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Charleston’s New Music Confab (Aug 27-29): Not Your Father’s SXSW

This Thursday marks the beginning of the New Music Confab, Charleston’s own music industry expo and showcase. For three nights, the Charleston Music Hall and the Music Farm will feature 29 up and coming bands. During the daytime Friday and Saturday, the Music Hall will present 10 panel discussions on topics geared toward young bands, such as “Radio: The First Steps,” and “Record Labels: New Deals in an Old Game.” Mostly, the topics are about how to either get discovered, or how to run your own band business.

The music conference model has been almost beaten to death since the rise and subsequent dominance of the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, TX, which got started in the early 90s. That conference became a mecca for unsigned bands to pursue fame and fortune. It was also an incredible schmooze-fest for industry execs. I attended SXSW several times as a band member, and once as the tag-along boyfriend of an Electra Records A&R rep. On that latter trip, I watched her pursue and eventually sign a couple of acts, but also turn down a couple of acts who became huge. Deals really did happen because of SXSW, and it continued to become a huge boost to Austin, and a great moneymaker for its founders.

Since then, multiple music conferences have popped up in cities throughout the US. Driven by the hope of good profits, organizers tried to mimic the SXSW model. Most failed, floundered, or simply caused more and more bands to become jaded to the whole industry. Almost all suffered from a lack of decent bands and a series of panelists who gave no more information than you could find on a Google search. Even that information was two steps behind the times.

So I was curious as to why this conference was happening in Charleston, who was running it, and why now?

I got to talk with the sole organizer of the event, Dave Stewart. He’s a veteran of over 25 years in the radio business and now resides in Columbia. I asked him about the choice of Charleston and he jumped right into the discussion about SXSW. “I see Charleston as a lot like Austin was when South By Southwest started,” he said. “Everybody thinks of SXSW as this huge thing now, but back then it was just a burgeoning music scene, not the exploding one it became. I see Charleston as a lot like that now.”

Dave isn’t a musician, but attended the early events at SXSW as a radio program director. “You’d walk around and people would be saying, ‘Have you seen this group called Dave Matthews Band? They’re great’ and sure enough, now 20 years later they get half a million dollars to play a gig.” I have to agree, it was exciting back then. I got to see Verve Pipe, Veruca Salt, Beck, Refreshments, Presidents of The United States of America, and others before they got signed, while roaming the streets of Austin.

But can that kind of excitement come to Charleston? Maybe not in the first year, but Stewart thinks that it could, eventually. “The Charleston scene has a nice diversity. Music industry people are moving down there. It just reminds me of Austin back in the day. And it’s not hard to get industry people to come to Charleston. If I’m talking to the head of RCA and tell him he can make a business trip to Charleston, it’s not a hard sell.”

Stewart has exceeded his goals to get as many out of town industry people to come. “This may be the biggest collection of music execs in the Carolinas in a long time. I have over 25 coming in from New York, LA, Nashville.”

He encourages local bands to take advantage of this collection of music industry insiders. “These are the kind of people who you might not usually get in front of. You might camp out at their office for six months, and they’ll never talk to you. But here in Charleston this weekend, they will be readily available.”

Indeed, each night, there is a Cocktail Party at either the Music Farm or the Cocktail Club, where musicians can hope to meet up with the industry insiders they just heard speaking at the conference.

But the conference is not just for bands to meet execs. Stewart has put together what he feels is an exciting lineup of 29 bands on two stages over three days. Many of the names on the bill will be familiar to locals, such as Danielle Howle, Dead 27s, Ben Fagan, Atlas Road Crew, Tyler Boone and others. But Stewart is excited about a few coming in from far away. Lost Element from Houston is a very radio friendly alt/pop band that seems to be creating excitement for their music, while a managing a smart business. Another interesting act will be Toronto’s Smashing Satellites. That band sounds a lot like an 80’s synth rock band, and is gaining a strong following in their home country, while looking to events like the New Music Confab as a way to gain more attention in the U.S.

If you’re a musician who wants to get the most out of the event, the $75 VIP pass is for you. If you’re a music fan who wants to see all the bands, $50 will get you the ability to come and go as you please between the Music Hall and the Music Farm for each of the six lineups. If you just want to see one stage on one night, $12.50 will get you in. Compared to other conferences, that’s not a bad deal.

I asked Stewart how many of the $75 he has sold so far. He wouldn’t specify, but referred back to SXSW. “You know I found out that the first year of SXSW, they set a goal of selling 150 passes. I had that as my goal. We expect more sales once the students get back into town. But the real test of success will be next year and the year after. If it keeps growing and the reputation grows, that’s what our goal is.”

Go to http://www.newmusicconfab.com/ to see a list of showcases, seminars, and information on how to buy tickets.

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