The remnants are there. Visit the Undercurrents website (undercurrents.com), and you'll find long lists of bands that played at previous incarnations of the regional music festival. Started in 1989, Undercurrents is an annual showcase designed to "connect the fans with the bands," as its slogan puts it. Some of the acts that have played in the past include the Numbers Band, the avant-garde Kent group fronted by Chrissie Hynde's brother, Terry; singer-songwriter Mark Addison, who later went on to front the Borrowers; and Breaker, a popular local heavy metal group. The Pittsburgh jam band Rusted Root was reportedly signed after showcasing in 1991; by the mid-'90s, the festival had grown to include more than 150 bands, and organizers were bringing in industry bigwigs to sit on discussion panels. But even in its heyday, the conference was a hard sell.
"The concept was good in the beginning," says Breaker manager Bill Peters, who set up metal showcases for three Undercurrents. "I'm not sure if it ever came off like they wanted it to. It did struggle. I don't know if it was promotion, the band selection, or marketing. There were very few industry people. That was the thing. I've done these things in other cities, and you can only bring in so many industry people. You might have five or six shows going on and three A&R guys in the whole city, if you're lucky. They might see one or two bands. The bands got absolutely nothing out of it in terms of label interest. The intention was good, but it just never came off as anything significant."
Scheduled to take place September 20-23, Undercurrents' latest installment is likely to be even less significant. There are no seminars, no trade show. There's not even a keynote address. Just three years ago, 128 bands performed. This year, only 24 acts will play at three venues (Playhouse Square's Star Plaza, the Phantasy, and the Symposium). Organizer John Latimer admits that Undercurrents has been "scaled back" and is in a "rebuilding stage."
"We've changed things along the way and revamped how things are done," he says. "Early on, we were debating whether the trade show or seminars are worth the time. It's very labor-intensive, paying for flights, hotels, and meals. When you don't make a whole lot of money on it and spend thousands of hours doing it, it comes out to 25 cents an hour. You do a lot of work for a couple slaps on the back."
While Latimer's been accused of using the event to line his pockets, he says he's lucky to break even. One year, he claims, he lost $11,000. A self-described entrepreneur, Latimer started working in the music business in the early '80s as a talent buyer at the Pirate's Cove (later Peabody's DownUnder) and then at the Limelight in Canton. He ran his own booking agency and eventually created a record label and TV show dedicated to exposing regional acts.
In 1989, after a visit to the now-defunct New Music Seminar in New York, Latimer and some friends decided to put on their own festival. By the mid-'90s, it grew in size, but Latimer says he wasn't able to put in the time and energy needed to maintain it. By 1999, attendance had plunged.
"I don't know when Undercurrents lost its focus," says Mark O'Shea, who worked as a stagehand at the Phantasy for the first Undercurrents. Tour manager for Nine Inch Nails from 1988 to '95, O'Shea now lives in Chicago and manages bands. "It's never yielded fruit, other than a bunch of local bands huffing and puffing and trying to steal each other's fans. The problem with it is that it's a vehicle meant to do something, but it's a vehicle that's never [been] given a full tank of gas or never given a proper tuneup. If you take your time, tune it up, hire the right kind of driver, you're gonna win the race."
That Latimer has kept Undercurrents going is all the more surprising, considering that the Cleveland Music Festival made its debut earlier this year. It picked up where the Undercurrents of the mid-'90s left off -- with 150 bands playing at 10 different clubs. Latimer says he doesn't see it as competition.
"I give a thumbs up to anything that promotes music in this area," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's disguised as a money-maker or not. It's just another vehicle to expose music from this area."
Latimer, who is developing an Internet game and a sports-related TV show and magazine, wouldn't speculate on the future of Undercurrents or whether it would ever resemble what it once was.
"I'm a music lover," he says. "I like to see things happen, and I like to be a part of making them happen. If I can turn someone on to something and help them, great. [Undercurrents] helps not just the band but the community and the whole music industry here. It's really a labor of love. I don't do it because I have to do it. I do it because I want to do it. I try to get people excited about it and interested in it. If they can be, great. If not, I understand."