Even the best new idea requires some debugging before it can work smoothly. Such is the case with an upcoming competition for rock bands from the Orange County/Long Beach area organized by the Pacific News & Review, a fledgling local alternative weekly paper. The winner of the contest will be sent to Toronto later this month to perform at a new music festival for unheralded groups.
The contest is a welcome development for local bands and fans. The immediate benefit will be a first-rate night of music Sunday at Bogart's in Long Beach, where each of six finalists will play a 30-minute set, starting at 8:45. The acts, in order of appearance, will be Chain Gang, the Swamp Zombies, Metal MC, National Peoples Gang, Ann De Jarnett and Tender Fury.
The winner will be determined by a public vote (ballots will be available at Bogart's starting the day after the show, and in the Sept. 9 News & Review; Sept. 16 is the submission deadline). The prize is a three-day expenses-paid trip to the Molson Canadian International Festival of Independent Music, where the winner will get to play in a well-publicized club concert, attend seminars about the music industry, and develop industry contacts.
Locally, such a contest not only generates excitement and gives bands some extra exposure, it also provides a common focus for musicians and music fans who otherwise might tend to go about their separate interests without much regard for what the other guy is doing. It is a way of building a stronger musical community. An unimpeachable idea.
But contest organizers have made some questionable moves in carrying it out. Although there is no indication that impropriety was involved in the selection of the six finalists, the way in which they were chosen leaves the contest open to the appearance of unfairness.
News & Review publisher Randy Matin says he tried to "assemble all the people I knew who would be in the know about bands in Orange County" and have them select the finalists after listening to recordings by the 35 bands that entered the contest.
The people who did the voting are top-notch in terms of their musical taste and their knowledge of the local music scene. Besides Matin, they included David Swinson, Bogart's concert booker; Jim Washburn, former pop music critic for the Orange County Register; Sam Lanni, ex-owner of Safari Sam's nightclub; and Dave Hansen, vice president of Dr. Dream Records, the Orange-based independent record company.
The problem is that half the bands in the finals--the Swamp Zombies, De Jarnett and National Peoples Gang--record for Dr. Dream. And Lanni is the manager of National Peoples Gang.
I'm not saying that Lanni and Hansen are not fair-minded, or that the bands they work with don't deserve to be in the finals. I have written favorably about all three groups, and I would have applauded a neutral panel of judges for picking any of them. But I can't applaud a selection process in which such obvious conflicts of interest are taken so lightly.
Matin said that once he decided to recruit a panel of experts immersed in the local music scene, such conflicts were bound to be "a given." But with a little more effort, he should have been able to find qualified judges with no special allegiances to (or, at the very least, no financial interest in) potential contestants.
Music journalists, disc jockeys and record store personnel are among the usual suspects when it comes to rounding up judges for band battles. (For the record, it is my policy not to serve as a judge in local contests. I would rather cover such events than have a role in influencing their outcome, and I don't think a reporter should do both.)
To further confuse a contest that already has left itself open to second-guessing, the so-called "finals showcase" on Sunday is something less than final.
Besides the six bands chosen to play at Bogart's, the ballot will include a space for write-in candidates. Debbie Rix, one of the producers of the Toronto festival, said she "would very much doubt that anyone would win who wasn't involved in the showcase. That's just the way those things work." Let's hope she's right.
This write-in system opens a crack in the door for a band that is great at electioneering but maybe not so great at music-making.
The contest organizers evidently did not stop to consider that Top 40 cover bands typically have more fans than the local groups slogging it out on the much tougher original music circuit, putting those cover bands in a better position to win an out-and-out popularity contest. (Any band that has released a recording since January, 1987, through an independent label or on its own, is eligible.)
Matin says he got involved in the contest after meeting Rix in Toronto last May at a convention for alternative weeklies. The time for running the competition was limited, he said, so decisions about how to run it had to be made quickly and with a lack of firm guidelines from Toronto.
Let's hope there is another contest next year. And let's hope its organizers run it according to logical, airtight guidelines.
The Finals Showcase of the International Festival of Independent Music contest takes place Sunday at Bogart's, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, in the Marina Pacifica mall in Long Beach, starting at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $3. Information: (213) 594-8975.