Keeping it real

Local and international indie rock professionals get together at the Heineken Music Conference to discuss life on the fringe

indie24888 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
There couldn't have been a better illustration to define the differences between mass pop culture and fringe pop culture. Last Tuesday, while Madonna was preparing to perform the first of two sold out shows at Hayarkon Park to over 50,000 adoring fans, just a few meters across the street at the Israel Trade Fair Center seminar rooms, a few hundred quirky-looking individuals were gathering to discuss the ins and outs of the music business, specifically that antithesis of mass pop culture - indie rock. The two-day Heineken Music Conference, billed Israel's first international music conference, brought together local musicians, fans and music industry professionals with international band managers, record company executives, agents and musicians to tackle issues such as new trends in music, how new media is affecting the industry and how to develop and nurture an artist. Patterned after well-established annual conferences like SXSW (South by Southwest) in the US, and ILMC (The International Live Music Conference) in the UK, the Tel Aviv event featured evening festival-like shows with sounds provided by the likes of Faith No More, MGMT, Dinosaur Jr. and LCD Sound System. But during the day, aside from an entertaining master class provided in deadpan style by Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis, the only music heard was muffled drums and bass being tested by Faith No More's sound technicians a floor below. Instead, the attendees got down to the 'business' of the music business, listening and learning from the experience and advice of top tier industry pros like Jerry Blair, who has guided the careers of Mariah Carey and Destiny's Child, and today manages Mika, Ray Jefford, the manager of Israeli jazz master Avishai Cohen, Billy Gould, bassist for Faith No More, and MGMT manager Mark Kates. At a panel moderated by Quami, the host of the popular Galgalatz radio program "Hakatzeh" (The Edge), Gould and co-panelists Brian Schwartz, manager of Dinosaur Jr., journalist Sharon Kantor and Ami Shalev, vocalist for Israeli indie band Monotonix, discussed how and why alternative rock has been adopted in mainstream culture. "You see kids today with tattoos and piercings, and they're listening to Britney Spears," laughed Schwartz, describing how blurry at least the outer distinction has become between alternative and mainstream culture. According to Gould, the longtime Faith No More member, alternative music is all about "expressing yourself" and not trying to make music that's popular. "You can't appeal to mass culture. When you do that, you die," he said. The apparent paradox offered, of course, was that once an indie band achieves mass commercial success, like Nirvana did in the early 1990s with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," they're no longer alternative. But the panelists agreed that being successful and popular was fine, as long as it was done with integrity. Schwartz blamed cultural phenomena like American Idol for stifling creative talent in favor of a familiar, homogenized sound. "American Idol is like fast food, it's just not good for you. Slow food is cooked well and includes natural ingredients. Bands like Faith No More and Dinosaur Jr. are still around because they stand the test of time," he said, without mentioning that those bands were performing to 2,000 people, while Madonna was across the street performing to 50,000. Gould pointed to a "disposable mentality" in the music business that was partially a result of the current economic bust and general tough times suffered by record companies in the digital age. "Labels used to be in it for the long term with an artist - they'd get signed to a development deal, and the label wouldn't mind if the first record didn't sell. The idea was to build a following, and by the third album, you'd begin to see the results of your labor," he said. "There's no way that would happen today. If you're not a hit, you're gone." LOCAL INDIE icon Sharon Cantor, who has appeared on both sides of the stage as a singer, TV host, and journalist, related a similar Israeli experience, recounting the 'Galgalatz dilemma,' referring to the popular youth-oriented radio station. "Some artists write and record a song solely thinking about whether this will be commercial enough to get on Galgalatz," she said, bemoaning the dearth of a real 'indie' scene here. "I just got a press release from Earsay Records [Israel's top indie label] announcing a marketing deal with Castro - one of the most conventional, established chains in the country. What's alternative about that?" she said. That caused Gould to look up behind him at the huge Heineken banner waving behind the panelists. "It is a little ironic that an indie music conference has a corporate sponsor," he said to an outburst of laughter from the audience. Schwartz added that a major part of his job in managing Dinosaur Jr. was to look for marketing opportunities, whether it be placing the band's music in a film soundtrack or in a commercial. "I don't think there's anything wrong in dealing with corporations. You have to make a living and sustain your lifestyle to enable you to continue to make music. As revenue from records is diminishing, you have to look for other avenues to generate income," he said. At an afternoon session entitled 'Artist Development and the Artist as an Icon,' industry veterans like Jerry Blair and Mark Kates, who worked in the 1990s with artists like Beck and Sonic Youth before forming his own management company and taking on the up and coming MGMT, stressed how important it was for American and European artists to look beyond their borders for an audience. "The record industry has ignored the rest of the world for a long time," said Kates. "Just the fact that I'm sitting here in Israel talking to you about this is a sign of how things are changing." All of the participants, including Avisar Savir, a promoter and manager who's working with Israeli wonder boy Asaf Avidan - recently signed to a four-album contract with Sony Columbia - focused on the relationship between manager and artist. "A manager is really just a fancy name for an assistant," said Savir. "The artist has, or should have, a distinct sense of direction already. You just need his trust to navigate." Kates said that a manager's best friend is luck, and that he's still surprised by the recent success of MGMT. "A lot of what eventually takes place in the music business happens by accident," he said, recalling that when he worked with David Geffen at Geffen Records in the 1990s, he was told by the music mogul that "you have to give an artist a chance to fail in order for him to succeed." Ray Jefford, who has enjoyed a long management relationship with Avishai Cohen, said that there were a lot of quality musicians in Israel, but they lack the drive to go all the way in pursuit of success. "Usually, they're not willing to go out and put themselves on the line, and to take big risks to achieve their long term goals," he said, referring to the grind of constantly playing shows and traveling, sometimes without making any money. "You have to get used to sleeping in vans, or if you're lucky, on couches," said Cantor, who toured the US as vocalist for Israeli band The Girls. "You can't believe some of the conditions you have to put up with." Ami Shalev, the hippie-looking vocalist for Monotonix, remained quiet through much of the session he was participating in. But when the topic came around to giving advice to young artists who are deliberating about whether to go abroad even though they have no following, he suddenly became animated and said, "Go!" "If you say that now's not the right time, then you'll never get there. Even if you have no money, start working a day job and save up enough for a plane ticket. You'll be able to work out a deal with a band there to share equipment. If you think you're good enough, then people will start coming to hear you," he said. Whether it's going to be 20 music mainstays in a club, 2,000 indie rock fans at a festival or 50,000 pop music fans in the park remains to be seen. But if the conference taught one thing, it's that each in its own way is a form of success.