Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reading "The Problem ..." and Dipping a Toe

This Friday night (and early Saturday morning), I had the most pleasantly wonderful evening spent with friends in a South County attached garage: cigarettes, mini-Cokes, a well-stocked iPod attached to stereo speakers and, most importantly and most pleasantly, conversation.  It was a rock 'n' roll salon in Oakville.  We talked as we listened: everything from the 70s Jamaican DJs' practice of "toasting" and its informing of American Hip-Hop to the cultural significance of Radiohead's use of electronica-informed techniques in OK Computer.  We talked as we listened to a lot of St. Louis music, too.  All of it, the global and the local, were currents on the same plane.  We were collectively charting this plane - half of us musicians and half of us "amateurs" and all of us cartographers.

One of my band mates was at the garage salon, so naturally he and I discussed our upcoming Thursday performance.  We discussed not only the performance itself, but the composing and rehearsing leading up to it, the piece itself, how our previous piece effected this piece, how our next piece might be effected by this piece, et cetera.  I suppose that we were charting some more personal currents ... some artistic currents.

Anyway, the whole night (and morning) was pleasant and truly intellectual - not snobbery, but rather giving a shit about stuff that is vital and delighting in discussing this vital stuff with loving thoughtfulness.  

My participation in Friday night's impromptu Oakville Rock 'n' Roll Salon made it so that I wasn't aware until this Saturday afternoon of Friday's RFT Music blog opinion piece, "The Problem with An Under Cover Weekend," and the ensuing brouhaha.  I think that I've since sufficiently caught up with the discussion on the Internet and on social media in order to write about it.  The discussion has taken a personal turn for some of the controversy's principals.  This is too bad.  I consider, among the controversy's principals, both the author of the RFT Music piece and the proprietor of the Firebird (each of whom are on "different sides" of the brouhaha) to be dear friends.  These two people each have shown me so much personal kindness, caring and understanding over the years.  I love and care about them both.

I read "The Problem with An Under Cover Weekend" not as criticizing (e.g. "hating") An Under Cover Weekend but rather as critiquing (e.g. evaluating) the way in which AUCW is curated and mediated.  Interestingly, the piece's conclusion shifts to the second person voice, and is directed neither toward AUCW nor the Firebird, but rather directed toward St. Louis bands:
You guys [STL bands]: please remember that you can put on your own shows and have fun with it and not have to deal with any bullshit rules. And while I think there are things that you can learn from AUCW's quality control standards (for example, it's nice to see those professional band photos; they're beautiful), you might be better off doing it on your own. Or consider taking all of the time and effort you are putting into this one 30 minute gig and apply it instead to your own original music.
I understand and appreciate this conclusion, because it is a conclusion that speaks to more than just whether AUCW is "good" or "bad" or just whether AUCW's 2 month blackout rule is "good" or "bad," et cetera.  I understand and appreciate this conclusion because it speaks to considerations of what kind of music you want to make, how you want to go about making it, and how you want to go about getting people turned on to it.  The conclusion speaks to artistic considerations - mapping the currents and trying as one can to chart a course.

In 2010, my band had the good fortune of participating in An Undercover Weekend (in the parlance, AUCW4).  AUCW had invited our friends Theodore to play, and Theodore in turn invited us to play with them.  A couple of months before while moving a piano up a narrow flight of stairs and almost killing ourselves, we'd discussed how much we all loved Van Dyke Parks' Discover America album.  Apparently, all of us had gotten that "you've got to hear this" presentation from a friend, and all of us of course made that same "you've got to hear this" presentation to other friends.  Parks' work was something that we all loved and by which we were influenced.  We decided to cover his songs - to make that "you've got to hear this" presentation to an audience.  (Oh yeah ... we knew that there was something about a Firebird "blackout" rule but we promptly ignored it and nobody from the Firebird ever brought it up anyway.)

I, for one, dove deep into Parks' work.  I even finally mustered up the courage (thanks to my friend Kelly's prodding) of emailing Parks and informing him of what we were up to.  Parks wrote back with a lovely note of encouragement.  We played first on night three.  Theodore drummer Jason made sure that there was a recording through the soundboard so that we could give Van Dyke Parks an mp3, and it turned out well enough that we gave the sound file to I Went to a Show to post.  Our friend Lauren took some pretty good video, too.  (As you can see, we're not dressed up in seersucker suits playing pianos.)  I think we were all rather proud of the performance.  I was, anyway.  The audience seemed to really like it.

For the next year and thereafter, AUCW decided to curate the bands and covered artists in a different way.  Instead of AUCW being invite-only as it had been previously, bands now would submit applications describing themselves and the artist whom they wished to cover, as well as a second choice.  There was also the explication of what probably was previously a curatorial guideline into a hard-and-fast rule:
The artist chosen by each band must be a "popular" artist. Basically, think of a band with radio hits and not that obscure Norwegian band from the sixties that your Dad really liked but no one knows who they are. Bands are asked to submit their first and second choices.
AUCW's new application process coupled with the new "'popular' artist" rule shifted AUCW from a more curated annual event to a more programmed one.  An analogy to a television network board meeting seems apt.  For this most recent AUCW, reportedly forty bands pitched their 30-minute show by application to AUCW.  Out of those forty 30-minute show pitches, two evenings of  five slots of prime time programming were hashed out.

I think that the television network analogy is apt, but I don't mean it harshly.  Programming rather than curating is an excellent way to run something like AUCW.  Ensuring overall quality programming over two evenings helps each individual band get maximum audience and maximum exposure.  A band selected to play AUCW should expect that.  That seems to me part of the deal between the band and AUCW if AUCW wants to program rather than curate.

This seems to me part of the deal because AUCW advertises it as such.  The RFT Music piece reads AUCW's recent "five-part docudrama" as self-congratulatory videos.  I read the "five-part docudrama" as five advertisements to St. Louis bands of the benefits in terms of exposure that come from participating in AUCW.  This message is particularly explicit in video #4, entitled "The Community." Watch and listen:  

I neither doubt nor discount the benefits of exposure for the bands who participate in AUCW.  According to AUCW's organizer via Facebook, AUCW sold out on Friday night.  I'm sure that they sold out or came close to selling out on Saturday night.  I remember a big crowd when we played AUCW two years ago.  It's a great party.  It's an excellent production.  Apparently, AUCW has an official videographer and photographer this year.  Participating bands should expect that.  That's part of the deal if AUCW wants to program rather than curate.

I'm thankful that my band got to get in on An Undercover Weekend when we did.  It was a lot of fun.  We got to tell a bunch of people "you've got to hear this Van Dyke Parks guy."  It was a statement.  Jason made sure to record through the mixing board and Lauren was thoughtful enough to videotape it.  And thanks in no small part to our statement of affinity two years ago, this happened in April:

Map the currents and try as you can to chart a course.  Just like at an impromptu Oakville rock 'n' roll salon, it's all on the same plane.

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