For unsigned Portland bands like Tekorji—an electro goth threesome—playing the city's big venues (and maybe getting noticed) is a huge opportunity. So when reps from the Emergenza Festival emailed last September, offering a chance to play Dante's and Berbati's, frontman Andy Shaman and 54 others like him had no hesitation in paying the $75 registration fee to get on board.
"I thought, this is cool, an opportunity to play with some huge bands at these venues, and we're good enough to do well," he says.
But months later Shaman—who thinks Emergenza got his details from MySpace—wishes he'd never heard of the festival. He and other bands claim they've sunk time and money into the festival for little reward, and they want answers from festival management about the way it has been organized. Meanwhile, clubs involved with Emergenza say they've lost money, because the festival's New York-based organizers—who say their festival is about boosting local talent—didn't bother to promote the event.
The festival—which has a "battle of the bands" format—started in the US two and a half years ago, and now operates in 40 US cities. Four thousand bands are taking part in the US this year, according to Emergenza's spokesperson Martha Guzik (which adds up to $300,000 in commitment fees alone).
Bands who've gotten involved with the Portland leg of the festival have several complaints.
First of all, there are problems with the festival's ticketing structure, bands say. For the primary round, at the Ash Street Saloon in December 2005, bands were given books of 100 $10 tickets to sell to their friends. After the first round, they were told, there would be an audience vote to decide who would get through to the next round—so the more tickets sold, the better a band's chances of advancing.
While bands can return tickets they do not sell, Shaman says bands are lured on by the prospect of getting to the next round if they sell enough tickets. He likens the festival to a pyramid scheme.
Cellar Door guitarist Adam Corkery, whose band is playing the festival's upcoming final show on June 16 at Berbati's, feels the event isn't as beneficial to the bands as festival organizers originally implied: "I do get the feeling we're playing for Emergenza—like it's almost for them."
Corkery's bandmate, guitarist Benjamin Carmine, adds: "It feels like a 'pay to play' deal, to me."
Tickets for the Portland final round at Berbati's—where 14 bands will battle it out—are going for $15 each, and every band plays a 25-minute set. Each band has been given a book of 300 tickets to sell, and after they sell 200 for $3,000, they can keep some money. But as Mike Miller of the Mike Miller & Friends band (also playing the June 16 show) explains, the tickets are a hard sell.
"I just saw a signed, professional band for $12, and here I am asking people for $15 to see me play for like, 25 minutes, and I don't think that's fair," he says. The 14 bands in the final round are under pressure to sell tickets, and some say they have been advised not to play other shows locally in the meantime, to avoid denting their draw.
Meanwhile—and more importantly—Emergenza officials have made little effort to get people in the door to see the bands, musicians say. "They really made it sound like they were going to promote the hell out of these shows, but we still haven't heard anything about them in the local media," Corkery says.
Despite festival organizers' claims on its website, emergenza.net, to keep up links with local media, the event was not submitted to the Mercury, or listed in other local papers. Music writer Hannah Levin, at the Mercury's sister paper, Seattle's The Stranger, wrote about the festival there in March, calling it "forgettable and poorly organized," while coverage of Emergenza in Chicago and San Francisco is limited to a few isolated listings. Participating bands from around the country have also written about the event in blogs (some bands express frustration over selling pricey tickets, while others argue the festival is a good way to gain exposure).
Some local clubs aren't happy with the festival, either. The Ash Street Saloon says it got $1,200 for eight nights of first-round gigs in December, and Berbati's booker Conrad Loebel says Emergenza paid $1,000 to book the venue for the upcoming finale. But both venues were expecting the festival to be more heavily promoted and Loebel says he will be asking organizers for answers.
The head booker at Ash Street, who wished to keep her name out of this story, says she booked Emergenza eight months in advance and they did nothing to promote the event, which surprised her. The $1,200 payment was standard for security and bar staff, but she'd expected to bring in another $23,000 at the bar. Instead, the lack of promotion meant that on one night, "(I) had literally 40 people in my building."
Emergenza PR Director Walter Combi says the festival helps local venues and supports local bands but concedes it may not have been heavily promoted in Portland: "Maybe because we thought promoting in Portland was not as important as doing so in New York and so on."
This begs the question, if Portland is too small a city to bother promoting in, why hold a festival here in the first place?
Combi responds: "We are trying to find a diamond in the rough. One band we can get really excited about and bring over to the big stage. We don't want to give bands false hope, but my job is to go around looking for bands."
Combi says the festival isn't a pay-for-play operation, either: Having the bands sell tickets to their friends "is something you would normally do to get bands to play." Combi says Emergenza puts money from ticket sales toward its expenses and claims the company lost $150,000 last year—they aren't taking advantage of small bands eager for a big break. "We pay clubs top fucking dollar, we get screwed by the clubs, they're laughing all the way to the bank," he says. Combi would not address the Ash Street money debate but refutes the venue's claims.
Corkery of Cellar Door is playing in the final show at Berbati's—from there, the winning band will head to a Seattle show, and there's ultimately a chance to play in Berlin. "This is more or less a learning experience for us, and I'm not sure what to expect," he says. "Obviously there's exposure for the bands who do make it to the top, but we just want to play our music."