Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hold the (Yellow) Phone

I suppose that, what with we in the Latest Flame roster brainstorming ways to promote the label and bands in a more aggressive manner, i should be thrilled that the Yellow Phone Music Conference is coming to Milwaukee this weekend. But it probably surprises no one that the descriptions i've been reading on line fill me with a vague sense of...what is it? Oh yeah, bile:

Yellow Phone Music Conference (YPMC) is a three day gathering of talented artists and music professionals. YPMC will present engaging panel discussions and mentor sessions with experienced, respected leaders in the music business, bringing professionals, artists and fans together to share ideas and discover new opportunities.

Yellow Phone is a more focused version of larger conferences which seem to have become less accessible to up-and-coming talent and new industry professionals. The priorities of those conferences have been redirected toward launching signed acts instead of showcasing undiscovered talent. Yellow Phone, on the other hand, is focused on the unsigned artists. With fewer artists and fewer venues, the quality of the talent presented is paramount.

Yellow Phone's goal is to bring together career oriented artists and positive, forward-thinking leaders in today's music business, taking the best qualities of the larger industry conferences and downsizing them into a concentrated, quality experience with powerful, pertinent takeaways.

I suppose that once i read the phrase "career oriented artists" i should stop bitching and just realize that this whole dog and pony show isn't targeted at me, but i remain conflicted. The organizers, local entertainment consultants Doug Johnson, David Silbaugh and Scott Ziel, make some great points in their interview with Even at the Shepherd Express; in particular, they're exactly right about the problem with SXSW and CMJ these days:

"We have all been going to South by Southwest for a long time, but we found it increasingly hard to find unsigned, new and upcoming bands there amid all the established acts," Johnson says. "We had talked to some of our cohorts out in Los Angeles and they had a similar impression. They said they weren't going to South by Southwest because there weren't bands on the spot they could sign, since every act they saw had already been signed. We all thought that these events would work better for both parties if bands were able to network with industry professionals in a boutique situation, where they could actually talk one on one."

Obviously these guys care about making Milwaukee a hotspot on the national music scene, so their plan to lure Big Music Industry Folks from the coast by luring them with hot unsigned talent from New York and L.A., only to subject them to Milwaukee's Most Accessible, is crafty. (What, you think they'd come out to a Milwaukee music fest without bands from the "big" cities? Cool, how many execs were at WMSE's Radio Summer Camp this year?) Where things start to fall apart for our new Little Music Fest That Can is the pricing, which feels more like a Little Music Fest That Cons:

Panels, which will be held at the Intercontinental Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave., are reserved for attendees paying $99 in advance or $199 the day of the event. However, the shows that will be held at clubs downtown and in the Third Ward will be open to the public for $5 each at the door, with weekend show passes going for $20.

A weekend show pass for $20 is a hell of a bargain, but how many broke-ass "career oriented" bands have $199 lying around to spend on a roundtable discussion on getting your music in a commercial? (Let me save you some money--hire a girl singer who sounds like Feist, and your music will be ready-made for commercials.) That's a level of pricing that screams "scam," and if you don't agree, check out the list of panelists, find the magic word "SonicBids," and get back to me. (As my esteemed labelmate Sean Kirkpatrick of the excellent Nervous Curtains tweeted yesterday, "I would like to pay a monthly fee to be able to pay another submission fee to possibly get a gig that we definitely won't get paid for." Speaking as a former SonicBids sucker customer, i can back this up.)

Still. Conflicted. I want Milwaukee to get the recognition it deserves, but like the selective radio play of Milwaukee acts at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee (where you will get significant local support, provided you play music palatable to easy-listening suburban white liberal "arts enthusiasts"), the local bands showcased by this event are, predictably, mostly commercially viable (ok, i'm not sure why Elusive Parallelograms got on the bill, but in fairness, neither does the band). Does this music conference really showcase the diversity of Milwaukee's music scene? I don't think so, and if you disagree, i have $50 that says you'll never see Northless or Holy Shit! get invited to one of these.

But like i said earlier, this is a festival for "career oriented" bands, a phrase which excludes probably 90% of Milwaukee's finest. Which is not to disparage the Milwaukee bands in this festival, as the musicians i know who are playing aren't exactly looking for fame and fortune doing what they do. So i wish the Brewtown bands well in their shows this weekend (attending the conference shows but don't know which are the Milwaukee bands? They're the ones without emo swoop haircuts).

And hey, if the Big Music Execs without the Wisconsin ties fall in love with our little city over the weekend, i hope they come back and dig a little deeper, maybe even visiting the aforementioned Radio Summer Camp next year. I'm not holding my breath, however, because unlike the Yellow Phone Music Conference, Radio Summer Camp is about the music--not the money behind the music.


  1. It all sounds very ridiculous, and I guess I agree with all the points you're making, but I'm confused as to why anyone would be up in arms about it, as if it were a surprise that this thing would be catering to corporate rock (and yes, Elusive Parallelograms IS marketable--and that's not an evil word in some circles). Unless you're bummed that this won't help YOUR career? You, and the artists like you who aren't interested in making a career of it? Wait, what?

    Just like with the constant sniping at 88.9, which makes no pretense of being something it's not, you come off like you're bitter about being underground, but like you'd die before becoming NOT underground. It's kind of a tired tack to take; do you hope you die before you get old, too? I don't think you or I are going to ever give a shit about any of the musicians who pay $200 to go to these seminars and learn how to be sellouts.

    I'm a huge fan of your band, and your writing, most of the time. I just don't know what exactly your purpose is with this, or where exactly the bile comes from. Or what the hell the "yellow phone" part means. But hey, cheap shows and some great (if palatable) bands!

  2. Well, i guess i'd disagree with your assessment that Radio Milwaukee makes no pretense of being something it's not, Cal. They call themselves "diverse music for a diverse Milwaukee," and claim to give local Milwaukee music "significant" airplay, when they only do that for the narrow slice of local talent that falls within their wheelhouse.

    And that's where i get annoyed, is when organizations claim to represent all of Milwaukee's music scene when they so obviously don't. Maybe you don't think they claim that, and we're free to disagree, i guess. But that's the impression i get from institutions like 88Nine and Yellow Phone.

    I'll cop to wanting to get my band out there in front of as many people as possible in the hopes of getting our music in the hands of everyone who might like it. But don't fall into the trap of assuming that just because i happen to play in a band, it means that it's all about what my band's not getting or what have you. I love Milwaukee and i ESPECIALLY love its more esoteric music, so when i hear someone say "hey, we're doing this thing for Milwaukee's scene" and know that bands like Catacombz and Absolutely will not benefit or get no love, i get cranky.

    "Well, then focus on promoting the stuff you love, DJ." I do plenty of that as well, as you know, but dangit, sometimes i need to call foul on things i feel need to be called out. Maybe it's a weakness of mine, but at least i get some entertaining rants out of it.

    But you may have a point--as i even say in this blog, it's obvious that this conference isn't targeted at me or my ilk, so maybe i shouldn't be so bent out of shape. But on the other hand, just because sellouts will be sellouts doesn't mean someone else out there shouldn't yell "sellout!" at them.

    If i were going to be in town this weekend, i'd probably be hitting some of these shows, out of curiosity, an opportunity to get my snark on with some of the douchier-looking bands on the bills, and to support awesome bands like the Parallelograms and Juniper Tar. So that's something, i guess.

    I appreciate the criticism, man--i'm a fan of your AV Club writing and welcome getting called out on my shit. Discussions like this can only ultimately be productive and good for the city.

  3. I would definitely keep an open mind on things like this. Its too easy to just poo-poo something because it costs money. If you truly want to make something, anything happen for your band I believe $200 is a small price to pay if you get something out of the experience. I'm sure everyone that will attend will get some new information they haven't heard before - something they can take with them to remember, BUT the big question is this:

    Is the information you're getting relative to your band in your city in your scene?

    If the answer isn't yes - you must either a) discard the information, b) try to force the info to be relevant to you or c) figure out how to transform the information into something works for you.

    Obviously if you can get C to work that's the best option and I would say that B isn't even worth trying.

    Bottom line is information is information and what you do with it is up to you. And whether its doled out for free or is $200 it doesn't matter. Most bands will collectively spend more than $200 a month getting wasted or eating shitty fast food. The same bands are spending probably $2000 worth of personal time a month bitching about shit not working out for them. And to me that is a much, much greater waste of resources than spending $200 at a conference.

    Shane Olivo
    The New Loud
    Bobby Peru Recording