Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 2: Toronto

Fire EX at the breakfast buffet

What’s the best way to navigate a 5-day, 800-band festival spread liberally throughout Toronto, where 15-minute cab rides cost around US$25? Especially in the case where I’d heard of maybe a half dozen performers – Janet Jackson, the Electric Six, the Russian Futurists and a Japanese band called Zoobombs that a friend had been emailing me about.

Orbis and I took the easy default. On the penultimate day of Canadian Music Week, we were in the York Hotel from 4pm to 2am, schlepping through conferences, industry mixers, the awards ceremony and room parties. The secret of music festival in the modern age is that, while they are still an entertainment showcase for the punters, they are essentially trade shows. In two days, I saw three artists perform but exchanged a thick stack of name cards. A Filipino promoter. A Singaporean B-girl who’s based in LA and spoke with a Jamaican accent. A New Yorker of uncertain provenance who claimed to have a website that promotes Chinese music. A smooth-talking, dandyish expat from Hong Kong who told us the Flaming Lips generate over US$100,000 in revenue per show and he can easily recoup that in Hong Kong. (I don’t know if we said it out loud, but Orbis and I looked at each other with a look that said, “Really?”) There were also a few potentially valuable contacts from Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Hong Kong and Korea.

The most interesting thing we saw was a seminar called “Music Makeover.” On a stage in a big conference room, a producer with a microphone headset diced up a song by an R&B band (also on stage), and through the process of a “live rehearsal” created a new arrangement that was – truth be told – much better than the original. Watching this was like being in the studio audience of some reality TV show, except that no one got sent home at the end. There real-time critique had its moments, like a good-natured dressing down of the goofy, flop-haired guitarist:

“Real humility is not about being deferential and shy. It’s about accepting the expectations of the audience and fulfilling that role. If you are the lead guitarist, then be the guitar god and step up there and show it. If you just shuffle around in the back, or meekly retreat from the front of the stage after your solo, you simply fail to engage people, and they will become uninterested very quickly.”

This, I told Orbis, was the difference between Japanese bands and Taiwanese. Both sets of musicians tend to be pretty humble offstage, but the Japanese hone their onstage skills until they are razor sharp. Indie rock may claim differently, but in so many ways, rock ‘n roll is not just about music, it’s about the performance. Not many people go to the theater anymore, but they go to rock shows all the time, and whether they know it or not, they have the same expectations: they want to see a show. It’s a lesson that Taiwan’s bands are slowly learning, and what will help is the type of exposure that generates a culture of performance, and a culture of giving that performance whether they’re in front of 20 people or 500. That’s pretty much this tour.


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