THE BARRAGE OF mammoth musical events in recent and coming months started me thinking about a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's the one where Elmer Fudd's hunting trip becomes problematic when Bugs and Daffy befuddle Fudd with a debate about whether it's "duck season" or "wabbit season." In my mind, good ol' Elmer looks at the camera, shuts one of his eyes to take aim, and lisps: "It's festival season!" Then he points the rifle and shoots.
North by Northwest
Embassy Suites Hotel and various clubs Portland, OR, September 30-October 2
The madness of the music world is perhaps even better illustrated by the fact that the start of North by Northwest '99 marks the third major festival (and/or conference) to take place in September.
The month began, as we all remember fondly, with the relatively sanguine and smooth Bumbershoot in Seattle. Two weeks later, the most frenetic of all these gatherings took place in New York: the 1000-band, four-day CMJ Music Marathon. That thousands of conference registrants and festival attendees arrived in the big city amid an outbreak of encephalitis and the onset of Hurricane Floyd seemed an appropriate comment on the pre-millennial storminess of the music business and society in general.
On paper, the artist lineup at CMJ '99 looked anticlimactic. Perhaps this was a measure of an industry in transition. Rock (and by extension, electronica) sales are down. Modern R&B and pop sales are up. Since CMJ caters to the college-rock crowd, there wasn't much buzz going into the weekend's festivities. When attendees scanned the schedule for headlining names, they instead came away with a mix of unknowns and decent if unspectacular indie bands. This can mean pay dirt for a deserving artist who's looking to break out; Seattle's Joel Phelps and the Downer Trio turned up for a trio of shows, winning dozens of new fans.
But mostly, the usual grumbles—"This year wasn't as good as last year"— suddenly resounded with an eerie truth. Namely, there aren't enough stellar bands to fill all the slots at all these festivals.
It'd be unfair to judge NXNW '99 before it happens. There's always a chance that a bunch of unknown acts will simultaneously become inspired and deliver riveting performances. But the signs aren't good. For starters, the lineup appears lackluster and unfocused. For its part, Seattle's sending a strong contingent that includes Alien Crime Syndicate, Mars Accelerator, Kinski, Saltine, the Souvenirs, Slugger, Pointy Birds, Bebop & Destruction, Marc Olsen, Hanuman Trio, Death Cab For Cutie, Pedro the Lion, the Vogue, Juno, and a few dozen more. Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles also have a sizable presence, though many of the bands have appeared at previous NXNWs.
It's important to note that NXNW this year carries the tagline "The Future of Music." Organizers aren't referring to the bands, but to the daytime conference, which has opened its doors wide to the music biz's new favorite sidekick: the tech industry. During the similarly digital CMJ trade show, Seattle publicist Barbara Mitchell likened this trend to the domino theory, calling it "dot communism."
At NXNW, the keynote speech won't be given by a musician but by Nicholas Butterworth, the president and CEO of MTVi, or MTV's new interactive division. Nearly every one of the 15 or so panels explores an angle of music's digital future.
It is an impressive assembly of tech players; representatives from Launch.com, MP3.com, Amazon.com, Real Networks, and the Experience Music Project are scheduled to join the discussions. The trade show and panels may overshadow the music.
Which would be fine. Because with South by Southwest '99, Woodstock '99, Digital Music Fest '99, and CMJ '99 behind us (not to mention one that's still ahead of us: Coachella Music and Arts Festival, which brings some of rock and electronica's biggest names to the California desert October 9 and 10), the last thing we need is another music festival.