CBGB Festival: 5 – 8 July 2012 – New York

With the songs of the Ramones, Blondie and Joan Jett floating over the audience at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York’s Lower East Side, the first ever CBGB Festival was set to begin. Keynote speaker Krist Novoselic arrived a bit late, like a rock star, opening his remarks with a big congrats to the organizers for bringing back the spirit of the place in supporting music. He spoke wistfully of being a little boy growing up on the west coast, listening with his Dad on a 4-track system to the early rock and roll of Chuck Berry and Dick Dale. He acquired a vinyl collection, which included Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but was exposed to punk rock working at a fast food joint as a teen.

“Music saved my life,” Novoselic stated emphatically. He found himself in a subculture, which adhered to the Henry Rollins notion of “Living life in the main stream is such a lame dream.” Big riff bands such as Mud Honey, Sound Garden and Pearl Jam were local favorites and he began following them through the old school fanzines along with other pre-internet information channels such as word of mouth. During this time, he met musically like-minded Kurt Cobain who had a guitar, so Novoselic began playing bass to accompany his new friend. D.C. area native Dave Grohl joined them soon afterwards to change music history as Nirvana.

“I could talk about Nirvana for hours,” Novoselic admitted. He is proud of the band and his role in the alt rock world known as grunge. When fans come up to him to thank him for the music and say how much it meant to them, he uses the opportunity to remember Cobain. With a slight choke in his voice, Novoselic shared how “that’s for you dude.” Before moving on he explained, “Kurt Cobain was a wonderful person and deserved a rewarding life.”

Novoselic’s political activism began in the 1990s with the Washington State Liquor Control Board’s Teen Dance Ordinance, which placed restrictions on music clubs. He reacted by supporting pro-music legislation and creating a PAC to begin “playing the game as it’s played.” He continues to be involved in political groups such as Fairvote, which supports a national popular vote. “I do it because I know things could be better in the U.S.” If you want to do something about something, he told the crowd, do it collectively. Some say the notion of association is dead, but Novoselic said it is actually exploding with social media such as Twitter and Facebook. If an individual thinks politics are out of whack, then coming together with like-minded people will bring change after a lot of work.

With his talk over, Novoselic let out a big sigh of relief, admitting he was glad he no one walked out. During the Question and Answer period, he was asked if Nirvana ever played CBGBs. They went to many shows there but only played at the Pyramid Club and Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. Other questions focused on politics, but while Novoselic gets the “pomp of politics” he would not want to run for office. Since he doesn’t really need a job with what he calls “all these blessings,” he plays a lot of accordion. He was recently back in the studio playing the instrument for the Foo Fighters, and said it was great to see Grohl since they always have fun together. “He deserves everything he has,” Novoselic responded to the notion of jealousy over the ex-band member’s spotlight. “He has stayed focused, he works hard, and the Foo Fighters rock.” This simple vocal embrace was met with cheering and applause.

The first music panel of the day followed with a discussion about communication, reflecting the tagline for the festival: communicate, collaborate and create. With online tools evolving, a website and YouTube channel were deemed critical for bands to build a relationship with core fans in a “post label society.” The new notion of crowd funding through programs such as Kickstarter were viewed as an advanced tip jar, with opportunities to advance the musical cause. However, it all seemed to revolve around basic time management, for example, making use of down time during sound check to make use of social media.

A panel on the “Music Industry: Today and the Future,” was comprised of ex-record label executives which sent a message in itself. With the recent mid-year report by Neilson Sound Scan finding album sales dropping 3.2% (they had increased in 2011), recorded music is not the “breadwinner” anymore. In a singles world, songs are now a calling card or business card of sorts with live tours and publishing providing core revenue streams for bands. If recordings are seen as a promotional tool, how it is monetized becomes the choice of the artist. Discussion ventured into subscription based services and the lack of proper payment to artists, especially those scrambling for attention. There was also a lament for high quality recordings with most consumers content with substandard mp3s, as if the days of music discovery on basic equipment like radios didn’t count anymore.

Later in the day, CBGB alumnae were on stage to reminisce for the “CBGB – Tales From the Club” session. Artist Mickey Leigh, brother of the late Joey Ramone, recalled how the first time he went to the club, there was three audience members: a member of Hell’s Angels, the bartender, and a dog. But he felt right at home. The Ramones Manager Danny Fields declared, “It was wonderful ‘cause the sound was wonderful. It was like being in the music.” He went on to say how bands never sounded so good anywhere else. Former employee Jackie Luther thought the best part of working there was seeing all the talent – on stage and off. “Hilly [owner Hilly Kristal who died in 2007, one year after the club closed after 33 years] hired great people,” Luther said. They were all performers and artists, not just bartenders, and they referred to the club as the land of misfit toys. There was an audition night where everyone got a shot: before, during, and after it “became the mecca of punk,” according to Leigh.

Other panels addressed the surge of DIY options, from recording and releasing albums to publishing, publicity outreach, or marketing music for film and television. Basic advice about doing your homework and researching wherever a musician is contacting was repeated throughout the sessions. Utilizing quick links to music without downloading via Soundcloud or something similar was deemed preferable in order to reduce the steps necessary for a quick listen. A basic paragraph write up and photo puts the spotlight on the song, no novels or complicated photo shoots needed. Whether finding fans or a platform such as music licensing that will also find fans, a band needs to focus on letting the music do the talking. Maybe the CBGB Festival tagline should read “create, collaborate, then communicate.”