May day

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

Techno DJ heavyweight Derrick May scurries about his Eastern Market loft, talking rapidly, tidying clutter, fielding cell phone calls. He’s charged — somewhat hyper — preparing to throw the biggest party of his life: Movement 2003, a moniker May coined for the fourth annual music event formerly known as the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

May distanced himself from the free event during its early years, when Detroit DJ Carl Craig was its creative director and the controversial production company Pop Culture Media ran the show.

Now May is at the helm, and he’s feeling the pressure.

Passionate and optimistic, May is also anxious. This weekend, Hart Plaza will pulse with thousands of starry-eyed dance music fans — and though he works to pull off an air of insouciance, the tension is tangible.

“I feel like the weight of this entire festival, of the scene, of the artists, the weight of my peers, rests on my shoulders,” says May. “It’s up to me and my team to pull this off. People expect none but the best, and that’s what we’re going to provide.”

The City of Detroit granted the festival to Derrick May Inc. in mid-January, a mere five months before the festival was to take place, and with no city money attached to the deal.

May formed another company, High Tech Soul, to produce the festival. Longtime friend and platinum DJ Kevin Saunderson is his planning partner, while Craig, named as part of the talented production team triumvirate, is involved in name alone, May says.

News that artists would run the festival thrilled fans after years of tumult surrounding former festival producer Carol Marvin of Pop Culture Media. Marvin was widely criticized as being difficult to work with and for not paying her bills on time; artists of all stripes boycotted the festival in 2001 and 2002 after she fired Craig. Once the city and May signed a letter of intent for this year’s fest, Marvin announced she had formed an alliance with former boxing champ Tommy Hearns, and that the duo would continue to throw the DEMF — despite all odds. She was not available for comment on this story.

May says the city presented him with an ultimatum: Take the festival or let it revert to Pop Culture Media.

“We took this festival because we knew nobody would support Pop Culture Media.”

May says he didn’t want the festival to die.

“This is the artists’ event. We know what the festival should have been, what it is and where we want it to go.”

“It’s a wonderful opportunity. But first, it has to happen.”

There is much to worry about. High Tech Soul has scant cash to work with; no major sponsors; and hardly any fliers, banners or posters around town. The Web site is a minimalist mystery. The festival schedule was posted last Saturday. Fans from across the globe are e-mailing to determine if the festival is a go.

Dr. Sylvia da Silva, a Brazilian living in Paris, attended all three festivals, but isn’t coming this year.

“The lack of professionalism of the organization is downright sad,” says Silva, 32. “The schedule is still not announced and they expect overseas people to go there?”

Still, thousands of visitors are expected to arrive from foreign points.

Meanwhile, May and Saunderson continue to search for sponsors and investors; hopes were dashed last week when General Motors bailed. May says it’ll take a bare minimum of $450,000 to produce the festival and he’s got less than that. He put up $90,000 of his own money, his family added another $110,000, and as of Monday night, he had raised another $185,000 in cash. The lack of money means it's unlikely artists and festival planners will get paid.

Last year, nearly $300,000 in sponsorship money was raised; $170,000 was spent on artist fees alone. Movement is selling buttons for $3 apiece to raise money.

May and Saunderson say they suspect race played a role in discouraging investment.

“We’re young black boys from Detroit asking for millions of dollars,” says May. “Subconsciously, it’s always an issue.”

Considering the money drought, what May and Saunderson have put together is nothing short of incredible. Sound, staging, production and lighting companies are providing services at major discounts, some slashing fees as much as 75 percent. Volunteers are working around the clock — literally, and with no pay — to make the festival a reality.

Most of the nearly 70 artists on the roster – including some national and international draws such as Jeff Mills and François Kevorkian — are playing either for free or for greatly reduced fees.

Mike Rubin, a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, says he thinks this year’s lineup, consisting primarily of Detroit artists, may be the festival’s best yet. Others complain it’s too much a house and techno show.

Tinku Bhattacharyya, Movement talent /artist liaison, a Scotland native, flew here to work on the schedule. She and festival director Derrick Ortencio haven’t been sleeping much lately. Bhattacharyya, a veteran of European festivals, says artists support for movement “stunned” her.

“This is a Cinderella story,” says May. “Without the support of the Detroit artists, this thing would not be happening, period.

“Artists playing for free? That’s a headline.”

At the bare minimum, the festival will be “by the artists, for the artists.” The staging was altered to improve visual and audio aesthetics.

“Sound — I don’t care if we don’t have anything else, sound is the one thing we won’t compromise on,” says May.

Saunderson says it was important to eliminate the concept of a main stage versus smaller side stages. This year, the main stage will be brought down to a level more on par with the audience, and each stage will receive equal emphasis.

May says High Tech Soul attempted to implement Craig’s original intent — to create an international festival as much for city residents as for international fans, and to present a cornucopia of old-school and cutting-edge musical acts.

Many hope this year’s crowd is more diverse than last year’s, when surveys indicated that 80 percent of the audience was white. Nearly 70,000 of the estimated 1.5 million attendees were foreigners; 170,000 U.S. residents came from outside the Midwest.

If May’s team pulls off a success, Derrick May Inc. gets the festival for another two years. After that, the city has the option to renew the contract for two additional one-year periods.

If May loses the festival, its future surely will be in jeopardy.

“We have to just get through this year,” says May. “We keep hearing from people who want to wait and see what happens this year. I’m sick of hearing that. We’re trying to make people understand they can’t wait till next year.”

While it’s May’s name alone on the paperwork, he says Saunderson and Craig are critical to the festival, and that shares of High Tech Soul will be divvied among the three.

Each of the DJs goes way back — May and Saunderson went to high school together; May was Craig’s musical mentor.

“Derrick May will not own the festival at the end of the day,” says May. “I’m approaching this with everybody’s best interest at heart.”

Craig won’t comment on whether he’s interested in owning a part of the show. Right now, he’s putting his musical career first, he says. Wounds remain from past festivals.

“I’m a bit shell-shocked,” says Craig. “I’ve been there, I’ve been through it. For everything that’s gone on, it’s better for me not to take a leading role.

“Derrick is my mentor. There’s a major connection there that is really important. He passed a torch to me, and now it’s almost like I’m passing a torch to him.”

Movement is a “different beast” from the global festival Craig envisioned. “Unfortunately it hasn’t grown to where I’d like it to be.”

With time and money, it could get there, he says, but for Craig, things will never be the same.

“I don’t think anyone could take as good of care of it as me because I’m one of the creators. It’s something that is my pride and joy.”

Meanwhile, Craig says Marvin still owes him $40,000. His lawsuit against her for nonpayment and for defamation of character goes to trial soon.

Money matters

It’s drizzling and gray May 2 as media and music industry insiders trickle into the Detroit Historical Museum for a press conference. Curiosity runs high for details on Movement 2003.

The event is three weeks off but nobody knows much about it.

Tables in the museum hold light refreshments — baskets of chips and cookies, a platter of sandwiches, bottles of water and soda in a box of ice.

The setup is a stark contrast to last year’s press event, when producer Carol Marvin spent $7,000 on a copious display of fruit, sandwiches, dessert trays and beverages; $3,000 more was spent on lighting. Techno music pumped through the City Hall auditorium, which was draped in techno pall.

Taxpayers funded last year’s lavish DEMF PR lunch. Back then, the City of Detroit footed the bill for the festival, paying Marvin’s production company, Pop Culture Media, a $340,000 yearly fee to produce it. In addition, despite city estimates that more than 4 million people attended during the event’s first three years, the city was left with three consecutive deficits — $300,000 the first year; $150,000 the second (despite a $350,000 cash sponsorship from Ford Motor Co.); and $400,000 the third. That’s a total of at least $1.87 million in city funds spent on the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

The losses came despite Pop Culture Media’s contract, which estimated a $50,000 profit for the city in the inaugural festival, and bigger payouts in subsequent years.

This year, Detroit faces a massive deficit, and officials aren’t granting a dime to the festival. Jamaine Dickens, spokesman for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, says the decision was simply a financial one.

The sobering news came as a disappointment to music enthusiasts, who point to city estimates that festival attendees generate millions of dollars of revenue for the city and its businesses.

The city’s deal with May Inc. isn’t set in stone — the formal contract has not been signed. The contract announced in January was actually a “letter of intent” meant to help May’s team get sponsors. The informal agreement stipulates that if festival revenues exceed $130,000, May must pay the city a $65,000 fee. If revenues are less than $130,000, revenues will be split with the city.

While the agreement could be seen as a recipe for failure, May and Saunderson took a gamble that the festival and its music would carry the day.

“I did it because I think it’s important for the city, and the music scene in Detroit,” says Saunderson. “And it gives me a chance to do what I love. I believe in it.”

“This might be the one thing that keeps me here in Detroit,” he said.

May, 40, and Saunderson, 38, have been touring since the 1980s. Saunderson, with three sons under the age of 13, says he’s tired of being on the road.

“This opens a lot of doors for us,” says May. “It gives us a gateway and key to the city and the community. We become voices, not just figureheads. We become influential. We’re talking another level. This is leverage, a power move. This is the offer you cannot refuse.”

Rainy parade

As with any event of magnitude, not everyone is bursting with optimism.

May and Saunderson know how to throw a party and make music; producing a festival of this scale is another thing.

Locals in the dance music scene are critical on several fronts, though many want to keep their gripes anonymous. Some say more money could have been raised if a professional production company had been hired; others say the festival’s poverty is apparent in the lineup of artists.

Many are bothered that poor organization left willing sponsors and festival participants in the dark for too long. As a result, not everybody is involved who would like to be.

“I was waiting for someone to contact me and it never happened,” says Mike Himes, owner of Record Time music store, an electronic music staple. “They were so busy working on the music part and getting major sponsors, they were probably expecting us to contact them.

“The Web site didn’t even have contact information, so I didn’t know. I didn’t know the rates or anything. Not to sound cocky, but we’ve been doing this forever. I thought they’d call me the first day.”

Last year, Record Time didn’t sponsor the festival because rates hovered around $10,000 — too much for small businesses.

Nevertheless, Himes supports what May and Saunderson are trying to do.

“It’s all back to doing it for the right reasons,” says Himes. “It’s very important to us.”

Some have criticized May for not lining up sponsors before January — his bid for the festival was delivered in August. May says his hands were tied until he was named the producer.

“Do you know how hard it is to get sponsors when you don’t have a contract?” asks May.

Most big companies allot sponsorship budgets in November, says Bhattacharyya.

May and Saunderson say they and their team worked around the clock and did the best they could. May says he’s determined to clean up the festival’s reputation -- and remove the politics -- to ensure its future success.

He denounces his detractors as “venomous motherfuckers out there trying to stop our quest.”

“We need for people to stop judging us,” he says. “That’s bullshit. People should come out and support this thing because we’ve got to do it. No matter what we do, we’ve got to do it.

“That’s what’s wrong with this shitty town. Nobody stands up and helps.”

“It’s a prima donna mentality, and it’s disappointing. We haven’t put anybody out. It’s shocking. People in Detroit seem to always have something to complain about.

“Shame on you, shame on you,” May says to festival critics.

Meanwhile, recruiting volunteers was difficult, says May, because of lingering “dirty laundry.”

Past festivals were plagued with money problems. Some workers and contractors claimed Pop Culture Media did not pay them in a timely fashion, if at all.

Tim Price, who’s worked for Saunderson, Craig and DJ Richie Hawtin, is still waiting to get paid $3,000 plus interest from the inaugural 2000 event, when Price set up a mock-marquee sculpture with old televisions proclaiming “Detroit Electronic Music Festival.” He played a pivotal role in marketing the festival with a national guerrilla flier campaign.

This year, Price agreed to work as a visual consultant — less than a week before the festival kicks off. Likewise, Barbara Deyo, a publicist who’s worked closely with Saunderson and was fired by Marvin after the first year, agreed last week to help with public relations.

“People got burned, and they felt uncomfortable,” says May of people in general, not necessarily Price and Deyo.

Chris Jaszczak, owner of 1515 Broadway, a performance arts space, and also owner of companies that stage major concerts nationwide, is the festival’s production and staging coordinator. He says May called him from Tokyo to work on the festival.

“I’m a Detroiter,” says Jaszczak. “I can’t put it into words how grateful I am to Derrick May for the opportunity to be a part of this.”

If the festival flops, May says he’ll take the blame.

“We did the best we could. If you need somebody to blame, OK, blame me. Blame me for trying. Blame me for fighting hard for something, to put it back in the artists hands. Blame me for busting my ass and spending my own money. Blame me for dreaming and taking a chance when nobody else would.”

Ever the optimist, Saunderson says, “I think in the end, we’re all going to be smiling and happy. We’re proud of this festival, and we want to keep control of it.”

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]