all the bands out there who may have been intrigued by the A.R.C. to simply visit SXSW.com, and wing it yourself. You'll know as much as (or more than) everyone behind the Arizona Rock Coalition. -- By Brendan Joel Kelley