With Coachella, Southern California reigns as the location of the country's top music festival, but when it comes to the best music conference, Austin, Texas, home of South By Southwest, currently has us beat. But that situation is not going to continue without a fight if the organizers of Santa Barbara's annual New Noise Music Festival and Conference have anything to say about it. The fourth edition of New Noise wrapped up on November 10, with an unprecedented total of 4,000 participants streaming through downtown Santa Barbara and the adjacent Funk Zone over the course of four nights. Attendees explored the city, moving from venue to venue and picking and choosing their experience from among the more than 50 bands that played, the more than 100 music industry executives and artists who spoke on a dozen or so panels, and the uncountable networking opportunities that popped up everywhere from the swanky Savoy nightclub to the earthy Muddy Waters Coffee Shop. Organizers Jeff Theimer, Matt Kettman, and Tim Boris expressed their excitement over what many New Noise watchers deemed a "tipping point year," in which the event found the right mix of day and night, loud and soft, educational and entertaining. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who could be seen rocking out at all kinds of unpredictable moments, called the New Noise crew "great examples of Santa Barbara's next generation of emerging creative artists that bolsters our cultural economy."
While Chuck D from Public Enemy probably made the biggest impact on Friday's conference, there were lots of other great stories being told, and plenty of interesting advice and inside information to chew on for the audience, which ranged in age from as young as 11 to well over 50. Addressing topics that ranged from the art and business of sustainable songwriting, to marketing your music, to women in the music industry, and the importance of all-ages venues, the panels were consistently funny, inspiring, and unpredictable. Several of the most distinguished speakers were returning to their hometown. For example, Tom Osborne, head of marketing at Epitaph/Anti grew up in Santa Barbara, and was back to light up the panel called "Brand New Marketing" with recent tales from his experience working with the Black Keys and Tom Waits, among others.
Songwriting was particularly well served by a two-person panel with Santa Barbara residents Zach Gill (ALO, Jack Johnson) and Glen Philips (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Nickel Creek). Moving with ease from technical discussions of song form and strategies for overcoming writer's block to anecdotes about the ups and downs of making a living by writing songs, the pair ended up offering an extraordinarily positive message to the aspiring artists in the crowd, an attitude best summed up by Philips who said, "it's about three things--being good at what you do, working hard at getting your stuff out there, and finally, above all else, being nice to people." The optimistic, "be nice" conclusion to Philips' proposed three-part program was reiterated in many forms throughout the day. Most forceful of all was Chuck D, who praised the conference as a "priceless" opportunity for people to exchange ideas and information, and then went on to proclaim that while the rapidly shifting economics of the music industry has been "brutal for the establishment, it has opened a lot of doors." On the All-Ages Venue panel, which included Chad Peterson, talent booker at Goldenvoice, which is perhaps the biggest promoter in Southern California, Muddy Waters Café owner Bill Lewis, opined that the biggest issue for him with booking all ages hardcore shows, which he said he liked, was that there was a "certain dickbag factor that you have to take into account."
There was certainly no dickbag factor at the Festival's many concerts, which were packed and pumping with sounds both local and imported. Highlights included a frenetic set on Friday night at Velvet Jones from Central Oregon acoustic punk bluegrass freaks Larry and His Flask and a windy but well attended outdoor afternoon show with Y La Bamba and Gardens and Villa playing on a stage set up just for the day in the middle of Mason Street. For connoisseurs of the radical transition, the programming was exquisite, allowing for journeys of less than a block that took you from violinist Lindsey Stirling, who one listener likened to "Comicon comes to a concert," to the jazzy post-punk of Mike Watt and the Missingmen to the conscious hip hop of Saul Williams and Blackalicious.
In some ways, the biggest victory of this year's New Noise was the one that was won on the streets--not just in Saturday's block party, but all over downtown Santa Barbara, and due in large part to the upward spike in attendance, which created the crucial critical mass that leads to all kinds of socializing. Zack Gill's response to the scene on Friday makes a perfect illustration of what went right this year. After talking for an hour on the sustainable songwriting panel, Gill hung around backstage at the Savoy for another to answer questions and shoot the breeze with a group of middle schoolers who were there to get their start in the music industry. Wandering out of Savoy onto lower State Street, Gill spotted one of the many uprights that had been placed there as part of the "Pianos on State" project. Plunking himself down on the corner, Gill proceeded to entertain anyone who wandered by for the next forty-five minutes with an improvised set of classics, standards, and new grooves, all done just for the hell of it. Be nice is right--you never know who that guy is playing piano on the corner.
Top Photo: New Noise Music Festival and Conference.
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