Despite what a few of its more persecution complex-laden members will try and tell you, I'm actually a huge fan of the Des Moines Music Coalition. The DMMC has transformed Des Moines in the summer, with 80/35 becoming a genuine premiere event in the state and, with the Gross Domestic Product and Little BIG Fest events in the spring and fall (to say nothing of the 80/35 free stages), the DMMC has created some of the biggest local music showcases in the city as well. However, a big part of loving something is being honest about it. Being able to see where the flaws are is an integral part of growing and improving over time. So when I have been willing in the past to say "this could be different," it has come from a place of genuine interest, rather than malice. Because, again, big fan.
As I pointed out in my very first Sound piece for Cityview, the DMMC is not a perfect entity, but for anyone to say that the city would be better off without them, is to be intellectually dishonest. And yet, time and again, that is exactly what the DMMC hears: you're doing it wrong. Every year, when a festival lineup is announced, people are happy to hop on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit and bitch about how it is the same bands, year after year, and all of them suck. I personally know people who have never gone to a single 80/35--despite the fact that it's free--simply because they don't like the DMMC. Some of them are, of course, the same people who post memes calling out other people for not supporting local music.
For years the DMMC has had a kind of party line against such complaints. It has encompassed a number of smaller arguments, including the fact that the DMMC is a bunch of volunteers, and that dissenters are more than welcome to attend DMMC meetings and have their voices heard, and always ends with the same invitation: if you see something that you think we're doing wrong, get out there and start your own thing to make it right.
It has, frankly, always been a valid defense. Not only because the DMMC was started by a couple of savvy minds and a few willing volunteers, but because if there is one thing that Des Moines really, TRULY loves doing, it's bitching about something without being willing to step up and do anything about it.
There is, however, a finite number of times that one can trot out the same defense before holes start to show. And looking at the musical landscape of 2016, this might be the year that the DMMC's argument against their own tunnel vision might have finally turned to bullshit.
Because here's the thing that the DMMC has been doing their level best to avoid noticing in recent years: there comes a point when you're the biggest dog in town. Sure, other people could step up and try to make something closer to their own vision happen, but isn't there a point when they shouldn't have to? When it becomes easier to appeal to the monolith in the room and say "hey, have you tried this?" Isn't there a point when sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "LA LA LA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" is no longer a valid way to act?
Yes. Yes there is. And the DMMC has actually brought that time upon themselves.
For years, the selection process for GDP and Little BIG Fest was, nominally speaking, democratic. Bands applied to play, submitted songs for consideration, and the DMMC would host open listening parties where anyone who wanted to could show up, listen to the potential bands, and vote on a lineup. Going back to the point about the average Des Moines citizen loving to bitch more than they love doing something to fix what they're bitching about, these parties were often sparsely attended.
But three years ago, that process started to change. Now, the lineup for GDP, which takes place this weekend in the East Village, was almost completely curated: hand picked by members of the DMMC's events committee, save for a couple of "community choice" slots, which were opened up to a public vote.
All of that is fine, of course. It's the DMMC's event, and they are free to run it any way they want. But when you fundamentally alter the manner in which the game is played, you do not get to use the same arguments in its defense. So when the DMMC says "we can't pick a band if they don't apply"--an argument that was perfectly valid when you had a group of people sitting around a table listening to songs--it rings considerably less true once you start personally extending invitations to bands to play. Sure, if you eliminate the application process and just start emailing bands, you run the chance of one or two declining the invitation. But that is no different from the process the DMMC goes through every year for 80/35's main stage acts, except that it would take a lot less time and a lot less money to fill GDP's bill.
The other argument one often hears from DMMC members is "we're a bunch of volunteers who support the music we like. We're not trying to be all things to everyone." This argument is, straight talk, a lazy cop out of an excuse. Again, there may have been a time when this was a valid point, back before the booking budget for 80/35 hit the high six figure mark, before the event started closing down half of the downtown corridor for two days, and before GDP and Little BIG Fest started taking over as many as three stages and a half dozen local businesses each year.
You're a huge, well known, successful entity now, DMMC. Each summer, Amedeo Rossi stands up on that big 80/35 main stage and tells 18,000 people how great and strong the local music scene is, and how the DMMC couldn't do anything it does without the fans standing in front of him. So to then turn around and say that the DMMC owes nothing to the thousands of people who AREN'T there--to the people who's tax money paid for Western Gateway Park, or the local business who have to adjust their business patterns to accommodate DMMC events--just because they don't like Of Montreal, is ridiculous at this point. The DMMC no longer operates in a void, if it ever did so to begin with. This is not a plucky group of individuals, looking for a way to put on shows for their friends. This is a group with the potential to create something so much larger and more important than it currently does. This is a group with acres of wasted potential, all because they prefer to stick to the rivers and lakes that they're used to.
But the biggest problem with saying "the DMMC picks the wrong bands" or "the DMMC picks the same bands all the time," is that the inevitable follow-up question is "then what bands SHOULD they pick?" Which then leads down into the rabbit hole of whose music is worthy and who is truly underrepresented. I am not here to start naming names and forming dream lineups, ripe for debate. I am, however, here to offer up a couple of suggestions for how to make the DMMC a better, more effective, more widely encompassing entity. And those suggestions start with three rules the DMMC could self-impose, which would immediately make their festival lineups more diverse.
Self-Imposed Rule #1: No band can play two DMMC festivals in the same year
This is not as rampant a problem as people might think on first blush, but it is still statically significant. In 2014, four bands (Parlours, MAIDS, Max Jury, Holy White Hounds) played both GDP and 80/35. Two others (Brother Trucker, James Biehn) played both 80/35 and Little BIG Fest, meaning that a full quarter of the local acts at 80/35 that year played multiple festivals for the DMMC in 2014. In 2013, six bands once again played more than one festival, and in 2015, more than a quarter of the GDP lineup alone returned in the summer to play 80/35. If any one statistic fuels the fire of people's DMMC dissent, it is right there.
Part of this problem could be alleviated by ditching the previously mentioned "we can't pick them if they don't ask us to" argument, but diversity in acts could be pressed even further by instituting this "one festival per band per year" policy. Looking back at my notes, GDP receives anywhere from 50 to 70 band submissions a year, on average. In 2015, 18 bands were picked to play. The implication being that the DMMC decided that at least 30 of the other bands that applied were so uninspired, that simply moving a quarter of the GDP lineup into 80/35 made more sense than giving someone else a try. Who knows, maybe they were right. But I feel confident that anyone who follows local music--DMMC members included--could probably name 10 local acts right now who have never played a DMMC event, but probably should be asked to.
Self-Imposed Rule #2: No act can play the SAME DMMC festival two years in a row.
This continues the trend of forcing the DMMC to look beyond their own backyard and favorite bands to fill slots. Just looking at 80/35, the list of bands who have played more than one summer in a row for the DMMC includes Gloom Balloon, Poison Control Center, Mumfords, Maytags, The River Monks and Christopher the Conquered, who has the rare distinction of playing the event three years in a row, and four of the last six. But if there is some repetition evident in the booking of traditional bands, the DMMC's laziness and apparent unwillingness to seek out new talent is even more apparent in the event's DJ acts, where 2016 will mark the seventh year (and third straight) that local DJ Brad Goldman has been slated to perform.
And just so there is no misunderstanding: putting these self-imposed rules in place is in no way an indictment of the artists in question. Chris Ford is a marvelous musician and Goldman is a fantastic person who works extremely hard at his craft. And if the DMMC is going to come to any artist year after year and keep offering them money to come play, I'm not going to begrudge any artist for continuing to say yes. Which is why it becomes all the more imperative for the DMMC itself to start showing a little restraint and begin looking in new directions, not only for the health of the local scene, but for the continued improvement of its own festivals.
Self-Imposed Rule #3: No musician can take the stage at a DMMC festival more than twice.
This one is a little tricky. No matter how much you might like (insert favorite bands here), the fact remains that there are a finite number of extremely talented people in town, and those really talented people (James Biehn, Dylan Boyle and Phil Young come immediately to mind) get a large number of requests to collaborate. There are, however, certain segments of the musical community where bands share members like cults share wives.
Again, totally fine. Well within their rights to do so. But when you start seeing the same person taking the stage at one festival three, four or five times in a night (again, sorry Phil, but I'm looking in your direction), it once again points to the DMMC's stubborn unwillingness to look past their own noses for acts.
There will be people who argue that this rule unfairly penalizes bands. Musician X is really good at what he or she does, and has the free time to be in three different bands, so why should Band 3 not get to play a festival, just because Band 1 and Band 2 are already there? The answer is surprisingly simple: There is an overwhelmingly high probability that Bands 1, 2 and 3 all sound the same.
This isn't about punishing The Belly Button Lints for sounding like The Navel Gazers, or trying to call out The Dream Pop Experience for just being The Dream Pop Excursion, minus the glockenspiel player. This is about the DMMC looking at the whole of the musical landscape and being able to say "you know what? We've already got two manic pixie dreamgirl bands playing GDP this year, maybe we don't need another one right now." And one additional way of being able to make that distinction, is to look at what musicians make up a certain band. If you start seeing the same names over and over and over again, maybe it's time to wade over to a different part of the pool.
The final two suggestions are not self-imposed rules for the DMMC's festivals, but two ways in which the organization could fundamentally alter the way in which they operate, and which could make the local scene--and their role in it--healthier and more vibrant.
Eliminate the 80/35 play in
For those who don't know, every year the DMMC hosts a battle of the bands-style competition among local acts, to fill the final main stage spot at 80/35. The problem is that it is a backward thinking event that puts bands in open competition for a booby prize that most of the acts would be better off losing out on.
Once the play-in bands are announced, there begins a month long process of begging for votes and shameless promotion of a series of inorganic shows, all for the right to kick the festival off with what amounts to a live practice session in front of a million dollars worth of stage equipment. Seeing quality acts like Dylan Sires or Brother Trucker play at noon on a Saturday in front of 15 people and have to act like they were grateful for the opportunity to fight for that spot is insulting.
Someone has to kick off the event, of course. And there is a very good chance that that 12:30 slot will not be heavily attended. But just book someone for that spot, and be honest about what it is. Trying to shine up a turd and call it a prize is farcical.
But what about that lead up time? The play-in does more than just fill a roster spot, it helps to promote and build interest in 80/35 in the weeks before the actual event. Well, once you have scrapped the unnecessary competition and simply booked your full lineup of local talent, replace those play-in shows with a series of local band showcases, highlighting the acts that will be playing the 80/35 free stages in July. You get the same amount of publicity and promotion, raise the same money for the event as the play-ins bring in, and do so in a way that celebrates your newly diversified lineups, rather than turning the shows into a beauty contest.
But that's enough about the DMMC's festival planning. Because even though the bulk of what the organization does is related to GDP, 80/35 and Little BIG Fest, there could be so much more. The DMMC has started to branch out in recent years, turning Music University into a genuine success and kicking off a summer band camp, but the group is still stymieing themselves when it comes to an area where they could potentially have the greatest impact. Which is why they should...
Open a venue
There are going to be people out there who will argue that the Vaudeville Mews is the DMMC's defacto venue. In many ways, this is true, by virtue of Mews' connection to Rossi, and the large number of DMMC spotlighted acts that spend much of their time on the space's stage. But here's the problem thing: The Mews is a horrible venue.
It doesn't have to be. It's a decent space in a really good location, and there was a time when Vaudeville Mews was doing stuff that really mattered, musically. There are a huge number of bands who can say they played their first shows at Mews, and thousands of fans who can point to some of their favorite moments taking place there. It is a legitimately iconic venue in a town that doesn't have many icons to look to.
But in recent years, Mews has come under the control of a booker who either has no idea what he's doing, or just doesn't care. Shows are indifferently constructed, dates are filled with little seeming regard to band quality or lineup cohesion, and Mews has gained the well-deserved reputation for promoting shows with all the vigor and passion of a tween girl bra shopping with her dad.
Vaudeville Mews is a beloved location for a number of bands and musicians, but for the DMMC, the place is an albatross. By opening their own venue, the DMMC could have a dedicated location to carefully curate shows, and throw the full power of their own formidable promotional machine behind them. There could be DMMC-sponsored artist residencies, festival showcases, Music University tie-ins, and dedicated space for their summer band camp activities. Additionally, if the DMMC were to find a place for their venue in the East Village, it would simultaneously solve their biggest existing festival problem, namely the lack of a second viable stage to share the load with Wooly's.
So there you have it, friends and very patient hate-readers: my humble suggestions for improving the Des Moines Music Coalition and, thereby, our local music scene as a whole. There are, and probably always will be, people who would rather just see the entire organization scrapped entirely. Those people are short-sighted, myopic assholes. The DMMC has done a fantastic amount of good for the city and the scene, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Therefore, rather than just ranting about how much everything sucks, it makes the most sense to work with the materials at hand, and find a way to make bad things better, good things great, and see if we can't get everyone on the same page about something.
I do not genuinely expect the DMMC to enact any of these ideas. I like to HOPE they might, but I would not put any money on it. But, at least I came to the table with some suggestions. Where the fuck is YOUR plan?