I just got back from the Independent Label Festival in Chicago and read Peter Margasak's dis of it in the July 26 Reader [Post No Bills]. I'm a Cleveland-based music journalist who is a veteran of many conferences (including the biggies he mentions: CMJ, SXSW, and the late NMS). It seems to me that Margasak has set expectations for the conference that its organizers aren't arrogant or unrealistic enough to set for themselves.
Austin's South by Southwest is now completely useless for any band that isn't at least on the verge of signing with a major. Novice musicians can rarely participate in the high-level industry business going on there. That's why grassroots events like ILF are badly needed. What I'm seeing, though, is that many such small conferences have grandiose aims, hoping they'll become the next SXSW in a year or two.
What I like about the ILF is that it is clearly not trying to do that. ILF director Leo Lastre and his staff provide a friendly, accessible environment for less experienced musicians to learn from and interact with more experienced professionals. It's unfair to slag them because they don't attract all the important players in a scene as large and diverse as Chicago's. I doubt that anyone could do that. (Even in Austin, significant segments of the scene have always felt disenfranchised by SXSW.)
If Touch and Go doesn't feel that ILF suits their particular needs, that's fine. I'm sure Leo would tell you that the ILF is there for people who want or need what it offers, and that he doesn't expect that to include everyone. In the smaller, but still highly active, environment of the ILF's trade show and seminars, it's possible for young musicians to interact with people who have enjoyed some experience or success, including people from indie labels as different as Scratchie, Pravda, and Invisible.
But I wonder if Margasak even knows what he wants from ILF. He opens his piece saying criticism is warranted because "major labels predominate, rather than the indie labels the name suggests," then later complains that it "includes a spate of locals, a deluge of mediocre and largely unknown out-of-town bands, and a handful of significant acts--Polara, the Frogs, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Menthol." These acts are all on majors or near majors, yet he's complaining because there aren't more of them!
I didn't come to ILF expecting SXSW. (One is enough!) I did expect to meet some worthwhile people and see a few good bands I wasn't familiar with before, and I did that. Margasak seems focused on a certain clique of way-too-cool-for-you underground bands and takes their absence as an indictment of Lastre's entire endeavor. I think that's unfair.
By the way, I completely agree with Paul Natkin's letter about Margasak's ungracious remarks about the late Jim Ellison [July 5]. I can't claim to be the world's biggest Material Issue fan (surprise, Peter: I like Red Red Meat better!), but oblique references to Ellison's financial dealings under the circumstances seem highly inappropriate. I'll bet if the band had been on Drag City, he would've rated a whole column of overheated prose.
Anastasia J. Pantsios