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Posts Tagged ‘NEARfest 2011’

Now that the dust has settled, and life is slowly getting back to normal for the ‘prog community’ after a lengthy wound-licking session, it is time to draw some conclusions, and see if there is any way forward for the whole scene after such a traumatic, unexpected event – or else, if we have to consider the possibility that NEARfest’s cancellation might spell the genre’s upcoming demise. The many thoughtful responses to my original article go to show that this unfortunate occurrence had a strong impact on the far-flung community of progressive rock fans. However, it is probably much too soon to gauge if this impact will have a destructive effect on the prog scene, or rather help people to understand that nothing can be taken for granted, and that the music which we all claim to love should be cherished and nurtured.

When the full import of the cancellation finally sank in, some long-time NEARfest attendees reacted as if they had experienced the loss of a loved one, or, at the very least, of something precious and unique. Some, believing that the festival (like the Titanic) was unsinkable, and would always break even, had been completely blindsided the situation. Others, conversely, stood by their conviction that the organizers had somehow ‘asked for it’ by assembling a weak line-up, and claimed their right to bail out if the programme was not attractive enough. All in all, it was not a particularly pretty sight.

Those outside the core group of stalwart festival-goers had rather different insights to provide. While the news made no one happy, most of the ‘outsiders’ contested the motivations that had led the organizers to their decision, and – almost unanimously – laid the blame on the lack of support on the part of the community. After a few days from the announcement, people’s façades of goodwill and equanimity began to slip. Instead of pulling together, the community showed that the cracks were deepening, and none more noticeably than the one between the two main ‘factions’ – those still steeped in nostalgia, and those who choose to look forward. It feels like, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, the twain shall never meet, at least not for some time.

One of the biggest implications of the whole débacle is that the prog scene has been left with a metaphorical black eye – even if now, some two weeks after the fact,  everything seems to be back to ‘business as usual’ in the extensive network of prog-related sites. With prog fans’ long-standing reputation for elitism and ‘living in the past’, this is not going to do them any favours with the rest of the underground music scene. In spite of the negative comments that had accompanied the announcement of their headliner status, the members of Umphrey’s McGee had been looking forward to performing for the NEARfest audience, and  the statement posted on their own website after the cancellation made their disappointment quite obvious.

Unfortunately, in their stubborn close-mindedness, many prog fans do not realize that even a relatively successful band like Umphrey’s McGee might be glad to be involved in something that might expose them to a new audience and pose them a challenge of sorts. Caught up in endless, hair-splitting debates about the nature of prog, and obsessed with putting a label on everything they hear, they seem to forget that in their beloved Seventies the music scene was much more open and accepting. It was normal at the time to see bands as diverse as ELP, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Eagles and Earth, Wind and Fire share a stage at California Jam without people having hissy fits –a trend that seems to have made a comeback in recent years, as proved by last year’s High Voltage festival in London. Many festival-goers also seem to have forgotten about the “Art Rock” present in the NEARfest acronym in their cries of woe over the booking of anything that does not fit their own narrow definition of progressive rock.

Indeed, the adventurous spirit of the late Sixties and early Seventies seems to have deserted a large slice of the prog community, in spite of the almost idealized portrait painted by last year’s documentary Romantic Warriors. To paraphrase Genesis, far too many fans seem to know what they like, and like what they know – and, in times of severe economic crisis, this has made them even more suspicious of leaving their individual comfort zones. Therefore, the need for ‘big names’ (a musical equivalent of designer labels) in order to draw the crowds, even when they do not necessarily mean better quality. The 2010 edition of NEARfest was headlined by Eddie Jobson and his Ultimate Zero Project (an impressive collection of gifted musicians), which, against all expectations, left a good part of the audience cold, when not positively frustrated. Indeed, the complaining about the band coming on stage late (with accusations of ‘star behaviour’ liberally thrown around), or just not delivering from a musical point of view, went on for days – just like any discussion brimming with negative comments about Yes’ latest incarnation or Phil Collins’ alleged destruction of Genesis usually does.

Yet, it seems the lesson has not been learned. At least here in the US, any ‘vintage’ band will always have the edge over modern bands, no matter how good the latter may be. The comments that I have often come across about bands or artists not being as good live as they are on CD are quite revealing of this suspicious (for lack of a better word) attitude towards anything new. Moreover, bands or artists who try to publicize their activity on discussion boards may end up being accused of ‘spamming’ – not to mention the deplorable attitude that seems to consider ‘international’ acts the only ones worth spending money on. Apparently, for quite a few prog fans, so-called ‘obscure’ bands are interesting only as additions to their already extensive CD or vinyl collections.

At the time of writing, only three of the major US prog festivals are still standing. ROSfest (which mainly appeals to a more ‘conservative’ audience) will be taking place on the third weekend of May, and has indeed has taken advantage of NEARfest’s cancellation by attracting at least some of its ‘orphans’ (including myself and my husband), especially those living in the Northeast. The ProgDay lineup seems to have already been finalized, though only two bands have been announced so far; while the future of CalProg is still uncertain. In the meantime, Europe, in spite of the economic crisis, is teeming with prog and other music festivals, most of them featuring up-and-coming bands.

As I observed in my opening paragraph, my original essay received a lot of feedback, both from artists and fans. Interestingly (though not surprisingly), the points of view of these two groups often differ quite sharply. While the fans displayed a range of feelings that went from censure to disappointment and even outright sadness, the musicians’ attitude as a whole expressed worry about the future of the scene, especially as regards opportunities for live performances. Having met many of those people in the past few years, and knowing about the constant struggles they face in order to get their music to be heard, I have no qualms in stating that I am completely on their side – even if I have never played a note in my whole life. Here are a few of the points that have emerged from the discussion of the past two weeks.

  • Promoters and independent label owners are growing disenchanted with the overall attitude of the fandom. Bringing international artists to the USA is neither cheap nor fast, and a snag in the visa process may cause a cancellation of a band or artist’s appearance (as it already did several times in the past). Moreover, those who work behind the scenes are quite likely to sustain financial losses in the event of a cancellation, as well as damage to their reputation of reliability – on top of the inevitable practical headaches. Promoters have already started wondering whether is worth going through all that hassle in order to bring bands to the US with the looming risk of seeing  an event evaporate if their prospective audience do not find their names appealing enough.
  • Home-grown acts are growing increasingly frustrated with being relegated to the status of stopgaps to fall back on when international names defect – ignoring the struggles they have to go through in order to find gigs outside the narrow borders of their home states or regions. Some of the comments about last year’s amazing ProgDay line-up being second-rate because of the lack of international bands were rather enlightening, as well as profoundly depressing. The US are currently home to a large number of exciting acts, ranging from the retro-oriented to those of a more avant-garde bent.  Quite a few of them have also produced genuinely challenging music, which does not deserve being dismissed so offhandedly. It is not like any of those bands are able to perform every weekend somewhere around the country. Such a blinkered attitude is not only deeply unfair towards those talented, hard-working musicians, but unmotivated as well. The oversaturation of the market that I so often mention in my reviews does not help either, as it causes a staggering number of bands or solo artists to compete for a handful of live spots.
  • A number of interesting suggestions have come from the ranks of the artists, who in some cases have had direct experience of organizing events. The almost unanimous advice was to stop catering solely to a niche audience, and consider the idea of multi-genre festivals, like the above-mentioned High Voltage, Reading Festival and other lower-profile events taking place in Europe and on the American continent. In spite of the jaded, world-weary attitude of many members of the community, who blithely foresee the death of live performances, people still enjoy live music quite a lot, and multi-genre events have the advantage of offering something to everyone. While most musicians would welcome the opportunity to perform at a festival covering a broader range of genres, they are also aware of the often unbending mindset of many fans. There is a clear disconnect between the two camps, with the fans standing their ground and claiming their right to support only the music they find worthwhile, and musicians feeling increasingly marginalized and taken for granted.
  • The disconnect between the organizers and their prospective audience also played a large role in the festival’s demise. Having been able to rely for years on end on a core of regular attendees, the organizers put too much faith in them, and were caught off guard when support dropped as sharply as it did this year. Practically no efforts were made to reach outside this restricted group, and the tools offered by the Internet were not deployed to their full effect. Not only did the organizers neglect to advertise the event on other progressive sites than their privileged channel (a US-based forum), but they declined to use the three public Facebook pages dedicated to the event, or even their own board. The latter has been down for over a year, and their dedicated mailing list is only accessible to those who register from the event’s website – not as visible as the social networking sites of which other events make widespread use. Since patron sales were the festival’s cornerstone, no efforts should have been spared to gain new supporters – possibly among forward-thinking people who would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing the bands on the bill, instead of turning up their noses because they were not famous or not ‘prog’ enough.
  • A number of NEARfest attendees (including myself and my husband) have often been left with the feeling of intruding on a private club meeting. Some have felt definitely rebuffed, and complained about a borderline hostile atmosphere – an impression that the core community has tried to refute in every way, even to the point of denying the evidence. In my humble opinion, when organizers rely so heavily on patrons’ donations in order to keep the festival going, they cannot afford to give part of the audience the impression of a high-school-style clique that keeps interlopers at bay. Last year’s incident with my review made me briefly consider not to attend in 2011, no matter how much I liked most other aspects of the festival. Other people had decided to stop attending altogether after one snub too many. Unfortunately, it seems that the members of the core group are either unaware of their attitude, or have decided not to care about other people’s opinions.
  • Some people from both camps have also suggested alternative methods of funding events, such as using funding platforms like Kickstarter or CrowdFund – as well as scaling back the size of the events, at least until the economy recovers. Indeed, as illustrated by the previous paragraphs, it is not wise to rely too much on the goodwill of patrons, especially when such reliance implies damaging the prospects of younger bands in order to craft a more attractive line-up. This might be a viable option to pursue in a country like the US, where public funding for the arts is not as widespread as in Europe and other Western countries.

To be perfectly honest, many of the reactions I have come across in the past two weeks do not bode well for the future of the US progressive rock scene. Thanks to the Internet, bands and artists would still be able to get their material across to interested listeners – but the opportunities for live performances would get even more scarce than they currently are, which would favour those bands who are chiefly studio-based projects. The frustration may eventually put an end to the existence of many bands, and the competition for the very few remaining live slots may well become unsustainable. Even worse, many of the more cutting-edge bands that in the past few years have been welcomed under the prog umbrella might decide to seek greener pastures, and disassociate themselves from the scene. That would leave prog as the preserve of those bands that, with their conservative, even ‘regressive’ approach,  are still capable of attracting crowds. The gap between ‘Prog’ and ‘progressive’ would inevitably widen, and become almost impossible to bridge – as a few enlightened people realize. Anyway, even if it is probably too soon to give in to pessimism, as long as the majority of the fans are unwilling to step out of their comfort zones, the future of the scene looks anything but bright.

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The Internet channels dedicated to progressive rock were bursting at the seams yesterday after the shocking news of the cancellation of one of the year’s most awaited events, the North-East Art Rock Festival, affectionately known as NEARfest.  When I first saw the announcement, posted as a link on the Wall of one of my Facebook friends, my first impulse was to check mentally if it was already April 1…

Unfortunately, yesterday was only March 26, and the news was no joke.  As could be expected, the general mood in the so-called ‘prog community’ was subdued,  and many of the people who had been attending the event for years (not to mention actively contributing to its realization) were positively devastated. For many, NEARfest went beyond a simple music festival: it was an opportunity to meet friends living thousands of miles away, and spend a weekend away from the worries and routine of ‘normal’ life. Now, instead, people are going to lose money they have already paid for airfares, car rentals and the like – not to mention the sadness at seeing their expectations of a wonderful weekend of music and friendship brutally dashed. Considering the average age of the attendees, this is not something that should be discounted.

Obviously, as all too often happens in similar circumstances, speculation was rife, as well as unashamed finger-pointing. People will always be people, and, in their disappointment,  the NEARfest ‘orphans’ were looking for something – or, even better, someone – to shoulder the blame.  While some blamed the poor state of the economy, others pointed their finger squarely at the close-mindedness, snobbishness and elitism of prog fans, which this year reached unprecedented levels due to a rather controversial line-up. The choice of a so-called ‘jam band’ like Umphrey’s McGee as Sunday headliner drew fierce criticism, and – added to a rather ‘experimental’ line-up lacking (unlike the previous years) any of the big names of the Seventies – contributed to a general lack of enthusiasm for this year’s edition. Some were even berating the organizers for not having disclosed the reality of the situation and asked for help before cancelling the event  – something which, after some of the flak they got for their choices, I cannot blame them for not doing.

Did the news take me completely by surprise? To be perfectly honest, it  did not. In some ways, I had seen it coming, especially when I compared last year’s patron sales with this year’s. Anyway, though I started putting down my thoughts yesterday afternoon, I decided to let the night bring me counsel (as we would say in Italy), and complete my essay with a clearer mind, without giving in to the temptation to blast everyone in sight. Having got our tickets in the mail two days before, that temptation would have been understandable.

As a latecomer to NEARfest,  I had been looking forward to the event, possibly even more so than the previous two editions. In the past year I have been able to meet an increasing number of members of the community, both through concert attendances, my activity as a reviewer, and the ubiquitous Facebook.  For me – a relative newcomer to the country, still with a semi-precarious status, and not yet feeling completely at ease in my new surroundings – feeling part of a group of people that shared a passion for a musical genre had provided a sense of belonging that is essential for expatriates. Though last year I had been deeply disappointed by the attitude of the organizers, who never bothered to acknowledge the lengthy review I had written for the website I was collaborating with at the time, I decided to go again this year, and contribute to the festival through the Patron Program (which, for two people, amounts to the not inconsiderable sum of $ 650).

As the regular readers of my blog know quite well, I am not interested in labels, and am by nature very curious of anything new – a prerequisite for anyone who ‘works’ as a more or less official reviewer. I also have rather diverse musical tastes, and will give anything a chance before dismissing it. On the other hand, years of frequentation of the online prog scene have made one thing very clear: for many fans, ‘progressive’ is just a word stripped of its original meaning. This seems to be especially true in my native country of Italy, where people worship Genesis and their ilk to the extent that newer bands are often forced to look for an audience outside the national borders, while tribute bands do a roaring trade. However, Europe as a whole seems to fare somewhat better in this sense, with festivals such as Gouveia Art Rock (which takes place in Portugal, a country that is far from wealthy for Western standards) that keep selling out, not to mention large-scale events such as High Voltage. Moreover, the nature of the continent (including the ease of travelling within the member states of the European Union) makes it easier for artists to tour other European countries if things are not too rosy on their home turf.

Though, as every adult person knows, very little in life is black and white, and things are obviously not as clear-cut as one might wish, I cannot help feeling that a festival that had become one of the year’s bright lights for many people (not to mention an event many bands and artists from all over the world would have sold their souls to play) has been failed, if not outright sabotaged, by the same people who were expected to support it – even if, in many cases, because of very real impediments. Even if this may sound harsh, it is hard not to wonder when one year people flock to see a bunch of glorified tribute bands – financial and other worries notwithstanding – and the following year the festival suddenly loses all appeal for them.

The sad truth, in my view, is that prog fans have become complacent with the astonishing revival of the genre in past few years – and have also got into the typical frame of mind of  ‘having your cake and eating it’, or, if you prefer, ‘my way or the highway’. Yes, they want prog to prosper and all that, and spend hours on the Internet dissecting the most obscure albums – but, when it comes to supporting those bands and artists that are flying the flag in the here and now, then all of a sudden they bail out, unless they see one  of the ‘big names’ (preferably dating back from the Seventies, though a few from later years would also qualify) on the bill. I wonder how any of those ‘new’ bands (many of whom have been around for ten years or more) are supposed to become ‘headliner material’ if no one gives them a chance to play in front of a decent audience. In a sort of perverse way, it reminds me of the situation in which many young job-seekers find themselves – being unable to apply for jobs due to lack of experience, which no one allows them to gain by hiring them.

It does not help either that many of the hardcore members of the ‘community’ have a much more limited view of prog than the one espoused by the press – as even a cursory look at Classic Rock Presents Prog (a magazine I do not particularly care for, but which has been undeniably successful) should be  enough to prove. Additionally, the younger set of prog fans are also more likely to be into progressive metal (even in its more extreme incarnations) or ‘crossover’ acts, both of which are looked upon with suspicion or even disdain by a good deal of the older stalwarts. In spite of the organizers having made it very clear in last year’s festival programme that the 2011 edition was going to be a transitional one, people still refused to accept that the future of progressive rock – if it is to survive – lies beyond the slowly drying out reservoir of  the ‘old guard’, and those newer bands that, to various degrees, reproduce the Seventies vibe. When a band like Iona are considered ‘more prog’ (whatever that means) than The Pineapple Thief or The Mars Volta, then you know that the future of the whole genre is in serious trouble.

Obviously, the above remarks do not apply to everyone, and I would never downplay the very serious difficulties that many people are going through in their everyday lives. It would also be crass of me to suggest people have to force themselves to like music that is not to their taste – I, for one, know how excruciating it can be to sit through a CD you cannot get into. However, while not suggesting that people go against the grain of their own tastes – let alone resort to stealing in order to finance their festival-going habit –  it is also clear that a change of attitude is needed if we do not want progressive music (rock or otherwise) to die out for good.

Anyway, whatever the truth of the situation, yesterday will be remembered as a very sad day for the whole community of progressive rock fans, at least as regards the USA. Even if the NEARfest organizers decide to regroup and make a comeback next year, it is unlikely that things will ever be the same. Might it have been avoided? Not being privy to the organization’s inner workings, I do not claim to have any easy answers. Clearly there were issues of miscommunication, as no one who was not an insider had any idea that the general sales were going so badly. However, it is also difficult to ignore the bickering that went on for days after every band announcement, and the nasty words that accompanied the disclosure of the Sunday headliner. This is why many of yesterday’s proclamations smack of crocodile tears, or at least sound needlessly defensive. I do not want to sound overly pessimistic, but I cannot help wondering if yesterday’s events will mean a death knell for this amazing ‘prog revival’, or rather a much-needed wake-up call for the whole scene.

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