Fucked: the Motor City Music Conference

Motor City Music Conference“If you aren’t local, they’ll shit all over you,” he screamed in my right ear. Matt Southwell had brought his band Bang Sugar Bang back to his home state to make an appearance at the Motor City Music Conference. Their showcase the night before had been plagued with overrun set times and rescheduled bills that favored local talent at the expense of traveling bands and now he was drunk…and pissed.

The Motor City Music Conference started off with such high hopes. Here was a South By Southwest-style music conference coming to Detroit, a city with such a rich musical heritage that it seemed silly there hasn’t been a premier event like this going on forever. Growing up in Michigan, I root for Detroit. I pull for it and want it to have the fabled turnaround we all know is just around the corner. When I heard about the Conference, I was genuinely excited and fully expecting a professional event that would highlight what a cool city Detroit really is. On paper, it was all set: big named headliners; professional, experienced promoters; a wide variety of workshops and acts. This was going to be it. Can you tell I’m a Lions fan?


I submitted Riviera’s material through the very cool and super easy to use Sonicbids on January 13. A few weeks later, we received notice that we’d been selected and that showcase schedules would be posted by March 1. Touring bands will tell you that you need a lot of time to schedule road shows. Many venues book their best nights months in advance. A month and a half of lead time isn’t really very much, but it does still leave enough room to book shows in between your home town and the conference to make the trip financially justifiable.

March 1 came and went without word from the MC2 organizers. I checked the site and a new date for schedules had been posted, which came and went without word. Finally, the date of March 26 was set as when the FINAL line-up would be posted. Note that this is less than a month before the start of the conference, which leaves touring bands precious little time to line up shows, never mind promote them properly.

But of course, March 26 passed without posting of the schedule. Frustrated, I called Southwell in L.A. and asked if he’d heard anything about the conference. He hadn’t and so I logged on to the Web to check some Detroit papers to see if there was any info. Maybe the festival had been cancelled? Maybe Detroit had finally imploded like the Hudson’s building fiasco? Maybe…the Metro Times had a full schedule of acts. Scanning the page, I found both Riviera’s bill and Bang Sugar Bang’s, but not our beloved Quasar Wut-Wut’s (natives of Detroit who had also applied). I called the boss.

“Jake, the Quasars aren’t listed on the MC2 roster.”

“They’re not?”

“Nope.”

“What the fuck…”

Jake and I fired off a series of emails to MC2 co-director Erica Koltonow. She eventually responded that she’d never received Quasar Wut-Wut’s confirmation to attend the festival. Jake immediately responded that they would indeed attend but we’d need to know the schedule as soon as possible to arrange travel. No reply. Another sally of emails from GLONO HQ and she finally gives our boys a Wednesday night at Small’s in Hamtramck.

When there’s no time to schedule a tour around a conference like this you have to think long and hard about how worthwhile an early slot on a mid-week bill on the first night of a fledgling conference really is. Generally, bands that are not big national names with a big draw will not get paid for these shows. You go to these things to promote your albums and pick up local contacts for future shows and maybe hook up with like-minded bands with which you can swap shows. There’s a lot of hot air made about networking with “industry” people, but it’s just that. Quasar Wut-Wut opted out of their night, thus forfeiting the $25 entry fee, but saving their asses on travel expenses. Riviera was not quite so lucky.

We drew a Friday night slot with local tastemakers Bulldog headlining. I, for one, was very excited about the chance to play with a band who does NOT dip into the same stagnant well as most “alt-country” bands today. Loftus had talked them up and there are few people out there whose musical taste I trust more than Johnny’s. His word is bond.

After driving 4 and a half hours across the Great Lakes State to the small Polish enclave of Hamtramck, we were more than a little stir crazy and glad to have made it to the venue on time. The opening band Jo Serrapere and the Willy Dunns were just starting their set of folky, sometimes jazz-tinged ballads and torch songs. Backed by seasoned and clearly accomplished musicians, Serrapere has a strong voice similar to Chicago’s own Kelly Hogan with less attitude. It was a great set to sip a scotch and water to while the daze of driving shook off.

Some time shortly after our arrival we were informed that Bulldog had cancelled. First bad sign of the night. Despite my persistent questioning, event manager “Tiny” wouldn’t give any info on their cancellation beyond “they’re just not coming.” Now, why would a local band just starting to make a hum in a city virtually vibrating with buzz pull out of a premier music conference? Could it be they knew something we didn’t?

But the show must go on, or more importantly, the show must not end early and force the bar to close, thus losing out on liquor sales. Our man Tiny asked if we’d be flexible with our set time. Wary of this sort thing having booked my own shows for ten years, I asked what he meant by “flexible.” Citing the need to keep the bar open, he asked if we’d go on around 12:45, a move that would make us the closing band. Now, I have all the confidence in the world in my band’s ability to close a night, but we rarely play Detroit and have yet to build a draw on our own. The whole point of playing this show was to get in front of the best crowd possible and win some fans. Being an unknown band closing out a night of locals at one in the morning is not the position you want to be in, especially when one of those locals has a bona fide celebrity front man!

“Why doesn’t the Orbitsuns close? They’re local and they must have a good draw,” I asked Tiny.

Ex-Sponge [Um, ex-who? – ed.] lead singer Vinnie Dombrowski fronts the Orbitsuns. Youngsters might not remember that they had two minor hits in the 90s, “Plowed” and “Molly (Sixteen Candles).” Having woken up to find grunge dead and the gothic country tones of Blanche tuggin’ scenesters’ ears from the Lager House to the Magic Bag, Dombrowski must have walked to the local Hot Topic and picked up the first trucker hat he could find and started bending more notes to fit in. As dull as this band is, they are local and fronted by a “platinum selling” artist (according to their website). “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have them close out the night,” I implored Tiny. Apparently not.

An hour or so after first approaching me, Tiny loafed back to say that the Orbitsuns would not take the last slot. There was mention of gigs the night before and the following night as well as 8:30 am work schedules, none of which made any difference nor made any sense.

I negotiated with Tiny for a while and we agreed that Riviera would take the stage at midnight (just ten minutes later than originally scheduled), but would play for an hour and a half instead of the allotted 45 minutes. While still not ideal, it was workable and if we set up very quickly we could keep the crowd with a strong opener.

While we waited for the standard rockabilly of the Ingham County Regulars, Bang Sugar bang’s Southwell arrived with lead singer Cooper in tow.

“We got totally fucking hosed last night,” Southwell spit into my ear. Having played in a band with Southwell in college, I recognized his tone right away. He’s an ex-hockey player from northern Michigan who moved to Los Angeles and started a war with the local weeklies. He’s not one to mince words.

“They totally fucked with our set time and basically let some local DJ fuck around the whole night,” said Southwell. “I brought half of Alpena down for our set and they still gave us the shaft.”

It was a theme I’d hear throughout the night. Traveling bands getting dicked over by local prima donnas. Loftus had heard similar stories from two other bands that night. That’s no way to run a national music conference. While I agree that local bands should get premium slots and support when their city hosts an event like this, I don’t think it should be at the expense of those bands who spent money and time getting there, often scheduling tours around attending the conference. If you want a conference that just highlights local talent, don’t invite bands from other states.

Southwell’s band stood around for an hour and a half while local DJ cum Robert Plant impersonator Barbara Payton dragged out her set, this after Bang Sugar Bang was bumped from their original set time from third to closing. Sound familiar? It gets worse.

“After letting her go on and on for an hour and a half, 25 minutes into our set we get the two-song warning from the sound guy,” said Southwell. “We had our set timed out at 30 minutes—it was the same set we played opening for the Dead Kennedys—so it wasn’t that big a deal, but still…”

His story had eerie similarities to the night that was unfolding for us. But Vinnie Dombrowski was a pro! Surely he wouldn’t pull such an amateur move on us.

The Orbitsuns embody everything I hate about alt-country. It’s a genre that requires acting, I understand that. The Great Depression was a long time ago and real life coalminers don’t have much time for late night sets in gentrified neighborhoods. The great irony being that many lovers of alt-country claim it as a more “real” genre than pop. But there are different levels of acting. Where Uncle Tupelo may have been on par with Sean Penn, the Orbitsuns are the genre’s equivalent of Steven Segal—all overblown posturing and style with no substance. If you sing with an accent you didn’t grow up with, I am not interested.

As the Orbitsuns’ set eased over the hour mark, I was getting nervous. Midnight was coming up mighty quick and I didn’t see how we’d switch out the gear from their set to ours in time to make our agreed start time. As an added show of accommodation, we’d agreed to let them use Riviera’s drum kit. It saved on set-up time and saved the Orbitsuns from having to load their own kit in and out of the small club.

It was 12:10 when their guitarist launched into a five-minute joke. It would be another 15 minutes before Dombrowski announced their “final” song, a bar band 10-minute sham of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” At this point I turned to Tiny and asked, “How long is this going to go on?”

“I’m trying to get them off, they won’t stop.”

This is the worst thing you can do to a visiting band—hog up the prime time with a self-absorbed set that borders on a bad skit. And there was no end in sight. As the clocked ticked past 12:30, we’d had enough. I gathered the band in the backroom and dropped the bomb.

“This band is fucking us. Let’s get outta here,” I said, tempered with several glasses of Chivas.

With little more than 30 seconds of debate, we all agreed it was time to at least save our pride and leave. After having to track down our own venue information, after compromising on set time and length, after lending these douche bags Joshua Rogers’ one-of-a-kind Ludwig kit, after enduring an hour and a half of Vinny Dombrowski’s banality and phony country posing, we’d had enough. We grabbed up our gear and loaded the van. We were leaving.

It didn’t take long for Tiny to notice. As we hauled our amps out the back door he came running over in a panic. “What, you guys are leaving?” You’re fucking right, Tiny. Soon he summoned the bar owner, a solidly drunk lady whom I actually liked quite a bit. She implored us to stay but it was she who’d rooted on the Orbitsuns into their bloated set. It was she who had no regard for the fact that we’d driven so far to play a free show in her venue only to be shafted by a pseudo-local celebrity and his band of fakers.

Within minutes the reinforcements arrived. Five MC2 promoters followed us into the alley and asked why in the world we’d leave now. After explaining the whole thing yet again, I walked them back into the bar and asked them to take a look at the crowd. At 12:50, a solid hour after we were scheduled to go on, Dombrowski was still on stage aping to a fast dwindling crowd that numbered 50 at best. “It’s a Friday night and this is the best this guy can draw in his home town?” I asked. “You guys shafted us for this. You can’t drag that asshole off the stage.”

We did eventually get Joshua’s kit off stage and loaded up. As we walked out at 1:10 am I looked back to see Dumbrowski still on stage, holding court as we walked through the drizzle to our van. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’s still there now.

In the end, the MC2 was like so much that comes out of Detroit. It is theoretically a great thing that gets fucked up by local politics. Here’s hoping next year is the year the Lions go all the way, but you can bet we won’t be back for the Motor City Music Conference.

Update: Be sure to check out the MC2 wrap-ups by Ryan Sult of Motor City Rocks, Brian Smith of Detroit’s Metro Times, and our own Johnny Loftus.

62 thoughts on “Fucked: the Motor City Music Conference”

  1. damn derek, sorry to hear about that. i can’t believe a guy w/ a minor hit in the 90’s would think he’s all that & a bag of chips. douche bag

  2. Fuck. That. Shit. Thanks for sharing your story. You’ve done a great service for bands who might otherwise get duped into submitting next year. Keeping plowing your own course.

  3. So is GloNo like the official Riviera spam board now? You used to write about bands not on your own label, if I remember correctly..

  4. Oh get stuffed, wilbur. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about the way bands can get shafted by dim-witted organizers. It’s full of interesting details and it’s sharp and well written. If you think it’s nothing but “spam” for the label’s band you must be crazy. There’s a lot going on in this article and the ending is perfect dramatic irony.

  5. By the way, you can purchase Riviera’s new album, At the End of the American Century, on Glorious Noise Records [url=http://www.gloriousnoise.com/buy-riviera.php]right here[/url].

  6. Ha, ha Jake. Classic!

    I think they picked the wrong band to screw over. (Not that any band deserves to be treated that way.)

    Better days ahead for you guys, I’m sure.

  7. I’m a native Detroiter living in NYC.

    Such a bummer to hear about this experience.

    I’ve got a love/hate relationship with D-town. I’d love to see it turnaround, but the place is so far gone… *sigh*

  8. If there’s a silver lining to all of this… the Riviera Behind The Music special just got another anecdote for the not-quite-meteoric rise to superstardom.

  9. One little additional thing that got under my skin was the fact that the Orbitsuns kept talking about how they were playing there this Friday as well.

    Vinnie needs a *lot* of time in the spotlight.

  10. I’m sorry things turned out so crappy. I still had fun, anyway. :) I hope this doesn’t discourage you guys from playing future shows in the area!

  11. No offense to Michigan, but you guys need to avoid it for ohhh say a year or something. Seems like the Michigan shows always hit bumps somewhere along the line. Granted this was HUGE bump.

  12. [url=http://www.detroitjewishnews.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2062]

    It all becomes clear:[/url]”We’re incorporating everything that is Detroit,” says Koltonow.

    “And that’s what this conference is all about,” says Forrester. “It’s about music and helping artists who want careers in the music industry to achieve their dreams.”

  13. on behalf of the percentage of detroiters who have to endure the other half’s bloated incompetency, i sincerely apologize.

    ryan’s right. that shit is an embarassment to our city, and i shudder to think of how many stories simliar are going unreported. we should be rolling out the red fucking carpet for out of towners, and not our own.

    i truly hope that if/when there is a next time, it’s a smoother transition and you’re dealing with that other half that i previously mentioned.

    *sigh*

  14. I always wondered why I really never waxed nostalgic about my old hometown. Thanks for reminding me. What a downer. Looking forward to Riviera in the DC area…

  15. Derek, you guys should have come to GR. You’d have saved on Gas. You could have played for free in my house and I’d have put you up for the night and given you all free beer.

  16. Similar, experience we had…Sham of an event, really. Even some of the bands that I consider “true” Detroit locals thought it was a farce…excellent piece Derek. Looking forward to checking out Riviera when you are in Cedar Falls.

  17. See, the problem was not bringing Sven along. He would’ve gone all sickhouse on those bastards. It might not have ended any better, but it would have been a lot more fun.

    Glad to hear Josh’s kit made it out in one piece!

  18. Did anyone but Amir get paid? Anyone? Both of my bands got hosed. Maybe we sold a little merch, but not enough to cover gas to the gigs in our own hometown.

  19. I just happened to be listening to Sufjan Stevens Michigan album when I read this post and when the fourth track, Detroit lift your weary head, came on I felt like I was having some kind of Wizard of OZ/Pink Floyd the Wall experience. You should try it.

    “Once a great place, now a prison….People mover bad decision… Everything you want, its a great idea…once a great place, now a prison.”

    Sorry to hear Detroit let you down in such a big Derek, but a snake’s a snake.

  20. Wow, nothing like a one time 15 cent superstar dialing in the Bill Murray lounge routine for the dead beat hometown happy hoe down.

    This is a great article, because these are the things most music fans have zero knowledge or concept of, in that bands have to make an effort just to get on stage let alone off the ground.

  21. Sorry boys – We promise if you do a show – at say the Lager – on a hot summer night, the city will support you. Normally the D is very cool, but even I stayed away from the conference – thinking – it can’t get any better than the Hamtramck Blowout and that’s only $15 bucks for four nights…

  22. That’s a real bummer. I’m sorry you guys came all this way to sit through that. Even as a Detroiter playing the MCMC, I had to raise an eyebrow (or three) when we were placed on a bill with 3 out-of-state nu-metal bands. You can imagine how that went over. Also, I wanted to let you guys know that Small’s has taken a notorious turn for the worse since its ownership shake-up, so that couldn’t have helped matters, either, Vinnie’s nonsense aside. Keep on keepin’ on.

  23. Wow, I’m surprised to see so many people insulting the Motown scene…

    I think they got fucked but I don’t think that had anything to do with the scene. The Motor City maybe tough on the out of town acts but that’s because there’s so much great hometown music that’s gets support. No real Detroiter gives a shit about Sponge, they were one of those bands that never had a hometown following and just kind of made it the same way Nickelback had it’s 2 seconds of fame.

    Go to a show at the Lager House or the Magic Stick and look around, half the crowd there (you know the one’s that are actually having a blast) are probably in other bands.

    Detroit is one of the most supportive scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

  24. My article was certainly no bash on the Detroit scene. I love how tight-knit it is (if a little insular) and fully support the bands who stay loyal to the city where they started. My issue was more with the event organizers who said they wanted a “SXSW-style conference” and then shit all over bands who made the trip to get there. Detroit deserves a premier conference and I’m truly disappointed that MC2 wasn’t it.

  25. Prop, don’t you live in Oregon?

    ha ha!

    The scene-sters in SE Michigan are all cool people. But this type of story is all too familiar in the weird zone that lies East Highway 23 and West of the Detroit River. I’ve heard way too many of these types of stories from people I know regarding Detroit gigs. I’ve also been to more than a few (at a number of different venues) where the people running the thing were totally fucked.

    That type of handling of the shows is not just a disservice to the bands, but a great big “Fuck You” to the hipsters around the Detroit Metro area.

  26. Oh yeah, I wasn’t thinking it was you that was crapping on Detroit.

    Fortunately, Detroit does have the premiere conference. Unfortunately for you, it’s the Electronic Music Festival.

  27. That sucks terribly. Kudos for leaving – hopefully they will treat bands w. a little more respect.

    I write to correct a GLARING mistake in the article. The Ingham County Regulars are in no way “standard rockabilly”. They have about as much in common w. rockabilly as you guys. No big hairstyles or leather jackets, nicknames or standup bass, etc. Just country and honkeytonk.

    The ‘Regs are awesome. Their singer Marty is like one of those colorful Sun records guys from the 50’s. He’s crazy (literally) and is the opposite of Vinnie Dombrowski. He has facial tics. He lived in Austin for 10 years, shacking up w. a female bouncer for much of it. He knows hundreds of country songs by heart. He is authentic and I believe every word he sings.

    When he’s on, their guitar player is better than you (whomever is reading this, unless you’re Robbie Fulk’s guitarist). With better chops and more discretion. I want to hate him but can’t, since like the rest of the band he’s a nice guy.

    The rhythm section is raggedly flawless and the bassist (Marty’s brother) does great harmony.

    We should bring Riviera back to Lansing (to a bigger crowd than last time) for a show with us and the ‘Regs. They are the real thing, and hopefully circumstances will be such that you can better enjoy their set.

  28. It’s not an MC2 showcase. GLONO is doing some joint shows (one in Chicago, one in Detroit) with our good friends at Motor City Rocks. They’re sending a band here and we’re sending a band there. Details yet to be sorted.

  29. Josh B, you’re confusing the [url=http://www.motorcityrocks.com/]Motor City Rocks[/url] website with the [url=http://www.motorcitymusic.com/]Motor City Music Conference[/url] website. MCR vs MC2. MCR had showcases at MC2, and they were all very well attended and very fun (according to people who were there). MCR is cool. MC2, apparently for a lot of people, was not.

    GLONO and Motor City Rocks are teaming up to share the love and the rock between Chicago and Detroit. More on that soon…

  30. I would apologize for Detroiters, except most of us were fucked over at this event and/or hate Vinnie Dombrowski too. Thank god Motor City rocks saved us from a simular fate. Please just don’t hold it against the D.

    dan

  31. Aaron is dead-on (what’s up Aaron?)

    the ICR are a great band. Don’t confuse them with your average cartoon/rockabilly chumps(you know who you are). I dig em’ and anybody who loves real honkytonk, cry in yer beer country will too.

    Bob

  32. Hey people

    the first thing everbody did wrong was to think any event you had to pay the promoters to play at was upside down thinking . These parasites are only in for the money .You have only yourselfs to blame .THE music YOU compose is yours and keep it that way .I understand what playing live does for the soul . THe music industry

    is not for sissys stand up and play your shit for you at home with your friends ,family enjoy

    life.fame and fortune is where you find it .YOU all need to refuse your desire,s to be famous if your chosen trade in life is to be a musician then be one this bullshit corprate america has brainwahed you with is just smoke and mirrors . TAKE control of your place in time sacrafice if you must this is art and feeling not a way to the bank . do somethig in your local towns and citys for those with less than you. Not all of us will have the time change the world . The problem is not the world but how you react to it .organize refuse and forget yourself do good and the next time you preform in public figure out your overhead and get payed and also a profit .

    W.R.COOKE

  33. hey, DEREK. why would you have EVER thought THAT playing a SHOW where you PAID to play. would BE andything OTHER than a shit STORM. anyway you slice it YOU are to BLAME for your OWN actions. REDUCE, reuse, RECYCLE! make money when you play.

  34. We hooked up with L.A. bro’s “the Actual” in Bloomington, Indiana and heard yet another horror story about the MC2…, them getting screwed. Jesus, thank god Westerberg is drinking again. That was the best part of the whole conference. Fuck Vinnie DUMBroski…, I had to suffer through him the next night. He played in what I consider the most unlistenable band I’ve ever witnessed, AND was wearing the same outfit he wore with his drab-ass wannabe alt-country band the night of your whoa. Silly shit. MC2…, one more good reason to play Kalamazoo instead of Detroit. I have a big mouth so I’m sorry if I piss off some Detroiters but it really seemed like a waste of time. If Detroit still lives somebody take me there. Oh and fuck this twat named Clark Paul III…., I’ve beat up everyone I’ve ever met named Clark

  35. I was there.

    I paid the fifteen bucks, thinking I might take in Moby’s set since I hadn’t seen him since Lollapalooza #27 when he was on the small stage promoting that ‘ANimal Rights’ cd.

    Perhaps three interesting booths at the vendor showcase, but I will say they have aimed in the right direction. Live bands playing in back ground with some shrewd, yet feeble attempts at attracting the x-games crowd with bmx stuntriding and inline skating. Mostly start-up rap labels. Sad, when Jones Soda takes the highest profile at a music conference by giving away green apple soda. (I got a t-shirt and was overjoyed)

    I don’t remember his name, which says alot, but the most famous poster artist in the history of rock music was sitting right there at his booth. Like dA vincI himself. Alone.

    Vinnie’s band didn’t play the most intolerable music ever written, but the true entertainment was Vinnie himself.

    It’s staggering how a small taste of fame and two groupies can turn a man into a pompous, swaggering dong.

    Aside from seeing Riviera again, the best part of the conference for me was Jo Serrapere & the Willie Dunn’s magnificent set, and discovering the New Dodge. Chicago-style venue with limited beer selection tucked away in Hamtramck.

  36. Derek,

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this whole business is to not talk shit about anyone. First, no matter how shitty you think someone is being, you never have any idea on where someone might end up.

    Second, isn’t there more work to be gained by being a stand up guy (or band) in this instance and staying to play? It might have turned into another gig? You are in this for a little bit of money right? Or are you aspiring for less out of life?

    Third, shitting on people while climbing the ladder of life makes for a dirty ride down.

    chill out. I’ve got chunks of guys like you in my stool!

  37. Derek,

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this whole business is to not talk shit about anyone. First, no matter how shitty you think someone is being, you never have any idea on where someone might end up. This guy Tiny and the bar owner. Who’s to say they won’t be in a position of buying bands one day?

    Second, isn’t there more work to be gained by being a stand up guy (or band) in this instance and staying to play? It might have turned into another gig? You are in this for a little bit of money right? Or are you aspiring for less out of life?

    Third, shitting on people while climbing the ladder of life makes for a dirty ride down.

    Remember, this is a business and bad business in the music industry is still bad business.

  38. Mike,

    First, I appreciate you revising your post to try and remove the “stool” reference. Too bad you’d alread hit the Post button.

    Second, I like lists, so thanks for putting your points in a numbered list. Makes for easier comprehension.

    Third, while ths music business is indeed a business, I am not interested in being a suckass in the hopes that it might get me another show at the New Dodge. My aspirations in life do not include bending over so a has-been can bask in the glow of 40 of his friends in a Nowheresville swill hall. Call me old fashioned, but I think having some pride is a good thing.

    Fourth, if you think Riviera’s business practices enable us to climb any ladders, it’s time to go back to business school. I sell enough of my soul to pay my bills, I won’t do it with my band.

  39. Wow, how did I miss this article? I usually check the Glono homepage before abusing the boards.

    One thing I noted in the tale of this farce was how much you (Derek) noticed something stinking right from the get-go–the stench of honorable souls being squelched. There is something to be said about that sense; it is rarely ever wrong.

    I should buy you a beer just for the commiseration this article inspired. I had a big long treatise prepared but for once common sense got the better of me.

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