It’s dark and two Amazonian blondes from L.A. band Lithium wearing short porno skirts and hooker boots with cold goose-pimpled flesh are walking the deserted streets in downtown Detroit between 1515 Broadway and the 2500 Club. With them are Motor City Music Conference co-promoter and band manager Erica Koltonow, a few of her relatives, some other band members and soon-to-be CBS reality show participant Colby Veil, who just did an inspiring acoustic set at 1515 with the guitarist from his band L.A.-based band 6&7.
It’s a Thursday night at MC2, and there are no cabs or buses or people — aside from lurking figures on corners — immediately in sight. The walk is cold and long.
Koltonow tonight is much more relaxed than during the weeks leading up to this event. The woman has finally slept; her eyes no longer bug out, she’s no longer in organizer tweak-freak mode.
I’ve ripped on Koltonow and MC2 co-promoter Dana Forrester in these pages in the past; so it is that I’ve come to appreciate them in many ways. They’ve taken what they know — this learned music biz wisdom — and, with vet Detroit promoter Amir Daiza, fashioned a very slick, almost corporate-styled event, a massive undertaking. And, for the most part, they pulled it off, but not without myriad organizational snafus and booking glitches.
The event last Wednesday through Sunday boasted 50 venues and 500 performances around Detroit, plus panels and a trade show at Cobo Center, plus visitations from record company A&R weasels. Both Forrester and Koltonow have gone into personal debt for the event’s debut, and, from conversation, correspondences and observations, they are intent on making it known that they believe in Detroit music. Said belief, Koltonow says, was the genesis for the MC2.
But here’s the problem. Too often such conferences simply whiff of corporate sliminess and personal agendas. The packaging and hawking of Detroit and its music, the branding, if you will, should always be suspect; to me it can easily smack of self-service, a plinth used as a launch pad for personal celeb, cred and, in the long run, riches. It’s the stuff that always irks me about the music biz in general; you know, inevitably it’s the self-promoting biz-sycophants who score, while worthy musicians, producers and songwriters flounder in some factory snapping together auto parts. It’s the overall mindset of such events, including Austin’s South by Southwest: It tells us, for the most part, that you must learn to suck the correct ass — whether it be attorney, label, journalist or publicist cheek — to be successful.
Koltonow says she understands this and doesn’t want the future MC2s to succumb to industry and conference cheesiness, or personal agendas. She laughs at the implication: “I do this to make people happy. That’s the sole reason why my life is about music. It’s all I do. We want to take what people don’t like about South by Southwest and go from there; we didn’t want this to be an all-industry event, but we wanted to have a real conference, with trade shows and panels that people can actually learn from. I want the fans and the bands who can’t afford to go to South by Southwest or some of the other conferences to get educated that this is there for them.
“My pockets aren’t lined with gold. We lost a lot of money this year,” Koltonow says, adding that the exact loses aren’t figured out yet. She says the cash for MC2 came from RSIG Security (who are one-fourth partners in MCMC with Forrester, Koltonow and Daiza), some of the corporate sponsors and an investment from her father. She wants the event to pan out as a way of making a living. “Dana and I worked 17 to 20 hours a day the last month without a paycheck. Dana did the work of 18 people. We wanted this to be a full music conference. The sponsors didn’t give us that much money — not the first year — we knew we’d take a loss this first year.”
But what was an artist really going to get out of this?
Even if some record company guy loves your group after seeing you play during the conference at, say, the Belmont, he’s going to tell you what you should’ve been striving to do anyway, which is to get your music to those who actually buy it — the fans and the kids. You create the indie record, make your music available online, and get in the van and tour your ass off. That’s how you establish an audience.
Bands and emcees in Detroit have been doing well; they’re making records and touring at a rate that hasn’t been seen before. There’s absolutely no painless way to get your music noticed, and a subtext of music conferences is this American Idol idea that you can get attention the easy way, and perhaps get “discovered” without having to do the work. From my vantage, we don’t need an industry conference to facilitate this, to further Detroit’s standing as a musical powerhouse. Jack White and Eminem have done more for the profile of this town than 15 music conferences combined ever will.
Former Detroiter and Grammy winner Don Was said something interesting at his conference kick-off keynote address Wednesday — to, maybe, 40 people. He played a snippet of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” next to Jessica Simpson’s “Let It Snow,” to show the difference between “L.A. music and Detroit music.” His point is big: This is Detroit. It has that sound. And that’s the beauty of this city. It’s dirty, smart, broke and, hence, musically literate and soulful; it’s a musical island still surprisingly struggling with its integrity and identity. But the struggle is what the music is all about; it’s not about the quick-sell, or the here-today-gone-today pop-star grind set forth by L.A., New York and the UK. Nor should it be. Detroit music should stay untreated, left to fester and morph on its own. On paper, Detroit looks like an easy sell, but it’s not a place that, by nature, should be playing rousing games of music-biz bingo.
Nonetheless, there were many worthy panels at Cobo, including the Gary Graff-moderated discussion “So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” that featured, among others, Mitch Ryder, Sponge and Crud man Vinnie Dombrowski, and Patti Smith’s Ivan Kral. It’s true, you do need to know how publishing works and to understand blogging and its impact on music.
And many shows packed a tremendous emotional punch for performers, frothing fans and cynics alike, from the Detroit Cobras-Dirtbombs packed show at the Majestic to the Detroithiphop.com awards. (By the way, both Bareda and Black Lagoon were Detroithiphop winners, showing these awards were far more in touch with the streets than the Detroit Music Awards.)
But these shows would be packed nonetheless, conference or no.
One of the best shows witnessed all week was the antithesis of packed. It was an off-the-beaten path Saturday night set at Tavern on the Park. A four-piece (two girls, two boys) teen band from the burbs called the Decks are taking their music seriously and could well be a part of Detroit rock ’n’ roll future. All innocent, vulnerable and teen-awkward, with suitably nervous detachment — but real transcendent purity — they’re goaded by the spirit of the records they love (which, according to the 17-year-old singer Alex, include the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television and the Stooges). The singer’s shaggy mane, tie and Rickenbacker combo was a winning one; the soused moms dancing and hoisting lit matches and lighters in the air while the band wrestled through a wonderfully hectic and sparse set, was a joy. They even exited the stage with appropriate bored indifference. Bravo.
That night at Paychecks Lounge in Hamtramck, at 11 p.m., L.A. trio Tijuana Bullfight had flown in at great expense to play the MC2. (Bands like this are, certainly, the event’s first-year sacrificial lambs). There are maybe 20 people in the crowd — this, a Saturday night — mostly those involved with other bands sharing the bill. The ghost-town scene was common at various other “smaller” venues. Why aren’t fans and festivalgoers seeking out shows they normally would never get a chance to see? Bullfight drummer Rich Contadino shook his head, looked around the venue and summed the conference up with a shrug: “It’s Detroit. And, it’s snowing.”
Koltonow agrees that the MC2 should centralize its locations. It should also decide its priorities and clearly put the needs of artists above worries about which label A&R goof can be swooned or which glossy magazine might sport the best flank and pout party. It’s clear that Koltonow wants to let the fest happen organically, like the best Detroit music. We’ll see what next year brings.
We’ll take suggestions,” says Koltonow. “We want to do this for Detroit.”
She’s in high spirits with the event’s first run. “We had 18 A&R guys from labels. Ninety percent of the bands e-mailed saying they are happy. I get frustrated from the e-mails from those accusing me and us of making all this money. What money? It did look like a success, but I don’t get to pay my mortgage with kudos and good press.”
Check out White noise Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]