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High Life : A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Garage to Big Time: Not an Easy Leap : Music: County bands don't have the access to industry people that groups in L.A. do, so they have to be creative to get themselves heard.

July 29, 1993|ALISON ROSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Alison Rosen is a recent graduate of Corona del Mar High School

On the door of the rehearsal room--a garage in Corona del Mar--is a handwritten warning: "If you can hear the music, don't come in!"

Band of Joy, a blues-funk band, is at an afternoon rehearsal. Bassist Brian Rashap, 17, sees a visitor and mouths the words, "We're recording."

Asked who they're recording for, drummer Ted Duncan, 18, says, "Pretty much just for ourselves."

Which isn't to say that Band of Joy--along with scores of other Orange County garage bands--wouldn't appreciate being discovered by the music industry and recording for the big time.

But many factors make that scenario unlikely. Even when bands have the talent and drive to succeed, they often lack the wherewithal to hire managers. They must vie for the opportunity to play at a relatively limited number of Orange County clubs that cater to local talent and, sometimes, to get the opportunity to be on stage, they must buy, in advance, a block of tickets to their own show--a practice known as pay to play.

Some say the roadblocks succeed in weeding out lesser bands; others see it as a system that runs roughshod over potentially successful groups that deserve a chance to be heard.

Although members of unknown Orange County bands might despair of ever making it big, the success of one local act, Water, might give them hope. Just a few years ago, the members of Water were all buddies at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove. They played everywhere they could in Orange County. People began talking. Now they have a deal with MCA and a record coming out in early '94.

In Orange County, "you don't have the industry down the street like you do in Los Angeles," says Jay Sheridan, a promoter who has worked for the Roxy and the Whisky in Los Angeles and who now books bands for Club 5902 in Huntington Beach. "The offices of many record-producing companies are right next to clubs like the Whisky and Roxy. It's really common for representatives to go down the street after work and sign bands."

While there is no sure-fire formula for success in Orange County, certain techniques help bands get attention, insiders say.

"Create your own marketplace. Go somewhere where bands don't usually play and convince them to hire a band," says Brian Porter, manager of local band Standing Hawthorn.

Dave Hayes, founder and president of Dr. Dream Records, an independent label in Orange, says "a fanatical following" of fans is key. "I might hate the music, but if I see the audience screaming and going wild, a chill goes up my spine."

Nikki Sweet, a talent booker for the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, says it's important for bands to build a grass-roots group of followers. They can become the group's biggest promoters.

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The practice of groups sending out demo tapes to record producers is only rarely effective, according to Hayes, who has signed just one band from hearing its demo tape. And that was after many other groups on the label had recommended the band.

"We discover bands through word of mouth," Hayes said. "A lot of times, bands we work with will say, 'Hey, listen to this.' Once you've been in this business you build up a network."

Getting heard is not as easy as it sounds, say members of bands trying to break into the business.

One reason is that a number of clubs have adopted a pay-to-play policy for booking acts. Band members must spend up to $300 to buy tickets and sell them to friends and acquaintances.

Promoter Sheridan sees the pay-to-play system, which started in the mid '80s, as a necessary evil.

"Pay-to-play discourages a lot of talented bands that don't have much money, but with bands that are unknown or unproven, the promoter stands to lose thousands of dollars," he said. "Most bands say they can draw about 200 people, yet usually 15% to 20% of those people show up. With pay-to-play, some of the expenses are covered before the doors even open."

Band of Joy drummer Duncan said that a band he was with earlier, Sister Morphine, did pay-to-play gigs at the Marquis in Orange, Goody's in Fullerton and Chex in Santa Fe Springs. "It helped us get a following," Duncan said.

Once, in Los Angeles, the band was scheduled to open for a well-known group. "We would have had air time on KNAC, and it might have been our big break," Duncan said. "Unfortunately, we had to cancel because we just couldn't come up with the cash."

Although clubs that use pay-to-play believe it is necessary, club operators who don't, including principals of the Coach House, think the system is degrading.

"We don't do pay-to-play," says Sweet of the Coach House. "Bands always are paid by us. We treat them like humans."

The Coach House books between seven and 15 local acts a month, and would book more were it not for the fact that many national touring acts bring their own opening act, Sweet says.

"We like to work with local talent. They are the most excited about performing. They work very hard to get a break, so we try to help them out," Sweet says.

Hayes of Dr. Dream Records also disparages pay-to-play.

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