Outer space productions

As if the cinder block ambience, vinyl treasures and used CDs weren’t enough, some local independent record stores are part-timing it as hubs for cultural activities of all kinds. The same music-obsessed types who hang out behind those flyer-cluttered counters by day turn behind-the-scenes promoters by night, bringing world-class New Music, international varieties of rock, poetry, performance art and more to a venue near you.

Their secret? Don’t worry about making money from shows. In fact, if you want your venture to last, don’t worry too much about taking a few losses.

Warren Westfall, the owner of the Record Collector stores in Livonia and Ferndale, is one of four music enthusiasts who make up the New Music Society, a 5-year-old organization devoted to arranging live performances by New Music, avant-garde, jazz and experimental artists in the Detroit area. Westfall and his partners, Bob Setlik (the owner of Car City Records), Brian Callahan and Pat Frisco, like to keep the process simple, contacting internationally known artists directly – often via the Internet – and inviting them to perform in Detroit.

When you’re putting on shows that pack far more cultural value than commercial viability, details such as getting a space for free and finding someone to donate a PA are critical. The MacKenzie Fine Arts Center at Henry Ford Community College and 1515 Broadway – owned by Chris Jaszczak, a former NMS member – and the Gold Dollar are a few frequently used venues for NMS events. The next challenge is to promote a show without a real budget. After that, one can only hope for the best.

"Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t," Westfall admits. "My own approach is somewhat akin to one of those ’40s or ’50s movies with Judy Garland where it’s like, ‘Hey kid, we don’t have much money, but let’s get some sweat equity and come together and just do it.’"

It’s a warm, sunny Good Friday, and besides creating worthier applications for sportswear ad slogans, Westfall is busy at the register in his Ferndale store. Posters of John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie watch over us while the congenial mascot, CD Cat, stretches out on top of a rack with a good view of the front counter and the door. The sounds of percussionist Susie Ibarra fill the store, and Westfall mentions that the NMS is bringing her to MacKenzie.

Between customers, Westfall fields calls about an NMS show – a promising sign. Marion de Laat, a composer and accordion player from the Netherlands is scheduled to perform the following evening at the YMCA Arts Center, a hospital-like third floor space on West Hancock near Wayne State.

The show will end up drawing an audience of about 60-75 at $10 per person, which doesn’t cover all costs and may seem like a modest contribution to cultural life in Detroit, where 20th century music is being embraced slowly. But for Westfall, even a small turnout and losing 50 bucks is a win-win situation.

"I just buy the most expensive ticket in the house," he says. "This is my own private charity, so I don’t have an attachment to the money I might lose. I know there is a certain amount of money I might give to my church or organizations anyway. I believe that music makes a difference in the quality of our lives. Many of the people we bring in live off of arts grants. We are not an arts grant organization. We pay real money and play a game called ‘At what point can we break even?’"

It isn’t all self-sacrifice for the NMS and its supporters. After all, they are meeting and hosting some of the most inspiring and creative minds in music. "We do get to meet heroes," Westfall says. "One of the guys from the New Music Society is a huge Steve Lacy fan, and he got to play chauffeur to Steve Lacy last week. You want to hang out with your hero for a couple of days?

"I’ll call up someone like Pauline Oliveros whom we formed a Deep Listening Festival with last November at the Gold Dollar. In the course of normal life, we would never interact with these people."

Even after five years, the NMS and its local cohorts still wobble precariously on the legs of spontaneous cooperation, enthusiasm and what Westfall calls a cultivated naïveté. "I guess we don’t have to be smart enough to do what we do," he says. "We are just stupid enough to even try it." Norene Cashen writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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