A non-musician discovers the secrets of success at the annual MIC (Music Industry Conference) weekend
By Chris Baker
Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a musician. I picked up a guitar at age 13, learned a few power chords and discovered distortion and reverb. I planned on being the next Jimi Hendrix. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized I lacked a crucial component: talent. So I gave up and decided to write about musicians instead. And thank God for that, because—as I learned at the Music Industry Conference, held last weekend at the OnCenter—being a musician is tough as hell.
As I strolled into the OnCenter complex on Friday morning, Nov. 11, I got a glimpse of the future I gave up. Trendy young people milled about the lobby sporting worn leather jackets and hip piercings. Waiting for them behind a series of booths sat eager vendors, hoping to peddle a guitar or schedule some studio time. On a small stage at the end of the lobby, guitarist Frank Palangi prepared to play a set for the morning crowd.
I attended the conference not as a musician, but as an interested journalist. Artists came from across New York and beyond to talk shop and learn from the pros. I sat in on panels and chatted with past, present and future cogs in the local music machine while doing my best to blend in.
I started off by catching a presentation by entertainment attorney Stuart Shapiro, who did his best to dispel the myth that all lawyers are evil. And to his credit, I think he succeeded. Like many of the presenters, he placed the blame on studio bigwigs who are in it for the cash.
Following the panel I hung out with local alternative rock band Just a Memory. The group was Sammy-nominated for Best Alternative Rock Band and decided the conference would be a worthwhile way to spend the weekend.
I jetted over to the Redhouse in Armory Square after Shapiro’s lecture to see 805 drummer Frank Briggs put on a clinic. The skinhitter banged away for nearly two hours as a full house watched in awe.
From there it was back to the OnCenter to sit in on a demo-listening session with Matt Ramone of Phil Ramone Music Management, as he critiqued demos from local musicians. Ramone, who acted the Simon Cowell role, offered brutally honest advice to musicians hoping to break into the business. “I’m telling you stuff I would never say if you came to my office,” he told the group of aspiring musicians.
Ramone was tough, but fair. More than anything, it reminded me why I’m glad to be a fan, not an artist. Criticism comes with the territory, and if you want to make it, you have to be able to take it. When Ramone asked for my demo, I was happy to tell him I was just there as an observer.
The group ran the gamut of experience and talent, from fresh young faces who had never played in public to seasoned performers hoping for professional criticism on their latest album. Among those veterans was gospel singer Fred Reed, who traveled from Wilmington, Del., with his group, the Studio 505 Band. “We just came down to get the word out about our music and spread the love of Jesus Christ,” he told me. Reed also let me know the band was playing on Saturday night, Nov. 12, at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and asked me if the food was any good there. Like any good Syracusan, I assured him it was. I made a mental note to see the group in action on Saturday, and then called it a day.
On my way out, I stopped by the ballroom for one last glimpse before the evening’s Sammy Awards. The guys (and gal) from Just a Memory were scoping out the venue so I wished them luck before hitting the road.
On Saturday morning, attendees donned indoor sunglasses and sipped large cups of coffee as we shook off the effects of Friday night’s post-Sammy parties. Recovering from the four-hour Furthur show at the Onondaga County War Memorial, I snuck in late to catch the tail end of a lecture conducted by Larry Luttinger, founder of the Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation.
“Drugs are bad, but alcohol is the worst,” Luttinger cautioned. “Stay away from substances and beware the ‘tormented genius’ types.” The irony was not lost on me, nor the others in the audience as we nursed our coffees and rubbed cloudy eyes.
Notably chipper at the early hour of noon on Saturday, however, was a group of high schoolers from Cincinnatus. The four students came to the conference with their music teacher, Lynn Koch, hoping to learn what it takes to become a musician. “These kids had a passing interest in music,” Koch said. “I wanted to give them a chance to learn from some influential people.”
The kids (and most of the “grown-ups”) listened intently during keynote speaker Moses Avalon’s assessment of the music industry. His general opinion: It’s doing just fine. Avalon gave a presentation wor thy of an “Occupy” movement, discussing diminishing revenue for artists and skyrocketing salaries of record company CEOs. And while Google may be out to destroy the world, he said, things could be a lot worse. The Internet may affect physical record sales, but it’s a tool that artists can use to market and promote themselves for free, or on the cheap.
Avalon criticized the media portrayal of a “dying music industry” and offered evidence to the contrary with a series of graphs and statistics showing a healthy industry. Like every healthy industry in America, however, the money is being funneled upward while the workers (musicians) are essentially getting screwed.
Following Avalon’s rousing speech I headed to a roundtable of producers and engineers that was moderated by local studio owner and music guru Todd Hobin, who offered a piece of advice absent in every other panel. “Just be great,” he told the group of aspiring rockers. While creating an image and branding yourself are important, he continued, none of it matters if you don’t make great music.
For me, it was a fitting conclusion to the series of panels. Hobin reminded me, and the artists in the room, that the music is still what matters most in this industry. True greatness will never go unnoticed.
With that thought echoing in my mind, I headed to see some musicians in action. Like at any good music festival, I was forced to perform musical triage when choosing which bands to see. I started with ska band 4 Point 0 at Benjamin’s on Franklin, then caught up with my buddy Fred Reed and the 505 Studio Band at the Dinosaur, and jammed out with the Waydown Wailers at Al’s Wine and Whiskey.
After two days of rubbing elbows with local talent and talking logistics with movers and shakers, I’ve developed a newfound respect for Syracuse musicians. While stereotypes of the lazy rocker dominate pop culture, many musicians are just the opposite. Many work two or more jobs and dedicate all their extra time to their band.
I realized long ago I would never be a famous musician. And while I gave up on my dream, I’m glad there are so many who have stuck with theirs. The music business is tough. So to those of you still working to entertain fans and make your music heard I offer only one piece of advice: Rock on.