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I got an e-mail from a rankled Dana Forrester of local management-publicity house Aural Pleasure Music. Forrester was bent out of shape over something I wrote. I guess using the phrase “pay-to-play” while describing the “Detroit Future Platinum” showcase she and her partner, Erica Koltonow, pitched at the annual SXSW music festival was a case of me “treading water … on having any kind of journalistic integrity.” She demanded a retraction.
People often go ballistic when the ugly truth appears in print. I’ve got nothing against Forrester. I’ve never met her in person, and, honestly, in past dealings she’s always been straight-up.
But having played in bands — having done my share of SXSW shows — I’ve developed empathy for the ones writing and performing. It’s fucking hard work, rich in sacrifice, but it rarely shows a fiscal return. Scads of people make so much cash off the blood of songwriters/performers, but so few of the latter can earn a living.
Paying to play is the most offensive — and archaic — thing that could be demanded of a band trying to find its legs.
Sincere artists are often left to flounder in the wake of crap artists — and the lawyers, A&R reps and managers who thrust into our faces shite such as Good Charlotte, Shania Twain and Killer Mike. Of course there are exceptions; bands like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s and the White Stripes basically wrote their own ticket, managing to acquire leverage in the corporate wasteland by keeping steadfast.
Also, appropriating Detroit as a music culture brand-name is shameless bandwagoneering. Which brings me to Forrester’s showcase at SXSW, where at least two bands of six paid for the privilege of showcasing themselves in front of a handful of people.
Here’s an excerpt of Dana Forrester’s e-mail — I tried calling her, to no avail. On the question of pay-to-play, her missive was a nondenial denial.
“I’d like to address the charge that Erica and I had bands ‘pay to play’ our SXSW showcase. This is certainly not the case — our bands contribute towards promotion costs, publicity, stage crew and sound (we actually had to rent additional equipment to upgrade the venue’s sub par sound system). SXSW is aware of this — and supports us. In fact this is the third year we have been invited to host a showcase by SXSW.”
The blood money of this industry is laundered by “promoting properly” and other such rationalizations.
In any case, both Lanternjack and Gold Cash Gold are pissed. They claim they were told the showcase would be packed with label people and “industry” types. Both bands insist that if they hadn’t paid, they wouldn’t have played. Forrester denies this. “Bands have the option of not contributing towards promotion, publicity and stage crew costs,” she wrote in her e-mail. “But we encourage them to do so to help make the showcase a success.”
“We had to pay to play,” says Laternjack front man Johnny Flash. “They [Aural Pleasure] got us on the showcase for a $500 fee. Period.”
“If it’s not pay-to-play, then why did we pay?” he continues. “I didn’t see any promotion. I saw flyers. Shit, I could’ve done that for free. By the time we went on, I was totally pissed. I thought the whole thing was kind of a set-up. The venue sucked. I definitely feel like we got ripped off. These are promotion people. … That’s what I thought we were paying for. And Gold Cash Gold, they were the ones that really had to pay. I really felt bad for Gold Cash Gold.”
“I had to pay a thousand bucks,” says Steve Zuccaro, guitarist for Gold Cash Gold.
Here is guy who, in the band Charm Farm, had a major-label deal with Mercury. He’s toured the country with Uncle Kracker. And, he says, it was all he could do to keep from smashing everything in sight before the show.
“That was the most embarrassing thing of my life,” he says, his voice rising.
Benjie Gordon, an artist manager and onetime Columbia A&R man — who signed, among others, Soul Asylum and Manic Street Preachers — went to the showcase to see the Lanternjack.
When he heard one band forked over $500 and another $1,000, he was taken aback. “I know it costs $25 to get into SXSW. Five hundred dollars seems like a lot. And $1,000? Where did the money go? For promotion, flyers, phone calls, gear?”
Still, Gordon says that Forrester and Koltonow got invites to many of the right hands. But no A&R guy will go see a band at SXSW they’ve never heard of, and getting a deal out a festival like SXSW is just a myth.
“You know, if the showcase was a success, then having to pay to get on a bill would’ve been a bargain. But this is a case of buyer beware,” Gordon says.
Gordon compares it to the Hollywood scene in the late ’80s when bands bought their way onto bills at the Whiskey or Roxy.
He laughs, “Pay-to-play comes to Detroit, who would’ve thunk it?”
“They tried to break down where the money went, but none of it made sense to me,” says Zuccaro. “That’s what pisses me off the most. I’ve been around, you know, so I didn’t go in with any hopes of getting a record deal.”
“I am such a sucker,” he adds. “Live and learn.”
Zuccaro adds that he was embarrassed to be associated with a cadre attempting to brand-name Detroit. “You have bands like Von Bondies and the Sights who are getting really successful, and they’re not going around saying ‘Detroit this, Detroit that.’ My band is not about trying to get on some stupid bandwagon.”
His solution to the showcase debacle: “I just want to do everything possible to make sure they don’t get away with this next year.”
“I don’t associate myself with any of that,” says Scott Hamilton, who runs Detroit-based indie Small Stone records. Small Stone had a showcase for its non-Detroit bands (Dixie Witch, Five Horse Johnson and others) at SXSW.
“You want to know how much my showcase cost? One hundred and seventy five dollars for the application fees for my bands. That’s it.”
The Small Stone showcase was packed, littered with pop stars and subordinates such as Twiggy and members of Monster Magnet. Elijah Wood worked the merch table.
“There are so many clowns in town out to brand Detroit and get their piece,” Hamilton says. “I think that what they did charging bands was moronic. I think it’s almost the band’s own fault for being stupid. I told the Gold Cash Gold guys to pay their airfare and the application fee and that’s it. But I can empathize to a certain extent.”
“We did not have to pay last year,” says Chris Codish, keyboardist-singer for the Brothers Groove, who played last year’s Detroit Future Platinum showcase. “But I think that’s horrible … charging bands to play. My feeling in general on all these showcases is it’s the bands who are always getting fucked.”
Forrester’s e-mail is littered with red herrings.
She writes, “As for promises of a packed house, great venue, etc. … it is always a crap shoot. As you know the music industry is in the doghouse. Many of our personal A&R contacts did not attend due to budget cuts or job loss.”
C’mon. The taking the money and not delivering, then covering your tracks, is emblematic — albeit on a small scale — of the record biz. It’s a business where hype supersedes reality, where graft and subterfuge are key to furthering an agenda, where money and power — not music — come first. It makes it nearly impossible for a baby band or artist to get to the next level without having been pimped.
Aural Pleasure may be sincere, their hearts may be in the right place. Maybe they just don’t know any better. Still, pay-to-play is pay-to-play.
Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.