I didn’t think I’d be able to make any of the daytime NMS events, but if there’s one thing I know about music, it’s that schedules are more like suggestions than commands. Luckily I arrived at Webster Hall a little early and they were running a little late and I got to catch the last half of “Presented by Pandora: The Artist Movement.” Jason Flom, President of Lava Records, moderated the panel, which consisted of Wyclef Jean, Andrew W.K., Garland Jeffreys, NMS Opening Night Party performer Hoodie Allen, Le Tigre’s JD Samson, original drummer of the Ramones Tommy Ramone and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. The discussion was targeted more toward giving advice to young and emerging artists—which I very much am not—but it also talked a lot about changes in the music industry that have altered how artists get discovered and ‘make it big’—which I very much am interested in.
During the Q & A portion, the panelists were asked about how independent artists can best get in contact with major labels and convince record executives to invest them. Andrew W.K. turned the question around, saying that in the age of social media and digital music, it’s no longer the artists who need the labels; it’s the labels who need the artists. As current players in the music industry, each of the panelists had interesting, relevant insights into how much the landscape of the industry has changed in the past ten years and how independent artists can use emerging technologies, like social media, to their advantage.
While the star-studded panel was both informative and awe-inducing, NMS’s focus has always been more on up-and-coming talent, so they followed it up with the announcement of the “Artist on the Verge” winner. If you remember (if you don’t, I’m telling you now), on Monday I went to the “Artist on the Verge” showcase to watch performances by the three finalists: Maren Morris, Black Cobain and Ninjasonik. I assumed the award ceremony would have been a pretty big deal, considering that one of the main missions of the New Music Seminar is giving independent artists a platform to gain exposure. I was sorely mistaken. And disappointed.
Tom Silverman presented the coveted mirrored award to…Maren Morris! She rocked it out at Santos Party House and has an awesome voice that I hope to hear all over the radio soon. The ceremony consisted of Silverman handing Morris the award, lots of posing for pictures and not much else. No triumphant performance, no grateful speech. I can’t even remember if Morris spoke at all. It was an oddly anticlimactic end to the “Artist on the Verge” campaign. There was, however, one exciting moment: Silverman officially announced June 9-12, 2013 as the dates for next year’s New Music Seminar. Mark your calendars!
Months ago, I bought tickets to see Destroyer perform last night at a club in Greenwich Village. At that time, I’d had no idea that I would be covering NMS and the concert would fall during the festival. Doors for the Destroyer concert (which was amazing) didn’t even open until 10pm, so I decided to hit some bars in the area that were hosting NMS New York Music Festival shows.
First stop: The Bitter End, a New York music institution. I arrived just in time to catch singer-songwriter Mikey Wax, one of the NMS “Artist on the Verge” Top 100. Despite only having about seven people in the audience, Wax put on a passionate and endearing performance. He played the show sitting at a piano with his guitar on his lap, alternating between the two way more effortlessly than I can play one instrument at a time. His set was short, only about five songs, but he packed a lot into his time, including a stunning cover of “Across the Universe.” Wax impressed me as a multi-instrumentalist, moving easily and instinctively between the guitar and piano, but I actually enjoyed him best, and felt his voice was most powerful, when he cut the background music and sang a capella.
Next up was Otan Vargas, an alternative metal singer-songwriter who took the stage with just his acoustic guitar. Vargas has a deep, strong voice that filled the room. His lower register was beautiful if a bit monotonous, working together with his melancholy lyrics to create an emotional, relatable sound. With no gimmicks or theatrics to detract attention from his performance, Vargas needed both his vocals and his guitar work to be on point. That they were. His voice transitioned from booming to gentle, from melodically low to surprisingly high, with ease. For as much as I enjoyed Vargas’ set, I felt uncomfortable watching him. His stage presence was lacking; it was clear that he felt nervous, so I felt nervous for him. Whenever he talked to audience, trying to engage with them, it sounded like he was apologizing, which he actually did more than once. He apologized for forgetting the name of one of his songs, for needing to tune his guitar lower, for his Pink Floyd impression (which I thought was pretty good). When he was performing, Vargas’ voice was strong and confident, but he lost that when stepping out of his musical persona and just being himself.
There were two more bands on the line-up, but I made the executive decision (for variety’s sake) to head down the street to Village Lantern and check out their show. I managed to make it in time to see The Shrimps, an indie rock duo from New York. I only caught the last approximately four minutes of their set, so I’ll just give a 20-second review that should not at all be considered an official proclamation: The vocals were a bit hollow, but The Shrimps rocked harder on two acoustic guitars than most people can with a fill band behind them. I hope everyone learned a lot from this fully-informed, introspective review. Also, one of them was wearing an ascot.
My last 2012 NMS performance was Dead Flamenco, a blues-rock duo playing the guitar and drums. They had a pretty good set, opening with the rockabilly track “Thank God Mama Never Taught me how to Swallow Pills” and really killing it instrumentally. This may have been a product of the fact that Village Lantern is part live music venue and part sports bar, but their vocals were often drowned out by people yelling at the basketball game and sometimes even just talking. The lead singer’s voice was strong and raspy if a bit flat, and he could be really powerful. But often, he just didn’t use his vocals as well as he could have. The softness of his voice made the have to tone down their instruments while he sang, which was unfortunate because they were stronger drum and guitar players, in my opinion, than vocalists.
The New Music Seminar was an amazing time and such a cool opportunity to see so many emerging artists and established music industry pros at the same time. The best part is that there’s still one night for you to experience the NMS New York Music Festival. Do it.