Last Thursday, the opening night of the eleventh Undercurrents band showcase and seminar, fewer than fifty people milled about the two stages at Peabody's DownUnder. Even though the cover charge was knocked down to five bucks (from ten), the crowd was made up largely of bands, their entourages, and bartenders.
Tumbleweed practically blew across the floor as the local band Strip performed inside. One Peabody's employee working the patio had so little to do she flipped through pages of Stephen King's monster work The Stand.
Asked if he was disappointed with the turnout, Kevin Spellman, a manager for the Indianapolis band and Undercurrents performer Wonderdrug, scanned the room and said, "Very."
Undercurrents, according to its own material, "spotlights musical talent to record companies, publishers, managers, agents, and the entertainment media . . ."
The trouble with that statement is that hardly any record companies, publishers, managers, agents, and entertainment media showed up. Nor did many regular folks.
It was mostly bands watching other bands.
Undercurrents has declined the last few years, and the 1999 edition scraped rock bottom. Attendance picked up a tad on the weekends from Thursday, but given the sacrifice of the bands (some traveled long distances, and none are compensated), they received too little in return. The crowds were thin. The panels were less than star-studded. The labels and talent scouts stayed away.
While it's unlikely anyone could rescue Undercurrents, the savior is certainly not the present steward, director/owner John Latimer, who operates Undercurrents on the failed premise that, because something magical might happen, the event is therefore magical.
Nothing was magic about this year's Undercurrents. It was a bush-league operation that should either revolutionize itself or perish.
On Friday night, the regulars swigged cheap drafts at the bar of the Blind Lemon as two of Northeast Ohio's more interesting acts--C.D. Truth and B.E. Mann--played before only a handful of interested souls. Crowds were so small, the $10 cover charge at the Blind Lemon was eventually waved off.
"Definitely, we do better than this," Blind Lemon owner Tony DiVenere said, scanning the 9:30 p.m. crowd. "No matter what we got, we do better than this."
Matters weren't much better across the street at the Phantasy complex. Locals Not So Blah had a nice gathering of what looked like its core following at the Symposium. But after the band's set, there were more people standing on Detroit Avenue than in the club. In the Phantasy Nite Club and deafening back room, you could have lit a sparkler, run around, and not hit anyone with the ash.
Hard-working unsigned bands are used to poorly attended gigs. But what's crushing about Undercurrents is that bands wouldn't go to the trouble of packing their goodies and paying the application fee if they didn't think the showcase could somehow help them. Maybe a rep from a major label would spot them. Maybe a big-shot producer would hear a sound he wanted to shape. Maybe an influential journalist would write a great review.
Joe McCarthy, singer for the Buffalo band McCarthyism, which played before a sparse crowd at the Phantasy, said that he didn't know if there were any industry types to check out his show.
"The way I look at it," he said, "there's always the possibility."
"You never know," said another Undercurrents performer, Canister guitarist Bill Pauel. "If I see anyone in a suit, I'll talk to him."
"It could be someone in a ska band," quipped Canister bass player Lonn Schubert.
Latimer doesn't know exactly how many industry types come to Undercurrents. "I know they show up," he said as he passed out wristbands before Friday's festivities. "They show up every year. It's built for them."
Latimer said industry members don't pre-register, because they want to remain anonymous. "What has happened in the past, when the labels came in, they got inundated with tapes," he said. "Next time they come in, they don't want to be a draw."
He guessed there were fifty industry types last year and there would be fifty this year. Asked how many there were at Peabody's the night before, Latimer said there were two.
Who were they? A guy who looks for bands to provide music for General Motors commercials and a talent attorney. The attorney turned out be part of the group with Wonderdrug.
Later Friday evening, Latimer conceded there wouldn't be fifty members of the industry at this year's conference.
He was kidding himself to think there would be. The 1991 signing of Pittsburgh-based Rusted Root is an oft-cited Undercurrents success story, but in the years since, meaningful industry types have kept their distance.
Latimer says that he doesn't promise bands anything. The ones he talked to, he said, were thankful for the opportunity to play and network with other bands.
Most of the musicians I spoke with did express those feelings. At Peabody's on Friday, Paul Senick of Wish and Mike Farley traded updates about their bands the way shoppers discuss their families when they bang carts at the supermarket. If nothing else, Senick said he could add the Undercurrents name to the band bio. "Mike and I are hoping our bands can get a chance to play at a bigger conference," he said. "The other ones may not know it's kind of small."
Bands do network at Undercurrents. But if that's what the event is--bands swapping CDs and future gigs--then that's what it should present itself as. Undercurrents, though, continues to trot out--or it doesn't correct--the myth that hip bands are going to play a hip showcase with hip industry types watching.
Promoting this year's event was a struggle. Undercurrents's two chief media sponsors dropped out--Scene declined, and WENZ-FM/107.9 changed formats--leaving Latimer to get the word out himself.
Bands should ask him what he did to compensate. There was virtually no advertising, and Latimer communicated with the media poorly. Calls and e-mails to Undercurrents, for instance, were routed through Susi Riviotta, who is no longer affiliated with the conference. The schedule of performers wasn't provided to Scene until 11 p.m. on the Sunday before the event.
A bigger question is, Should Undercurrents exist at all?
Not with Latimer in charge.
But even if he were out of the picture, I don't think it can succeed.
Music conferences like South by Southwest (in Austin, Texas) and CMJ (New York City) are too well established for Cleveland to compete. Latimer said that he doesn't want Undercurrents to be a knockoff of SXSW (he's right that it doesn't do enough for unsigned bands), but Undercurrents will be measured against those conferences, whether it likes it or not.
The first rule of marketing is "find a need and fill it," and there does not appear to be a need for a music conference in Cleveland. We may like it, but it's not a destination city. All that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame City bullshit doesn't mean much to a band in Jacksonville or an A&R man in Manhattan. And the consolidation of the music industry means there just aren't as many important talent scouts who live in Cleveland or within a pleasant night's drive.
Undercurrents doesn't shake the panties off local music fans, either. It's just not enough of an event. Why see your favorite local acts at Undercurrents, when you can see them play a longer set for half the advertised price next week? And as mentioned in these pages before, there's some multi-band showcase for the endurance-minded clubgoer almost every weekend (Soundbites, April 1). The appetite for live music marathons--by unfamiliar bands, especially--is frequently overestimated by musicians, bar owners, and promoters.
If Undercurrents were to continue, it should be run as a nonprofit with an advisory committee, instead of a private business controlled by one man who seems unwilling to accept and correct the conference's failures.
Last weekend too many bands' talents, politeness, and ambitions were maltreated, if not exploited.
Stacie Collins insists she doesn't want to be "the next pearly white Nashville girl." Collins, a local country singer, celebrates the release of her self-titled CD Saturday, May 29, at the Barking Spider.
Collins and her husband/musical partner, Allen, came to Cleveland two and a half years ago to settle some family business. "But we got here, and Cleveland was so cool, we didn't want to leave," Stacie says.
Cleveland may not be the most credible home base for a country singer, but Collins was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and grew up in Bakersfield, California. She didn't consider a country music career until she was in her early twenties and her sister bought her the Sweet Dreams soundtrack by Patsy Cline. "I remember thinking, Where have I been?" Collins says about listening to Patsy. "I was familiar with 'Crazy,' but this soundtrack touched me . . . I played that cassette until it wouldn't play anymore. It lighted a fire in me, and I found a voice inside me, and that's what I built on."
The party is at 8 p.m. sharp; Collins plays a 45-minute set at nine.
Blue Lunch has a CD release party Friday, May 28, at Wilbert's. The disc, Eyes Wide Open, has five originals and eleven jump-blues covers.
Parting Undercurrents shot: Seven bands that were scheduled to play the showcase have numbers in their names (Double Zero, One World Tribe, 4 Venus, Cat 5, Octopus 5, Sid Six, and Nine Dollar Melon Baller) and four have colors (Green Sky Grey, Blue Taxi, Shades of Grey, Red September). Let's work on our originality, gang.