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Buddy, Can You Spare Some Change?

Wednesday, Sep 20 2000
Before beginning his set on Friday night, New Zealand singer Chris Knox stood at the lip of the Bottom of the Hill stage and gestured toward a giant ChangeMusic San Francisco banner behind him. "That's pretty ironic," he said, "considering that what is changing music in San Francisco is the dot-coms."

Of course later in the show, Knox blatantly plugged -- not once, but twice --, the Web site that helped him plan his current stateside jaunt. Not only did the ass-kissing undercut his earlier comment, but it also made his later exhortations to "get off your flabby dot-com butts and dance" ring rather hollow.

So goes the shaky shotgun wedding of art, technology, and commerce that is the ChangeMusic festival (with its sexy subslogan "powered by CMJ"). If you don't recognize ChangeMusic as a mover and shaker in the music industry, that's because it's basically just another MP3 site, except that it's owned by Rare Medium, a self-described "catalyst for digital change" intent on "making it possible for companies to quickly establish a commanding web presence." How does it do that? By buying up MP3 sites and "powerful offline media properties" like CMJ.

CMJ used to stand for College Music Journal, before someone decided that college radio wasn't important anymore. For the past 20 years, CMJ has hosted the Music Marathon, a series of shows and panels in New York City attended by college radio music directors, industry flacks, and the general public. After ChangeMusic snapped up CMJ earlier this year, the new owners decided to expand the convention to Seattle, Atlanta, and our very own home by the bay.

Which, naturally, begs the question: Do we really need another music convention in town? NoisePop, Poptopia, Gavin, Indie Pop Fest, Baypop -- they're getting to be like New Yorker special issues: so ubiquitous they're no longer special.

Still, this one promised to be different; this one promised to revel in the convergence of the music and digital media industries. How high tech, how here, how now.

ChangeMusic headquarters were set up in the third-floor lobby of the Hotel Nikko. Each badge-wearer received a freebie pack that included such fascinating reads as Streaming Magazine, Revolution, and CMJ Monthly, which promised to be "like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant!" A booth for featured the hipster equivalent of a Playboy Bunny at a car show -- a small-hipped girl in a plaid skirt, knee-high stockings, and retro glasses -- passing out free T-shirts. The Save Music in San Francisco folks had a table too, but it smelt of desperation, like the high school glee club that had to put out candy to get people to visit it. Over in the corner was Prentice "Madawg" Murphy, an online DJ attempting to stay on the air for 70 straight hours to break the record for continuous Webcasting.

Saturday's panels focused on B2B, which, unfortunately, is not some new boy band but rather an acronym for "business to business." No matter what the seminars were titled -- "Highway to Sell," "To Sooth a Savage Beast," "New Day Rising" -- the question was always the same: How do I get rich off this stuff? Panel moderator Brad King ( stalked the floor like a hip hop Jerry Springer, while a giant video screen flashed the panelists' Web pages ad nauseam.

Here are some of the things I learned from the panels: A heavy music consumer is considered someone who buys no more than six CDs a year; Napster's so-so sound quality is comparable to Motown, which was responsible for "some of the most horribly recorded and most emotive music ever"; most marketers are women and most men will try to hog a panel; the demographic for Internet radio is 25-to-40-year-olds listening at work; commercial radio is analogous to the Saturday Evening Post and will soon be extinct; most traditional radio sucks because the stations are afraid of putting on something that people don't like.

The most strikingly dichotomous panels took place on Sunday. Fisher, the first band to sign to a major label because of its Internet success, began the day by explaining how it used the Web as a marketing apparatus, and how answering all your fans' e-mails can make them your willing drones.

Afterward John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats suggested that Web sites should return to a time when they were created solely by fans, and should not be used for sales. He also composed, along with Nothing Painted Blue's Franklin Bruno, a list of 10 demands for the music industry. These included a moratorium on such overused words as "bespectacled" and "quirky" and the prefix "post-," a halt to the resuscitation of the careers of over-the-hill folk singers by the use of trip hop beats, public canings of bands that attempt to re-create Pet Sounds, and a basket of fruit from BMI. Sharky Laguana of Creeper Lagoon was quick to add that he agreed with all of the duo's demands, unless some label guy wanted to give him a lot of cash to think otherwise (OK, maybe he implied it). Mark Eitzel took off his hat and admitted he'd much rather be writing songs than learning Pro Tools.

Let's not forget what these music conventions are all about: the free hors d'oeuvres. Um, I mean the music. During the convention, there were two kinds of events: small showcases for local labels and regular gigs for acts coming through town. For the touring artists -- such as Trans Am, Man or Astro-Man?, and Mos Def -- hooking up with ChangeMusic meant trading a smaller guaranteed payment for the possibility of increased exposure.

"The [bands'] hope is that there will be not just the regular people at the show but also taste-makers from out of town, as well as publicity and press," organizer Jeff Pachman said.

But much of the music felt like mere window dressing for the panels and parties, like a sports car some guy rents in the hope it'll get him laid. Still, there were nice moments. At the kickoff party at the Verdi Club, Creeper Lagoon showed that it had put its lengthy recording time to good use by morphing into a Latin jazz band. No, wait, that was Julius Melendez's combo; Creeper still sounded like Pavement and/or Radiohead, only with shorter songs since the wedding hall's power kept giving out.

Then there was the Virginia Dare performance on Sunday at the Make-Out Room: a truly stunning effort, not because of the trio's new songs or guest drummer Kyle Statham from Fuck, but because of the surreal antics of a dancer who jumped onstage. Decked out in a blond wig, purple leather pants, and an eventually revealed fuzzy bikini, the woman gyrated and jiggled some much needed and utterly ridiculous sex appeal into the band's set, causing the über-serious crowd to cheer, jeer, and leer. It was the kind of unscripted, semi-unrehearsed, oddball occurrence that used to happen so often in San Francisco that you took it for granted. Coming on the heels of four days of industry mumbo jumbo, market positioning, and techno-hype, it felt like the biggest burst of fresh air since El Niño.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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