The great sound-off: Musicians, promoters weigh in on local music
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If you think music writers are opinionated, you should talk to their subjects. And if your musician or promoter friend is being honest, chances are he’s given you an earful lately on the state of music in Las Vegas.
Those long conversations inspired this year’s Local Music Issue theme, as well as a “virtual” roundtable of Vegas scene players weighing in on that very topic. We doled out the questions, and the participating music types responded via e-mail.
We’re heard private complaints that the local music scene is experiencing a lull. Do you agree, and why?
Patrick “Pulsar” Trout (bassist of Ministry of Love, promoter for various venues): I think there is definitely a lull in terms of motivation. It seems like people just aren’t as excited about going to local shows as they used to be. And it seems like a lot of bands are getting frustrated with the lack of support and getting burnt out.
Ronald Corso (vocalist/guitarist for Anjin-San, founder/recording engineer of National Southwestern Electronic Recordings): I don’t know if there is a lull or not, but the period between 2009-2011 was a lot of fun, a lot of good records were getting made, and there was a sense of community and positivity that maybe makes for some nostalgia…..
James Woodbridge (promoter, co-founder of Neon Reverb music and arts festival): There may be something of a lull occurring — at least in the “indie” scene that I’m more familiar with here. It certainly seems as if both the number of active bands and the fan support for them have diminished some from what seemed like a high point in 2010. Many (though not all) of what were the go-to, venue-filling, party-time indie bands of that year are now either broken up or on hiatus, or have moved out of town.
Ryan Pardey (guitarist/singer of Halloween Town, entertainment director at The Royal House): Well, I guess that’s all in who you ask and where you consider the local music scene to be these days. The indie rock component has been dragging for awhile, but maybe the interest is in EDM these days, and we should start looking to a new generation to quench our local music thirst.
Frank Ouija (singer of Lucky Cuss): When’s the last time you saw a group of local musicians put on a dangerous original show? A show that left you wanting more and wondering why you felt a group of people you’ve never met are fingering your brain, reminding you of your existence and sparking curiosity about theirs? … It’s not the creativity, it’s the danger. No one gets excited about a skateboard trick you can’t get injured doing.
Jeff Murphy (guitarist of The Bitters): This is a timeless complaint, and while Vegas is probably the apathy capital as far as bands go, I can’t help but think that it really depends on where you look … peaks and valleys within any scenes are to be expected.
How much consideration do you feel Vegas acts genuinely put into the craft of songwriting? And where are our anthems, sing-alongs and potential singles?
Chris Leland (singer/guitarist of Dreaming of Lions): Good songs are not easy to write, that’s why good bands are rare.
Ouija: Vegas bands don’t know how to treat their audience to intelligence via song. They lump their sound into one anti-dynamic blur and expect the most attractive person in the band to promo their undeveloped sound. To do something memorable, you have to risk doing something different. You can sell music that’s not special, but not for long.
Corso: I think there is a lot of thought, maybe too much thought, going into a lot of it. Probably could do with a bit less overwrought, overworked, precious bullshit … but that’s a taste thing, and true of music as a whole right now, anyway. It’ll come around.
Steven Matview (founder/executive editor for Punks in Vegas website): I know there are a lot of Vegas bands that genuinely put everything they have into the craft of songwriting. I think Last Call has done a good job at really creating anthems that represent Vegas, like “It’s Like This Place Isn’t Even Real.” That’s a song that really tells the story of what it’s like growing up in this unique town.
Rob Whited (drummer for Most Thieves): Not every band wants an anthem or a single. Some bands just want to create a palate of sounds that is unique unto them, and that is, in fact, their greater goal. Clearly, some bands do want the big sing-alongs. I think that the quality of the parts, the sonic value and, most important, the lyrics and melodies truly show not only the overall talent level of an aspiring sing-along band, but also the amount of time that was spent on the song.
Woodbridge: Maybe it’s something of a Catch-22 situation: People are not going to shows as much because they don’t know the music, and they can only get adequate exposure to the music by going to shows.
Josh Figg (promoter, band manager, webmaster of Figzillamusic.com): Serious, experienced bands will take the time needed to develop a song and can listen to constructive criticism. Anthem? Mine’s HOTS’ “War.” Sing-alongs? How about Rule of Thumb’s “Drink, Fuck, Fight, Die.” Potential single? Days After Hail’s “Cloverfield.”
Do local acts defer too much to musical trends and/or their influences?
Pardey: Every great artist struggles with the power of influence and is always in a way revising the work of a prior artist to create something that’s authentic and hopefully better than the prior influence. From Shakespeare to The Beatles, modern trends and the influence of prior artists have been the seeds which create all great new art.
Brian Garth (vocalist/guitarist of Black Camaro, owner/recording engineer of Chrome Werewolf studios): I hate to say it, but some of the most talented acts in town are guilty of biting. Not just being influenced, but completely biting.
Joe Sacco (radio disc jockey): I’ve been trying to tell bands for years, record companies don’t what “what’s now,” they want “what’s next.” If an act sounds too much like everything else out there, chances are they’re never going to make it out of whatever bar they’re playing every other Friday night.
Paige Overton (singer/guitarist of The Clydesdale): If you are into a new sound and it starts to reflect upon your music, then that’s evolution, baby.
Whited: Yes and no. I think that some bands love their influences so much that they don’t know how not to sound like them. Meanwhile, other acts are digging deep to round-kick us in the brain with their creative prowess and invention.
Are musicians being taken advantage of by non-casino venues that pay them little to no money? And should they continue to play them?
Garth: Yes, they are being taken advantage of, and no, they should stop playing those venues immediately. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been guaranteed a certain amount and then was told by the “promoter” some line like, “Shit man, I had to pay for the fliers.” Bullshit! I did my job, pay me. It’s not my fault you didn’t do your job. You should fucking fire yourself!
Pulsar: Bands deserve to be paid for their work. Running a venue isn’t cheap, but neither is performing music. That being said, bands need to understand that not every venue is the Cosmopolitan or the Hard Rock. A DIY venue or a locals’ bar doesn’t have tourists’ casino money or corporate backing.
Overton: A little motto to help out: “If it’s worth it then do it, if it’s not then screw it.”
Corso: I never gave a shit about getting paid for downtown bar gigs. I played them to play music. What does piss me off is shitty sound systems and five-band bills.
Adrian De Hoyos (vocalist for Vihan Rytmi and Alarido, promoter): If a bar is relying on you to bring them business with your show and they’re not kicking you some cash, then don’t play there. But in all honesty, playing in your own backyard so to speak isn’t going to get your band paid. Get on the road and get your name out, and if you’re lucky you’ll break even and gain a bunch of new fans/supporters.
Figg: I’ve noticed over the years that the bands that complain the most usually draw the least. Those bands usually feel that it’s everyone else’s job to reach their limited “fan” base and then pay them hundreds of dollars just to grace us with their set.
Roxie Amoroso (bassist for Pigasus and Crazy Chief, co-owner of Cowtown Guitars, former promoter): You will only be exploited if you allow yourself to be. Don’t want to pay to play? Don’t. Don’t want to play for free? Don’t.
Jason Hansen (guitarist/vocalist for The Gashers): Once, when my old band Peccadilloes played one particular venue here in Vegas, the place was packed and the bar was slammed the whole time, and at the end of the night we were given $12.38 and a warm 12 pack of PBR. The worst part was the 38 cents! I’ve heard the excuse, “We have to pay the sound guy,” who three-fourths of the time doesn’t have a clue what he/she is doing. The door money should go to the bands, and the sound guy should get a flat rate on a paycheck from the bar.
Sacco: If more bands stood up to venues that did not fairly compensate them, then eventually that venue would go away or change for the better. Continuing to play for a bad venue owner only empowers the bad venue owner.
Pardey: I think venues are businesses that have a bottom line to make money, and bands don’t always produce revenue for these venues. In fact, most of the time venues lose money on live music, and that’s an important factor for those that are unaware of the reality of the situation. Bartenders, soundmen, rent, lights, advertising all make a live show much more expensive than most ever consider, and most local bands can’t produce a $1,000 in bar sales … that’s the business answer. The musician in me feels as though the expense of live music needs to be considered by venues as a necessary cost of doing business if they wish to continue booking bands.
Woodbridge: If people who live here want a creative, thriving and accessible local music scene, they have to contribute to that by going out to see the bands and being willing to pay a cover for the show. If there is no support (and I mean financial support, not just cheering) from the larger community, then there won’t be a real music (or art) community here.
Leland: Making a living on music is tough. I don’t try to do so. I’m usually happy with free drinks.
What do you think of the fan-funding phenomenon, a la Kickstarter? Does it empower bands or is it just virtual begging?
Murphy: I don’t even know what that is.
Garth: Here’s an idea: Make a record and sell that record. It’s what bands do. The money you get from the sale of your records directly reflects the amount your fan base is willing to pay to hear your band and to support your project. Kickstarter gives people a false sense of importance.
This type of begging creates a situation where most of the local money that people have to spend on the band economy in town goes to the band who begs the hardest, the band who plays off of people’s sensibilities, and we all know how ridiculously liberally fucking sensitive our music scene is.
Matview: I love Kickstarter. It lets fans put their money where their mouth is in regards to supporting the bands and projects they feel passionate about. I like that fans can help fund records they want to hear, for monetary amounts that are similar to pre-ordering an album, with the added bonus of cool prizes along the way. Bands in turn get a lot more control over their music than if they were being funded through a label, and it can allow them to start the tour cycle without so much debt.
Corso: On one hand, everything I have I built myself, and it took time and work and risk. Y’know, loans and stuff that I had to pay back. So “hey I need a new amp”-type shit can rub me the wrong way. But artists have always required patrons. The producer of a movie is the guy who goes around asking people for money to make it … and rock music of any creative value has become a de facto nonprofit proposition. So if Kickstarter is the new form of patronage to get art made, I think it’s a good thing. You don’t have to donate unless you want to.
Pardey: The people that refer to it as virtual begging are the same people that refuse to pay $5 to see a local band play.
Is there an enthusiasm gap with regard to local music, and why?
Pulsar: There is definitely an enthusiasm gap. There seems to be a prevailing attitude in the local scene (especially in the indie/downtown scene) that local bands aren’t worth paying to see. I’m really not sure what is behind it.
Sacco: To a point, yes, the scene can be very segregated at times, with different groups of fans only supporting acts that they like.
Woodbridge: The audience for local music maybe hasn’t grown in size to keep pace with the way Downtown and “nontourist” Vegas has blown up in the past three years. As a result, the demand for local music might be getting washed out by the availability of and interest in other forms of entertainment. Plus, I think there are more opportunities for bands to play now, but with fewer active bands playing that can lead to an over-exposure and fan-fatigue problem. Or maybe it’s just because the economy is still fairly crappy.
De Hoyos: While local bands are inside playing, [fans are] outside drinking. And sometimes that kind of behavior extends to touring bands. Word gets ’round and that’s when bands start skipping us.
Overton: I don’t think so. With Neon Reverb, The Smith Center and a few new hotels on the Strip that want to bring both big names and less radio-friendly acts here, I say we are definitely retaining some musical credibility.
Pardey: If bands are feeling blue because nobody cares, well, then, maybe they should move to Austin, where nobody will care either because there are 10,000 other bands that came from all the other apathetic towns across America to live in a town with a real “scene” for them. The fact of the matter is, Las Vegas has produced a few of the biggest music acts in popular culture over the past 10 years, and I have little doubt that it’ll happen again. The Killers rose out of one of the most apathetic periods I’d ever seen.
What do you think Vegas’ music scene does better than other music scenes?
Amoroso: Every once in awhile, we outshine those megawatt casinos on the Strip and pull off amazing shows. Not a lot of other cities’ [music scenes] can say that they compete with Donnie & Marie, Elton John, a few Broadway plays, and three or four major [concert] venues on [a] night.
Woodbridge: One thing I’ve always liked about Vegas’ scene is that there isn’t really a Vegas sound or genre, from the internal, local perspective. Rather, there are and have been lots of talented bands with vastly different sounds.
Matview: Being a relatively small scene seems to have bred a certain amount of camaraderie across genres that I don’t think you get in a lot of cities. Look at the upcoming Bane show … the lineup probably seems unusual to a lot of people, but it’s something we make work here out of necessity.
Garth: The biggest and coolest thing about the Vegas music scene is that, for the most part, we don’t do the pay-to-play shit that you see in L.A.
Pulsar: Having toured the U.S., I can say that we have one of the strongest punk scenes in the country. There are a ton of good punk bands out here, and the people in the punk scene are by far the most consistent in terms of supporting the bands and coming out to the shows.
Sacco: Acts based here can work their way up from bars and open-mic nights to playing in larger rooms at the casinos or opening for major acts at venues such as the House of Blues, The Cosmopolitan or The Joint. By being so close to L.A. and being a popular destination for L.A. residents, including record company representatives, the exposure level is much higher here than other scenes in the country.
Where does it need to improve in order to artistically grow and attract more participants?
Woodbridge: We can’t expect art and culture just to get created and supplied for us; we all have to be involved and invested in it, or it will disappear.
Pulsar: The all-ages scene needs at least one more viable venue. There is a TON of talent in the all-ages scene, but if those bands don’t have places to play they aren’t going to develop properly.
Whited: This goes for just about any scene and is certainly not limited to Vegas. Although there is a metric ton of community here in the valley, there is also a fair amount of the opposite. If certain individuals would stop publicly and frivolously judging their peers and instead focus on being good musicians and human beings that support their fellow musicians and bands, our scene would improve all the more. That, in turn, would be welcoming for more folks to participate.
Ouija: Artists need to take risks to get attention.
Garth: Quit making your bar into a venue. You suck at it.
Pardey: The music industry has changed, fans demand more and I think it’s time for more bands to expand the scope of the entertainment they offer fans. Electric Daisy Carnival has proven that people are interested in buying an experience. Local music needs to provide more of an experience as well.
Overton: I think it’s improving every day. Downtown is getting better and better. We have planted the seed, now we just need to be patient and allow for it to grow.