Last week marked the return to San Francisco of the Gavin Seminar, a yearly gathering of radio DJs, program directors, record label heads, and other power brokers within the music industry, sponsored by local industry journal Gavin and held at the Hyatt Embarcadero. For anybody who cares about music for music's sake, it's a place to get your heart broken. "We go all the way from Korn to Apollo Four Forty," is how Michael Steele of Los Angeles' KIIS described the wide variety of acts available on the station's Web site; there was not a trace of irony in his voice. Internet radio was one of the main issues of the gathering -- the entire first day of seminars was devoted to the topic -- and while most would confess it has a place, few would go so far as to say their jobs are in jeopardy. One panelist said that the people who don't like their local radio station "are just cranky." Of course they're cranky -- with radio stations and record labels consolidating, and playlists engineered to the point where the disk-jockey-as-taste-maker is completely irrelevant. For now, the stations are content simply to take the ad money the dot-coms provide. "We're making a freakin' fortune," as KLLC-FM ("Alice") 97.3 Program Director Louis Kaplan put it.
It would be unfair to write off the environment that Gavin attendees inhabit as an entirely crass one. Put a bona fide star with real talent in front of them, and they go bonkers, as they did when Tony Bennett sang a handful of Ellington tunes and that silly ditty about cable cars going halfway to the stars. Bennett himself dutifully thanked radio in general, even if the event wasn't Gavin-only. Halfway through his show at the Masonic Auditorium, George Jones took a moment to thank the airwaves as well as his new label, Asylum, and then ceded the stage to Chalee Tennison; Jones' claim that "I know you're just gonna love her" would've sounded more sincere if Tennison weren't on Asylum as well (and if Jones had pronounced her name right). As it was, the audience was in no mood for cut-rate Shania Twain, and used Tennison's three-song interruption as a bathroom-break opportunity.
Showcasing new acts -- or giving old ones a second chance -- is the Gavin Seminar's main purpose; it's a dog-and-pony show that can border on the absurd. Even a weak band like the Gas Giants (made up of former members of the Gin Blossoms) deserves better than to have to play its songs while DJs chitchat over salads. Another example of the absurdity was Anastacia, who appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on the Aguilera-Lopez-Carey vacant female pop trend. Anastacia had three songs to get over to a crowd of about 100 people in a Hyatt ballroom, and she had a serviceable band of session pros behind her. By the end of the first song, though, pretty much everybody was just being polite. She belted her way to the last refrain of her last song, singing, "Every time you go ..."
The band stopped cold. This should have been the part where the crowd went "woo-woo" or something, where the industry got excited. And they would have -- for a good singer. This crowd didn't do a damn thing.
"... away," sang Anastacia, finished.
The Bay Area Hip Hop Coalition's three shows at the Justice League, although not formally part of the Gavin proceedings, attracted plenty of Gavin attendees and were a great tonic to the Ruff Ryders and Master P knockoffs who were being presented in the record label showcases. The first night's performances featured Blackalicious, Planet Asia, and Rasco, all acts with nothing to prove to anybody except themselves. And even at the Gavin shows, every once in a while a band got what it deserved. The Vagabond Lovers -- formerly the Naked Barbies -- were punished with an early morning showcase. But getting 50 hungover radio consultants to bob their heads happily to a handful of streamlined (but not cloying) country-pop songs is a miracle of some sort.
Still, there's reason to fear the new world that successful showcase acts might be entering. At 10:30 Saturday morning in Ballroom A, attendees were presented with the American debut of First Love, a German Clearasil-pop band that was -- as the press release states with remarkable candor -- "created and developed by European pop music svengali Jack White." In case you didn't know, "White is the man credited with making Baywatch headliner David Hasselhoff into a superstar singer throughout Europe." The foursome bounced, they gyrated, they sang, they screamed, "Stop the tape! Stop the tape!" when the backing track to the next song kicked in a little too early.
What started ugly quickly got worse. The following seminar, "The Delivery Room: Birth of a Station," seemed benign and amusing enough in concept. In the course of an hour, a panel of radio experts would brainstorm a station into existence, from the station name to the promotions to the best way to get attention when they launch.
The station's location (San Jose) and music style (R&B) were decided beforehand, and the first order of business was to come up with call letters and a slogan. The consensus of a room of generally intelligent people: KAKA-FM ("The Shit") 104.9. For the next hour, every possible scatologically themed concept fell into consideration -- promotion ideas like blowing up Porta Pottis in downtown San Jose, or emptying dump trucks of manure on I-280, and generally doing anything with the concept of feces that the FCC will permit. Radio consultant Paige Nienaber, who hosted the panel, confessed that the idea was a bit over the top, but not too much. "Part of the reason radio sucks is that people say, 'You can't do that,'" he said. Yeah, that's part of the reason.
Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.