By Henry Houston of the Eugene Weekly
For the staff at the downtown Eugene Hilton, it’s just another event filled with people looking at each other’s chest to read names and professions. For musicians, it’s an event that could lead to some new gigs. It’s an opportunity to fill venues for bookers. And for agents, it’s a way to get their clients jobs.
The 38th Annual Arts Northwest Conference, which took place here in October, looks just like any other trade show I’ve been to. You could easily swap out the artists for tractors or paper supplies. Artists not only compress their repertoire to less than 12 minutes, but essentially boil it down to marketing collateral, making it easily digestible for bookers looking to fill their venues for the upcoming year.
The conference is a collection of 66 artists who are looking to advance their careers by playing a snippet of their repertoire to bookers throughout the U.S. northwest region.
It’s basically three-way speed dating, Kristine Bretall, the group’s board president, tells me. The artist must woo the booker and the booker must then be interested in the price set by the agent.
Just like any other commodity, there’s been trends that Jeanette Painter, who works for Arts Northwest, can identify. Cross-genre performances are one of them. By cross-genre music, I’m not talking about some innovative form of drag. Instead, it’s performing Top-40 music in different genres — like playing Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” in the gypsy jazz idiom.
That means an artist has to distill their work into a brief set. Artists take different approaches. Some do a medley of songs and others play the strong hits.
Coming to Eugene for the conference was a big ordeal for the band Altas, a Prog rock band from Denver, Colorado. Israel Jimenez, the band’s drummer, says that he and his brother — who’s also in the band — drove 25 hours to Eugene to play their music, and they even had to deal with a giant hole in the road near Deschutes Forest.
For Altas, the conference is a way to break into the Pacific Northwest touring scene, and it’s their first serious push as a band, Jimenez adds.
Jason Hodges, executive director at the Anchorage Concert Association, says conferences like these are important for venues in Alaska. Bookers in that far state, he adds, don’t compete through booking wars like other regions in U.S. Instead, there’s a lot of collaboration that goes on. That’s because for artists to come up to Alaska, there is a lot of logistics — planes to take, ferries to ride — to get to another venue. So each booker agrees to pay a certain amount to bring in an artist.
Three sessions of music sets took place in the Soreng Hall at the Hult Center, and I was able to attend one of them. As a millennial, my attention span is limited, so the great thing about the conference is that each artist has the 12-minute session to deliver his or her product to a potential booker.
It’s almost like an appetizer sampler from Applebee’s; it’s not satiating, but a bite of something new keeps my attention.
Unlike a night at Applebee’s, a night of listening to several artists in 12-minute repetitions was spirit-filling. One particular band that came all the way from Yukon, Canada, called Speed Control, channeled a rock version of The Wiggles and, despite forgetting a line from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” oozed coolness in a weird elementary-school teacher way.
But the night wasn’t full of Prog rock or kooky former elementary teachers who decided to become rock stars. A depressing element of the conference jumped out to me when legendary Hawaiian slack-key guitar player Keola Beamer took the stage. Called the best there is in the Hawaiian genre by country music legend Willie Nelson, it seems outlandish that Beamer has to take the stage to perform in front of bookers to get gigs. I mean, the guy is a national treasure.
Sure, I know this event is important to fill venues throughout the Pacific Northwest. And it might even lead to Eugene getting some great acts.
But the commodification of art at the event reminds me of the sage words of Rush: “For the words of the profits/ were written on the studio wall/ concert hall/ And echoes with the sounds of salesmen.”