The New Music Seminar is back! The largest music conference in the world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, NMS took a bit of a hiatus but has returned this year better than ever. The seminar, taking place June 17-19, consists of discussions, Q & As and workshops during the day, and then transitions into the NMS New York Music Festival at night, where over 150 artists will be performing in venues throughout the Lower East Side and Williamsburg from June 18-20. Oh yeah, and I’ll be there too!
If I had been brave enough to go to summer camp when I was younger—which I never was because I was a very needy child—I imagine it would have very closely resembled the first day of NMS. All of the day’s events took place in the shockingly enormous Webster Hall, so from moving from room to room for the next event to the “introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you” icebreaker during Tom Silverman’s Welcome, the day was very camp-esque.
My day started at the “Songwriters-in-the-Round” discussion sponsored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The caliber of the four songwriters on stage was incredible, a bit ironic considering they were squished onto the compact stage at the Studio at Webster Hall. Absurdly accomplished songwriters Desmond Child, Jodi Marr, Claude Kelly and Eric Bazilian chatted about what inspired them to start writing; dropped names like Allanah Myles, Diane Warren and Carole King; and performed some of their best-known pieces.
Child kicked off the show with a slow, piano version of “a song [he] wrote with a couple of band guys from New Jersey,” known to the rest of us as “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. The theme of the showcase seemed to be interpreting some notoriously cheesy pop songs—Marr gave an incredibly soulful performance of Mika’s “Grace Kelly” and Kelly did Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” more than justice—into heartfelt, deep tracks. After “Grace Kelly,” Child remarked, “This is the first time I’m really listening to the lyrics. They’re good!”
With so many awesome songwriters on one stage, it was inevitable that there would be a number of memorable moments, from Child revealing that he came up with the title “Kiss the Rain” because he thought that was what the Bush song “Glycerin” was named to Bazilian’s awesome solo during his performance of “All You Zombies,” but undoubtedly the best moment of the session was the last one. Bazilian and Marr sang his hit “One of Us,” which evolved into an audience-wide sing-along to close the show. Who would have guessed that I know that entire song by heart?
After, I headed outside to call my dad and wish him a “Happy Father’s Day!” (If you forgot, it’s not too late! Do it now!) and then caravanned into the Grand Ballroom. NMS Executive Directors Tom Silverman and Dave Lory gave their official welcome, relaying the NMS’s goal to make New York the music capital of the world and Mayor Bloomberg’s proclamation that June 17-20, 2012 are officially New Music Seminar days.
While the Welcome was actually very inspiring, the session following it was a bit of a let down. During “Producer’s Movement: Producing Music for a Connected Society,” Def Jam Records President Joie Manda moderated a discussion between producers Just Blaze, Luke Ebbin, Benny Blanco and David Kahne. The panel was…awkward. All four producers had really interesting things to say concerning future producing technologies, wanting to make records that sound good and focusing on creating albums not singles. Blaze said what everyone’s thinking: “If you’re not good, you’re not good. All the machines in the world won’t change that.” Kahne walked us through his five stages of producing a record: Inspiration, Despair, Search for the guilty, Punishment of the innocent, and Awards to everyone not involved.
For the most part, the discussion was much more stilted and uncomfortable than the previous one. While Manda is an accomplished and knowledgeable music businessman, he seemed out of his element as moderator, asking prewritten questions instead of building on what was already being discussed. It was a fun event, but the energy during lagged a bit.
One more break to grab a drink—and dinner!—and then back to the Grand Ballroom for the Opening Night Party. Most of the music festivals I’ve been to in the past have been rock and folk-based, which is why I assumed that’s what NMS’s opening lineup would be. I could not have been more wrong. NMS is all about reinstating New York as the world’s music capital, so it was only fitting to end the night with a showcase of the most absurd and varied styles of modern music.
First up was the Fiery Sensations, a ridiculously talented group of performance artists. I use the term “artists” because I’m not sure what other word encompasses opera singers, fire twirlers and gymnasts. The theatrics were jaw dropping, at first because they were so unexpected, but then for their inherent skill. The fire breathing and acrobatics progressed to a soundtrack of heavy metal instrumentation and a very statuesque opera singer. The set, full of leather, neon and flames, culminated in a topless woman pulling a snake out of a box and then disappearing into the audience with it. And then touching me with it!
I was surprised by the Fiery Sensations. I was absolutely stunned by Alek Sandar and Yozmit. Yozmit appeared first, decked out in a very Marie Antoinette-style ball gown and two male dancers. Yozmit’s set was more performance art than concert, in a way that fits exactly with NMS’s objectives. From her iPad crotch display to her new single “Sound of New Pussy” to her opening her dress and revealing skimpier and skimpier outfits—and Alek Sandar!—Yozmit was incredible to watch. DJ Alek Sandar kept to the background during Yozmit’s set, but moved to the forefront to perform his own single, “Creature in Me.” Creatures, indeed. Alek Sandar, even after Yozmit’s crazy performance, held his own during his electronic, industrial set. He invited friends on stage, many of them awesomely outfitted drag queens, and had his own dancers, one of which hung a fire extinguisher from two piercings in his chest. Alek Sandar and Yozmit put on one of the weirdest and most electrifying performances I’ve ever seen.
If you were wondering the last person I would expect to see on the stage after Alex Sandar, it would be Diane Birch. But she completely held her own, filling the ballroom with her folksy rock and strong vocals. Unfortunately, I felt like the instruments were often louder than Birch and drowned her voice out, instead of showcasing it.
Evan Shinners took the stage next in a pair of boldly striped pants. A Juilliard graduate, the keyboard player puts a unique, modern twist on classic Bach recordings. I can appreciate his talent and his style, but it wasn’t my favorite performance of the night. Shinners didn’t interact with the crowd much, his only vocals were calls for “Grand Applause!” and “Grander Applause!” and there were no breaks between songs, if there were more than one.
The Pierces were probably the most conventional of the night’s performers, a folk-rock group fronted by the Pierce sisters. When they were introduced as the new tour mates of Coldplay, I was impressed. And then they started harmonizing, and I got it. Their voices are extremely strong together, making their psychedelic rock a bit ominous with its intensity in a way that I’ve never seen before.
Arguably 75% of the audience was there to see Hoodie Allen, and though I’d never had any interest in his music before, I can say that without a doubt he killed it. He came on stage wearing a polo jersey, jean cutoffs, tube socks and hi-tops, and he rocked out. He didn’t stop moving, he engaged and fed off the crowd and he really looked like he had a blast on stage. His style of mashing up well-known pop songs with his own rapping lends itself well to creating a house party atmosphere in even the grandest of ballrooms. It seemed only fitting for almost the entire crowd to bum rush the stage at the end of his set and dance and sing along to the last song.
For everyone that left after Hoodie Allen’s set: that’s the worst decision you’ve made in a long time. Closing the night was The Royal Concept, a four-piece rock band out of Sweden that had my favorite set of the night. Much of the room had cleared out by the time they got on stage, but they played like it was packed to the rafters. I was a little skeptical when they first came out and the lead singer sang through a microphone so auto-tuned he sounded like a robotic chipmunk, but that microphone was only used for special occasions. They soon moved into dance rock, getting the crowd to their feet with the strongest bass line I’ve ever heard in my life. Even at 11:30 at night, I really believe that this band didn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else except blowing the roof off of Webster Hall for 50 people. I’m a sucker for any band that gives their all into their performances, and for The Royal Concept, their energy and spirit was literally being pulled out of them the entire set. From the bassist hitting one single note on the drum pad—oh yeah, they had a drummer and a drum pad—to the lead singer lowering his microphone so he could play guitar on his knees while singing, The Royal Concept put on an uninhibited, dynamic performance that was the perfect end to this night.
See you guys tomorrow for NMS Day 2!