Life in the Fest Lane
It's hard to figure out why a city that's already fairly indifferent to its one middling music conference--the Independent Label Festival, which for its fifth incarnation next month has changed its name to Chicago's New Music Festival--needs another. Especially since in the last five years Chicago bands, both on majors and independents, have made a big dent in the national consciousness without much help from festivals of any sort.
The organizers of this weekend's first annual M.O.B.fest would have us believe it's all in a name: M.O.B. stands for "music over business," which seems to imply that the difference between this event and Chicago's New Music Festival, whose mission is to educate bands about the music racket as well as to parade them before A and R reps, has to do with artistic integrity. But unlike the not-for-profit CNMF, which chooses its bands from those who submit demos, co-organizer Roger Jansen says M.O.B.fest has cherry picked 100 or so of the midwest's most commercially viable unsigned bands to perform in showcases for major-label scouts, all with an eye toward turning a profit--which makes M.O.B.fest sound a lot more businesslike than the ILF ever was.
According to Jansen, who owned the now-defunct nightclub Avalon, M.O.B.fest actually grew out of meetings he and George Sarikos, an entertainment attorney, had last fall with Leo Lastre, executive director of CNMF. He says Lastre approached them hoping they could help him find more support from the Chicago music community, particularly its clubs. Lounge Ax, one of the best-respected alternative venues in town, has never participated in Lastre's event, while some participating clubs have been less than enthusiastic about risking a weekend's income on bands they might not have chosen to book on their own. Jansen proposed a joint venture between Lastre's organization and one headed by himself and Sarikos. He also wanted to change the name, pull away from Columbia College, which has always been a primary sponsor of Lastre's conference, and go for-profit. Jansen says Lastre agreed to the plan, but backed out at the 11th hour.
"He kind of bailed on us," says Jansen. "He said to me, 'You go do your conference the way you think it should be done, and I'm going to run my conference the way I've always done it.' He didn't want to give up his executive directorship, and he didn't want to share the decision making." But positive preliminary conversations with industry types convinced Jansen he could do a better job than Lastre, so he and Sarikos started M.O.B.fest anyway. It lacks a trade show (a large component of CNMF) and features only three discussion panels (Lastre usually offers at least ten); a pass for all four days costs only $35 (walk-up registration for the two-day CNMF will set you back $250).
Lastre declined to comment extensively on his dealings with Jansen--who worked for the ILF during its first two years--but denies that he approached him for help and says, "I could care less about my title, and I share power all the time." Lastre also says he views Jansen's position as the manager for local bands Dovetail Joint and Cassius Clay as a conflict of interest. (Both bands have plum spots on M.O.B.fest's 14-band promo CD and at the Double Door this weekend.)
Jansen claims his direct input into booking the showcases was minimal. "We talked with labels and asked them what bands they wanted to see from the region," he says. "From that list we compiled some really good showcases. Most of these bands have some kind of a support group--an agent, a manager, or a lawyer, or a club who thinks they've got something going on. To make it worthwhile for bands that aren't performing to attend, we decided to have a couple of panels, and they're all chock-full of heavy A and R hitters." The presence of scouts from Elektra, A&M, Epic, Columbia, Capitol, Virgin, and Sony's 550 Music does testify to the caliber of contacts Jansen has--the likes of which Lastre has never been able to muster.
To bands hoping to leap into MTV's Buzz Bin, this opportunity could seem dreamy, but those who put art before commerce, as M.O.B.fest claims to do, appear to be missing in action. Jansen has touted the event's consumer appeal, but the four-night schedule looks like a rather ordinary weekend lineup for Chicago--there's not much you couldn't see for a fin any night of the week. The most exciting bills, at Lounge Ax Friday and Saturday and Empty Bottle Thursday and Sunday, were booked by the clubs, which means the bands would be playing here whether or not there were a conference. Jansen concurs that most of the showcases feature bands that play frequently, but says they rarely all gig on the same weekend.
Ironically, perhaps the greatest effect of the first annual M.O.B.fest will be that it has apparently prodded Lastre into measures that might lend his conference some sorely needed prestige: he's decided to offer a $35 all-concert pass that encourages the average showgoer to attend, and he'll help clubs offset the price of bringing in bigger names, including the Poster Children, Jane Wiedlin's Frosted, and Kristin Hersh. No doubt this is a response to the move Jansen made to bring Lounge Ax and Schubas on board: M.O.B.fest will reimburse those clubs for each pass entry. Not that it'll hurt the enterprise too badly--early last week they'd sold only some 50 passes.
Metro hosts a couple of interesting DJ-oriented events on Friday: The German duo Hardfloor are acid-trance heavyweights, relieving the relentless throb of techno with hip-hop breakbeats, rubbery bass, and fluorescent electronic squelches. They'll be giving a live performance of their own work. Meanwhile, downstairs at Smart Bar, Paul Webb and Lee Harris will spin other people's records, and with little heed to beat matching. But those who remember the duo as Talk Talk's rhythm section might be surprised by the fascinating sounds they've been putting down as O'Rang, somehow spicing hypnotic rhythms with ethnic flavors without sounding cliched or disingenuous. Their terrific 1994 debut, Herd of Instinct, has just been issued stateside by Chicago's HitIt! label; their even better second album, Fields and Waves, will come out domestically on HitIt! this fall.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roger Jansen photo by Brad Miller.