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Patrons Of The Scene

When it comes to fiercely independent, think-outside-the-box, do-it-yourself events programming and production, few places seem better suited than Metro Detroit.

There is an underground for, you name it, almost everything under the sun and moon: music scenes in techno, house, hip hop, noise, garage rock, soul, funk, jazz; art scenes that support painting, sculpture, mixed media works and film; a small but often vibrant theater culture. Not to mention combinations for nearly all of the above.

There are gritty fashion designers, like Sarah Lapinski at Wound Menswear and Bethany Shorb's Cyberoptix, and conceptual wildcat engineers and creatives converting ideas into wearable or usable mayhem at hacker spaces like Eastern Market's OmniCorpDetroit.

Product made here is impressive to eyes and ears outside the city, evidenced by -- just to use one example out of many -- electronic musician Carl Craig, who is regarded the world over by music scholars and teen ravers alike as an innovator and eclectic entertainer. He's performed with symphony orchestras in Paris and Milan and held club residencies in London and New York (to mention but two), where he premiered a new soundtrack for Andy Warhol's provocatively-titled short 1963 film Blow Job at the Unsound Festival earlier this year.

Let's freeze the frame right there and get to our point.

Maybe you've heard that Craig created new music for the film and maybe, more likely, you didn't. But unless you were at Lincoln Center in March you certainly didn't experience it. It did not swing by a theater or cultural center near you in the 313 (or the 248 or 734 for that matter). And to be fair, it didn't travel anywhere. The performance was a special one-off for a uniquely curated multinational festival in one of the world's biggest markets.

But Craig's two-month-long DJ tour, something a bit more universal, started last Wednesday in Los Angeles. It winds its way across Spain, France, hops back to the U.S. west coast (San Francisco and Seattle's Decibel Festival), before resuming in the UK and continental Europe for much of October and November.

Surely there is a Metro Detroit date?

Well, no. There is no date because, frankly stated, the region does not have the promotional infrastructure, public relations resources, or consumer support to make staging it profitable at the moment.

Not without sponsorship dollars and a critical mass of people hungry for the full range of cultural options out there. Craig, who plays here often enough anyway for little, if any, financial gain and is artistic director for the annual Movement Festival, is not to blame. He is a true champion of the Detroit sonic arts, and has helped countless musicians and DJs with his support. But Craig needs help; he needs support.

Though Detroit is regarded as a key creative player in global music culture, it is down the list in terms of how it supports its own talent, and talent from outside the city eager to perform here. It is short on non-artists that do important work behind the scenes -- before, during, and after the performance itself.

Melinda "MeMe" Anderson, a party designer who has put on events at the Detroit Yacht Club, Pulse Lounge, and other area venues, says promotions work in Detroit needs new energies and approaches to reach higher levels of quality. "The problem a lot of us putting on events have is that we tend to do it all ourselves," Anderson says. "My love is designing the event, but I end up doing everything myself because I can't find enough quality help. It's not sustainable. People burn out."

Furthermore, so many events reach the public solely by invitations via social networking engines like Facebook, she says. There, promoters of events that have real value compete on the same page with birthday parties for people you don't know at a neighborhood bar nowhere near you.  "It clogs up my mailbox. I just ignore it now," Anderson says. "We need to find a better way to get the word out to people about what is actually worth going to."

Brandon Richards of promotions group RandomReason recently co-produced the first-ever We Like Music Festival at two local venues, Old Miami and Magic Stick. The 12-hour event drew inspiration from Montreal's Mutek, one of the world's most successful boutique festivals, and featured a wide-ranging mix of impressive talent.

The mid-September event had strong production and publicity values and was solidly promoted throughout the summer. But Richards had another worry: the day and night of the festival was filled with competitive events targeting virtually the same demographic.

The 12-year anniversary of Paxahau, the team behind Movement and Detroit Restaurant Week, was the same night; as was an appearance by Polish techno duo Catz n' Dogz and monthly new wave disco party Haute to Death. All were within a few miles of each other in downtown and Midtown. A few miles north, up Woodward, Ferndale's DIY festival also would likely draw potential fans.

(In fact, the worries proved to be warranted. There are no official numbers for We Like Music, but Richards confirmed they did not meet expected attendance goals.)   

"There is so much going on here every weekend that makes it both a good and bad thing," Richards says. "It's great if there are thousands of people who come out, but in truth there is a limited number of people who do so."

Richards says Paxahau was sympathetic and would have moved its event to another night if the headliner, Z-Trip, wasn't already locked into that date. "I think if there were a little more communication between (promoters), which I see happening a little more now, everyone would benefit," he says.

We Like Music was big on cooperation. Emily Copeland (Real Detroit, Windsor's CJAM 99.1 FM), Adriel Thornton (Family, Fierce Hot Mess), MIcho and Kristine Diven of visual arts collective Detronik and Richard's RandomReason partner Joshua Guerin were part of the production crew.

Promoter Drew Pompa of Blank Artists was not directly involved in the event but he attended it as a supporter. He says Detroit party producers have to consider new models to attract the public. "The communities surrounding the venues have to be more engaged in the event," Pompa says. "As it is now, the parties are too removed from the realities of day-to-day living in Detroit."

Pompa has been producing outdoor dance parties at New Center Park, which effectively replaced the five-day CityFest during Independence Day weekend. Most of the performers at the weekend series were local this summer, but Pompa wants to broaden the scope next summer. "I'd like to bring in national and international performers," he says, "at the same time getting the immediate neighborhood more involved."

Jim Stone also has plans to go international. Or stay that way. He helped launch Family Funktion, a Wednesday residency at Alvin's on Cass that was in heavy rotation from 1995-98 and never went away, technically. The group celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this year. He now does events under the name AtLast! and books talent for downtown's Cliff Bell's.

"We've brought in people from the UK, Sweden, New York and L.A.," Stone says. "We have a loyal following and have sold out the last six events we've done." But Stone says he's never sold out on his primary mission in music: "I started doing it to innovate and educate. That's what I still do. I stand behind every show I promote."

So then how do you connect all the dots in a downmarket town with messy competition and communications issues and make it work for the common benefit of all?

"I think Detroit is always looking for something different, and you have to give it them," Stone says. "But you can't do it without a combination of local and national sponsors, and a network of support. When we harness it and channel it properly, we totally rule on all levels. It goes in cycles and it looks to me like we're headed back to the top where we belong." 

Walter Wasacz is the new managing editor for Model D, a freelance writer, and editor for FilterD.

All Photos by David Lewinski


Brandon Richards-Omnicorp Detroit

Brandon Richards-Omnicorp Detroit

MeMe Anderson-Display Group

MeMe Anderson-Display Group

Jim Stone-Cliff Bell's

Jim Stone-Cliff Bell's
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