Live Concert Review: New Music Seminar, New Music Nights Festival 2015 Misfires in its Attempt to Showcase New Music

Live Concert Review: New Music Seminar, New Music Nights Festival 2015 Misfires in its Attempt to Showcase New Music

New Music Seminar can trace its origins back to 1980 when over 200 people gathered at a New York City rehearsal studio to discuss and debate what were the challenges for artists and industry people alike, and in the following years, the event expanded to include a music festival that its organizers dubbed “New Music Nights.” With numerous showcases held in a number of lower Manhattan-based clubs and venues, New Music Seminar’s New Music Nights Festival quickly became the CMJ Marathon/Northside Festival of its day. In fact, over the course of the Seminar and Festival’s first 15 years, it developed a reputation for highlighting a diverse array of acts – some who were known and beloved but for the most part, many of those acts eventually became legendary and beloved acts. Just to give you a sense of how important, New Music Seminar and its New Music Nights Festival was, check out the following:

  • Madonna, whose solo debut album had put her on the national and international map, the year before was a speaker at the 1984 New Music Seminar. She was on a panel talking about what was then a rather new development for artists and industry folk alike – music video. Interestingly, George Clinton and James Brown had also made appearances. (Curiously, I wonder what they had to say about the music industry at the time.)
  • RuPaul made an appearance as a completely unheard-of performer back in 1986. NMS has footage of his arrival at the Festival’s then headquarters in Times Square, and even back then RuPaul was attention-grabbing. The footage actually has the then unheard-of artist rolling with an entourage of about 8. It’s actually pretty insane footage.
  • Nirvana played the Pyramid Club at the 1989 New Music Nights Festival, a full two years before the release of their game-changing Nevermind.
  • Melvins played at the 1993 NMS.
  • NMS also embraced hip-hop in its earliest days, as Grandmaster Caz and Mellie Mel faced off in an MC vs. DJ battle in 1987; ASCAP hosted a “Rap Corner,” which featured Prince Paul, Ice-T, Luther Campbell, Dr. Dre (the radio personality and Yo! MTV Raps co-host) and a number of others in 1990; Ice Cube, brought Yo Yo to NYC for her first NYC area – hell, her first East Coast performances – ever.
  • 1990 also saw a DJ World Championship in which DJs competed for a championship belt, and the title of being the World’s Best DJ. (Of course, I have to wonder, “according to whom?” But the idea sounds good, right?)

New Music Seminar was revived in 2009 by its organizers after promoters, agents, label execs and artists experienced about a decade of declining album sales. Clearly, what everyone had realized was that the album-based model that had been the standard for about 50 years was dead – and that everyone had to move towards new ways of promoting their material and expanding their reach, making money and growing careers – among other things. The re-launched NMS went through a variety of changes before settling into its current format as an annual event in NYC.

I’ve covered the festival in some capacity or another over the past three years, and over the course of those years, I’ve caught a number of acts who have later been featured throughout JOVM including The Grizzled Mighty, Twin Wave, Etivan (the collaborative project featuring Black Sheep’s Dres and A Tribe Called Quest’s Jairobi), Chateau Marmont, AVAN LAVA, Ninjasonik, Pearl and the Beard, The Soul Rebels Brass Band and a few others. But over the past two years, NMS has increasingly been rather disappointing – with this year being the most disappointing in recent memory. As my dear friend and colleague Natalie Hamingson mentioned in her JOVM New Music Seminar piece, there were several moments she thought “this is why the music industry is failing” – and I have to admit that my thoughts mirrored hers during the New Music Nights’ opening night and during the one night that I wound up covering by myself.

During New Music Nights’ current run, event organizers and bookers have made conscious and fairly thoughtful attempts to have a very broad and diverse slate of musical programming, and in a few ways, New Music Nights has done a slightly better job than Northside. Perhaps, because event co-founder Tom Silverman was the founder and head of Tommy Boy Records, Black artists – particularly those in hip-hop and pop – have seen equal representation to their white counterparts. Over the past couple of years, organizers have paid special attention to female artists running the gamut from pop, country, electronic dance music, indie rock and others. I can’t forget the fact that one year, I was excited to catch a new Afro pop act featuring members from Western Africa. And as a result, crowds for the New Music Nights Festival’s Opening Night and subsequent showcases can be fairly diverse in terms of racial background and residence. Granted, NMS has done so in fits and starts, and in other ways, they’ve fallen into a similar pattern of most festivals across NYC and nationally – possessing a tendency to focus on traditionally Western music genres; in particular, with NMS, there’s been a frustrating focus on mainstream leaning artists and genres in an age where everything is niche-orientated and niche-marketed to a point where mainstream is difficult to discern.

Now, despite the event’s diversity, there’s a sense that the event is in serious trouble. New York is arguably the busiest and most diverse live music scene in the US, if not the entire world, and as a result New Music Seminar’s New Music Nights Festival directly competes against Governor’s Ball, Northside Festival, Summerstage, Gigawatts Festival, 4 Knots Festival, River to River Festival, Celebrate Brooklyn!, and a busy slate of shows at venues across the metropolitan area for attention, attendees and performers. And frankly, offering industry specific content just isn’t enough to set New Music Seminar apart from a full musical slate – or from a festival like Northside, which actually offered somewhat similar industry-related programming. Ultimately, I think that is a fixable issue that a marketing department in concert with the organizers can attend to and actually improve. Unfortunately, NMS’ biggest and most vexing problem is that the overall quality of the lineup has declined – and declined in a way that could render the entire event irrelevant. With a few notable exceptions, I kept thinking to myself, “who actually thought this would be marketable, let alone successful?” It suggests something I’ve openly said to colleagues and friends, who have followed JOVM since the beginning – that the major labels are become completely clueless and haven’t always figured contemporary tastes. The fact that American Idol has been a thing for so long, should be a constant reminder of how dense some of these people really can be. Shame on you for unleashing Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard and a long list of dreadful and forgettable artists, songs and artists!

In this respect, in order to stay relevant, NMS needs to employ bloggers, music journalists, A&R folks, radio programmers and other tastemakers in key programming roles. Although admittedly, I’ve long been critical of my colleagues, I will say that as a general rule, many of my colleagues know who’s currently buzz-worthy, who will be buzz-worthy and who isn’t, which is a completely different mode of thinking than “this is what we think will get over,” without considering if that artist can actually command a stage – or will have people talking about how they caught them before anyone heard of them.

NEW MUSIC SEMINAR, NEW MUSIC NIGHTS SHOWCASE at DROM featuring SPZRKT, Bizzy Crook, Ace Cosgrove

Before the New Music Festival, a colleague of mine, who specializes primarily in hip-hop had mentioned – in passing – that NMS would be featuring a couple of up-and-coming emcees, who have received some attention across the blogosphere.

First up on the stage was the Warner Robins, GA-based electro pop/electro R&B artist SPZRKT (pronounced Spazzy Rocket). Backed by a DJ, SPZRKT’s sound was primarily a very contemporary and sparse, electro pop sound that reminded me quite a bit of the likes of Steven A. Clark, The Weeknd and others. Much like those artists, SPZRKT’s sound was slickly produced and was hook laden – to the point of being pretty catchy; however, despite the slick production, the Warner Robins, GA-based artist had an awkward and very raw stage presence. Still there was a sense that SPZRKT could develop into a star, provided that he gets a bunch of live shows under his belt.

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(Photo Caption: SPZRKT at New Music Seminar’s New Music Nights Festival Showcase at DROM) SPZRKT was followed by Miami, FL-based emcee Bizzy Crook, and as soon as he spit his initial bars, it was obvious that this artist was deeply inspired by Kanye West. Similarly, Bizzy Crook’s material largely focused on his own psyche, his own “inner demons, his predilection for vices and bad behavior, but the Miami, FL-based emcee’s work managed to fall flat. He just seemed to lack the sort of roguish charm to make the material seem like more than a pose from someone trying to seem controversial and edgy. My overall sense of his was that, he was an artist who was still trying to find his voice – and for his sake, I hope he does. One of the worst parts of his set was a tuneless and outright dreadful song about Adderall, titled “Adderall,” which seemed to endlessly plod to its inevitably conclusion. As soon as the song was announced, a colleague, who I had first met at Northside looked at me, rolled his eyes and laughed with an expression that seemed to say “is this guy serious?” Sadly, even his best song, which coincidentally ended the set, was a largely forgettable, big drum ‘n’ bass trap house song. My overall sense of his was that, he was an artist who was still trying to find his voice – and needs to work on his material.

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(Photo Caption: Bizzy Crook at New Music Seminar’s New Music Nights Festival Showcase at DROM)

Ace Cosgrove, a 23-year-old Gaithersburg, MD-based emcee took the stage next, and as an artist Cosgrove has released two albums Simple Criticism and UsVsRobots to critical praise from the likes of Complex, Pigeons and Planes, Vibe, XXL and HipHopDX among others. And he’s made an appearance on BET’s 106th and Park. Cosgrove’s had an easy-going, laid-back flow particular to Dirty South emcees but throughout his set, I have to admit that I wish he could have received better production – his current production didn’t seem to suit his voice or his style very well. And although he struck me as kind of awkward, I liked his energy the best, as he actively attempted to connect with the audience. At one point, he begged the sparse audience to move up closer to the stage and then jumped into the crowd to start an old school cypher. Cosgrove also managed to pull a few shy young ladies closer to him to dance.

The highlight of his set was the set’s closing song, which sounded to my ears as though it were channeling the dusty, old-school, sample-based production of the great J. Dilla.

NEW MUSIC SEMINAR, NEW MUSIC NIGHTS SHOWCASE at Piano’s featuring HIGHS

Ideally, I wanted to catch Shirley House at DROM but I had the sudden realization that I wanted to change things up. So I stopped at Piano’s to catch the last set of the night, the Toronto-based indie electro pop quartet HIGHS. The Canadian quartet has quickly become something of an international sensation, as “Nomads” off their debut EP was featured in Adult World, a movie starring John Cusack. And as a result, the band has opened for the likes of Cold War Kids and fellow Canadian, Rich Aucoin, and headed  into the European Union to play at the Focus Wales and The Great Escape Festivals. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also received quite a bit of attention across the blogosphere and radio – “Summer Dress” landed at #1 on CBC Radio 3, while “Nomads” hit Hype Machine’s Top 30 Charts and CMJ’s Top 200.

Adding to what seems to be a rapidly growing profile, the band’s forthcoming full-length debut, produced by Luke Smith, known for his work with Foals, Charli XCX and Lily Allen is slated for release later this year. However, despite their growing national and international profile, I found the Canadian’s quartet’s set to be among one of the most frustrating sets I’ve caught this year. Live, I just had the impression that the members of the band were trying way too hard to be soulful and intense, and it came off measured and phony, as though they were mimicking what they thought a soulful stage presence should be. And although I could tell that their sound was slickly produced, their set was marred by sound problems throughout – but the worst part was that their music was empty. Much like Sleigh Bells, HIGHS live heroics mask the fact that their music is essentially empty. Worse yet, was an overly slick cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” which removed, the original’s intentional bile, grit and despair and included auto-tunes at the song’s chorus and hook.

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Whereas with Northside, there were clear winners and losers, my experience with New Music Seminar’s New Music Nights Festival was at best a frustrating misfire in which the best acts I saw were mediocre and fairly forgettable. My hope is that next year, the folks behind the festival will get more right than wrong.

For these photos and more from New Music Seminar’s New Music Seminar, please check out the follow Flickr sets:

NEW MUSIC SEMINAR, NEW MUSIC NIGHTS SHOWCASE at DROM featuring SPZRKT, Bizzy Crook, Ace Cosgrove: https://flic.kr/s/aHskggCCrw

NEW MUSIC SEMINAR, NEW MUSIC NIGHTS SHOWCASE at Piano’s featuring HIGHS: https://flic.kr/s/aHskgion4H

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