More than 100 bands and artists performed Downtown over a three-day span last week, and odds are you’ve never heard of any of them. Scratch that; almost everyone and their mother (word to her) remembers Vanilla Ice, or could at least dredge up a bit of “Ice Ice Baby” from their deepest reserves. But mostly, this year’s Amplify!! music conference brought together a bunch of unknown bands playing unfamiliar songs for undersized audiences.
Which is, roughly, what Amplify!! is intended to do.
Pretend the term “festival” doesn’t appear on the official program. Amplify!!’s mission isn’t to book big-name acts or draw Vegoose-sized crowds to its cluster of venues—Jillian’s, Beauty Bar, Canyon Club, Celebrity, Icehouse and Brass Lounge.
Rather, it’s the other appellation, “conference,” that accurately defines the experience. Now in its fourth year, Amplify!! has developed into a dependable little music gathering, nothing remotely close to South by Southwest or CMJ, mind you, but still, an opportunity for unsigned acts to learn about the industry, showcase their writing and performing abilities and, if they’re wildly fortunate, catch the ear of an A&R rep who could change their lives.
Given the paucity of deals in today’s shrinking major-label environment, Amplify!!’s hordes were wise to focus instead on gleaning prerequisites for touring or the nuances of online promotion, as the crowded rooms at panel discussions on those topics suggested they had. In today’s do-everything-yourself music world, useful information can be as valuable as gas money.
“We’re not concerned with getting signed,” Zhanine, singer for Orange County, California, reggae-rock outfit Conjob, explained as she passed out self-recorded CD-Rs. “This is about learning—we’re personally interested in learning about distribution—and it’s about networking.”
Along with access to panels, a $100-per-band price tag entitled registrants to meet one-on-one with label execs, attorneys and publicists, and to perform one 20-minute showcase. Did A&R types diligently hoof it from the Icehouse at one end of Fremont Street to Beauty Bar at the other? Or were they, as was rumored in the days of Amplify!! predecessor EAT’M, mostly here to party? Tough to say, especially since the “suits” of today often don’t even wear long pants.
Locals Yesteryear didn’t seem concerned one way or the other, smiling through a set of enjoyable throwback rock that had a feisty Brass Lounge audience pumping fists and toasting beers. “We just wanted to play our best, no matter who was here to hear it,” singer Topher Koza said. “We’re just having a great time.”
Overall, Amplify!! crowds were wildly hit or miss. Vegas glam-metallers Siamese Graffiti played to fewer than 20 people Wednesday at Canyon Club. The following night, newish local indie quartet The Ku drew three times that number, lucking into a Beauty Bar slot just ahead of popular shock-rock crew Deadly Seven. “We don’t have a demo to give out. I kinda wish we did,” Ku frontman Lucas Johnson said.
Amplify!! hub Jillian’s, the host site with two indoor stages and another outside, attracted the most consistent support, particularly on Wednesday, when young fans arrived early for visiting emo band Hawthorne Heights. Local punk group Ministry of Love reaped the benefits, inspiring a powder-puff mosh pit composed entirely of teenage girls.
Touring acts I Hate Kate, Torche and Vains of Jenna were also touted as headliners, but only Vanilla Ice topped Hawthorne for mainstream name recognition. The much-derided, 40-year-old rapper pulled plenty of curious onlookers to Celebrity and managed to live up to expectations for absurdity. His drummer took a lengthy solo, and his DJ evoked the spirit of Great White by shooting sparks toward a low ceiling. And Ice himself? When he wasn’t teasing his silly “Ninja Rap” or pulling exhibitionists onstage, he was offering advice. “If you have a fucking dream, you can make it happen,” he said. “Remember, magic is real.”
Admittedly, even for a diehard music head, Amplify!! wasn’t much to get excited about. Better to save up for next month’s new Neon Reverb, an honest-to-goodness Downtown festival offering full sets (read: longer than four songs) from The Bleachers, The Clydesdale, Silver State and more.
If you happen to be in a band, however, it could be worth plunking down the bucks for next year’s Amplify!!. Vegas rockers Searchlight would surely agree. At this year’s conference, they got noticed by Atlantic Records A&R honcho Danny Wimmer, showcased privately for him at Canyon Club and are headed to LA’s Knitting Factory to play for him again on September 17.
Hey, maybe magic is real.