The Dust Settles 

NEA Extravaganza postmortem

NEA Extravaganza postmortem

The 1998 Extravaganza was a public success and a behind-the-scenes nightmare. For the out-of-town record-industry executives who came to scout talent, and for fans seeking a night of interesting music, the massive four-day event offered an unusual opportunity to see hundreds of bands. But for those organizing the event, and for many volunteers who donated extensive amounts of time and effort, it turned into a virtual calamity.

Many in the Nashville music community were left feeling frustrated and angry. As one heavily involved volunteer put it, ”I’m more than pissed off. I’m offended, and I’ll be damned if I ever offer any time helping [the NEA] out again.“

Even the event’s leaders, elated at the response they got from record executives, felt bruised by the battles that took place during the weeks leading up to the shows. ”Quite frankly, I’m wore down,“ said attorney Jim Zumwalt, co-president of the NEA and chairman of the Extravaganza. ”I wouldn’t want to say I have a bad taste in my mouth, but I’m totally burned out at this point. I’m greatly relieved that it’s over, and hearing what I heard by the people that mattered to me makes it worthwhile.“

Zumwalt told the Nashville Scene that, after four years, he will step down as the event’s chairman. During those four years, he turned the Extravaganza from a showcase of 25 up-and-coming local bands into one that presents 450 bands in simultaneous showcases spread over four nights in nearly every original-music club in town.

Zumwalt admits he’s been stung by the criticism. ”It’s a little like [President] Clinton,“ he says. ”He’s done a successful job of turning the country around and putting it back on track, yet he’s getting blasted over a couple of blow jobs. That’s a little like how I feel. We took a disastrous event and made it a huge success, and now there’s all this griping over little details, when, in the big picture, things are actually much, much better than ever.“

Both Zumwalt and NEA executive director Sherry Bond agree that the event fell apart at the organizational stages. ”To be honest, 450 bands are too many,“ says Bond, pointing out that the NEA only has three paid staff members. ”We couldn’t handle it, and it got out of control. Because of that, we ended up with a lot of unhappy volunteers, and that’s the biggest mistake we could make.“

The most widespread problems concerned the event’s basics: selecting and scheduling performers. Ideally, Bond says, the Extravaganza’s lineup should be in place by Dec. 1. That didn’t happen this year, and the advent of the holiday season turned scheduling into a nightmare. ”It snowballed on us,“ she confesses. By mid-January, many bands selected to perform had already begun booking other shows that conflicted with the Extravaganza dates. Those that could make it were left to scramble, without much chance to attract attention from talent scouts, publishing executives, producers, managers, press representatives, or other industry insiders who might help their careers.

”I called to get a list of A&R executives who were attending the event,“ says a management company executive. ”My band’s show was on Feb. 19th, and [the NEA] said the list would be available on the 18th. My reaction was, åMorons!’ How am I supposed to get people out to my show if they don’t know who my band is?“

As it turned out, out-of-town record-company representation at the event was heavy, despite the fact that many major labels are drastically cutting travel budgets because of dwindling profit margins. The attendees included four talent executives from Columbia Records, including general manager Will Botwin, chief financial officer John Ingrassia, and top artists-and-repertoire executives Mitchell Cohen and Kevin Patrick; Atlantic Records sent Kevin Williamson, Steve Robertson, and Kim Stephens; Epic and Dreamworks sent two A&R vice presidents each, while Arista, Revolution, Geffen, Mercury, and Capitol were also represented.

”Most of these people aren’t going to South by Southwest anymore,“ Zumwalt says, referring to the country’s premier music-industry gathering, held annually in Austin, Texas. ”The A&R community hates South by Southwest. It’s not important to them anymore. It’s nothing but a spring break for the music industry. I had several of them tell me that Extravaganza is much more useful to them.“

Zumwalt points to other successes this year, including an alliance with Intermedia that led to commercial spots on cable channels and to a Web site maintained by 18 volunteers, who fed interviews and tapes of performances into the site around the clock. (The Web site remains active at www.extravaganza.org. More than 100 hours of footage remains to be edited and digitized for online availability.)

Zumwalt—who also runs Paladin Records, a management firm, and three publishing companies—makes it clear that the objective of the Extravaganza is to entice record executives from Los Angeles and New York. ”I don’t really care what people in Nashville think of me,“ he says. ”I care about what they think in New York and Los Angeles. If people in Nashville call me names, or refer to [Extravaganza] as åLawyerpalooza’ or whatever, I don’t care, quite frankly. I care about what the A&R people are saying. That’s what our mission is.“

Dissension in the ranks

Extravaganza has always been attacked for its politics. Those who don’t get invited to play, or those who get booked to play out-of-the-loop clubs, have long suggested that the event favors performers who have a business connection to members of the programming committee.

Such reproaches remain, but this year the angriest critics were the businesspeople working with, or trying to work with, the NEA. The faultfinders included committee members, sponsors, managers, and club owners, several of whom went out of their way to contact the Scene, complaining that their suggestions were ignored, their contributions dismissed, their calls met with rude or dismissive comments.

Among those who felt slighted were members of committees charged with going through applications by urban, jazz, blues, world music, and rock performers. In the end, not a single jazz show took place—a fact that irks those jazz acts who went to the trouble of sending in CDs, bios, and the $10 application fee. In the end, only one urban showcase was staged.

NEA board member Chris Cuben was among the committee chairs who quit. He came to the organizing table with ideas for six programs—R&B, jazz, blues, hip-hop, rap, and progressive urban music—all of which originally gained support from the Extravaganza. ”His marketing plan was wonderful,“ Zumwalt says. ”It blew us all away. We were ready to give him a big programming commitment.“

But as the event grew nearer, Cuben grew disenchanted with the NEA’s lack of information and support. With the Extravaganza only weeks away, no one could tell him at which venues or on what nights his shows would take place. Frustrated, Cuben withdrew.

”The venue issue, for me, was a big problem,“ Cuben says. ”There’s no major venue in Nashville that supports [original African American music] on an ongoing basis. When it became clear that some of the venues I counted on getting for my shows weren’t going to be given to me, I elected not to be involved.“

Bond says Cuben wanted the NEA to turn the event into ”a black-music Extravaganza, and we couldn’t do that.“ Now Cuben says he hopes to create a separate event that promotes the growing black-music community in Nashville and Murfreesboro. Bond says she would like to get the NEA involved in supporting his plans, ”as long as it doesn’t conflict with our main event.“

Besides Cuben, the other African American on the NEA’s board of directors was Aashid Himons, former leader of Afrikan Dreamland and a longtime figure in the Nashville music scene. Himons also gained initial support for his ambitious plans to put on a world-music festival in conjunction with the NEA. But less than a month before the event, Himons pulled his band out of the Extravaganza and resigned from the board in anger.

The musician was frustrated, in part, by the fact that the NEA promised certain venues for his shows, then summarily changed its mind. The last straw, he says, came when he’d been told that the organization would fly in a Native American band from a reservation in Arizona, only to find that the plane tickets had been withdrawn. Both Zumwalt and Bond assert that they never authorized the tickets. ”If someone did promise him that, it was someone who didn’t have the ability to deliver them,“ Bond says.

Now, Zumwalt and Bond say, the NEA’s next goal is to work at repairing damaged relations in the community. Those who were upset by this year’s scheduling process will be invited to air their grievances with the executive committee of the NEA board of directors. Zumwalt also says the organization will undertake a ”meticulous examination“ of the Extravaganza and of the NEA’s staff, its programming committee, and its volunteers.

”Is it a democracy? No, it is not,“ Bond says. ”Every year, difficult decisions have to be made, and we need someone with knowledge of the industry to make them. But we need the support of the community. If we don’t have that, we can’t continue.“

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