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Battle of the Bands Battles Miss The Point of the Bigger War

Everyone is up in arms about the outcome of last Friday’s 97X-Posure Battle of the Bands, held at Rascal’s in Moline, IL, but the majority of the loudest opinions falling on opposite sides of one another are debating the wrong point.

Which is better: dogs or cats? Mustang or Corvette? Have your answer in mind? Great. Now ask yourself why you’re even thinking about this right now because you should have stopped two sentences ago. These questions are fundamentally flawed. Yet, it seems to be the way most people are talking in the wake of the 97X-Posure Battle of the Bands, the final round of which came and went with great expectations and a cry of outrage from many music fans in the Q-C.

With Facebook pages and walls and even the radio station itself serving as sounding boards for the conversation, few seem to be focusing on the core of the matter, the real reason why a tribute band winning an otherwise all-original band battle is making people suddenly sit up and call shenanigans in an area that has long struggled to establish and maintain a contemporary musical identity with any consistency.

I have nothing against musicians who cover other artists’ songs, and neither should you. I have been in bands that played tunes by The Eagles, Elliott Smith, and The Misfits, to name just three. Many of the most popular bands in the history of the world began their careers playing sets comprised of cover songs mixed with originals. The Beatles. Twisted Sister. Even Pantera began as a glam rock KISS-inspired group which metamorphosed into one of the heaviest bands of all time. Orchestras and jazz bands often perform in this fashion, too, if you stretch the definition a little.

In the Quad-Cities, being a cover or “tribute” band is one of the few ways musicians can make consistent money. Bars and clubs know exactly what they’re getting when they book you and you know exactly what’s expected of your performance. The work it takes to be a tribute act is incredible, from learning arrangements, mastering vocal lines, reproducing solos note-perfect, it’s all a matter of microscopic attention to detail. Every audience member who comes to see a tribute band will be intimately familiar with the setlist, and they’ll immediately know if something isn’t on par.

Being in an original band is only slightly different. Instead of grinding your fingers to the bone to master another person’s composition, you grind your brain trying to create compositions of your own. This endeavor seldom generates significant money, but the work is just as hard. All the bands who now have tributes to them managed to slog through this process for years before becoming bands worth tributing. Creating a fanbase is an incredible undertaking and demands constant attention in order to obtain and maintain momentum.

A “Battle of the Bands” is a competition held to determine, by audience vote, judge vote, or both, which of a small sampling of groups is the most popular. There are numerous Battles of the Bands in the Quad City area every year. Rock Island Brewing Company (RIBCO) has held one in the winter for the past five years or so, without support of any larger local venue or radio station involvement beyond paid advertising for the events. Entry is limited to original bands exclusively. All money paid at the door for each round goes to advertising the shows and paying the First, Second, and Third Place bands of the final round (yes, everyone gets paid in the final round). Previous grand prizes have been studio recording time, merchandise deals, and sometimes an opening slot in the summer supporting a larger touring act.

The incentive for a host venue to hold a Battle of the Bands is a boost in food and drink sales and promotion for future events. It makes sense for venues to want to organize these contests, and bands stand to gain at least a small leg up on their endeavors if they can manage to get into the finals.

Rascal’s, a Moline club known largely for hosting shows with metal, classic rock, and now, welcomingly, jazz, recently held a Battle of the Bands in cooperation with local radio station 97X for which the grand prize was an opening slot at the iWireless playing before the band Heart, known the world over for nearly four decades of rocking with tracks such as “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man.”

Rascal’s narrowed down a long list of bands via online poll vote by fans, the top 8 of which were then pitted in three rounds over two weekends to determine the winner. This was billed as an opportunity for a local band to open on a huge gig, an opportunity most bands would love to get a shot at.

One important aspect of this battle was that submissions were open to any act. They simply had to get enough votes to get through to the finals. As a result, cover bands were allowed to submit and compete, and through fan and judge vote, ultimately win. Despite incredible turnouts and performances from three original bands, it was the tribute group which took home the prize of opening for Heart.

As an audience, we hear original music differently than cover music. From a scientific standpoint, we will enjoy music we’re familiar with far more immediately than music we’re hearing for the first, second, or even third time, because our brain rewards itself for correctly guessing what’s coming next. As a result, when we listen to a tribute act our brains are actually referencing what we’re hearing against our memory, and if the result is close enough, we will enjoy it on a level different from that which our brains enjoy new music. (See http://mic.com/articles/98310/scientists-prove-that-pop-music-is-literally-ruining-our-brains#.yH2hsvcmv  for further reading on this topic)

With this in mind, it is in no way fair to allow cover/tribute bands to compete against original bands. Their audience is by its very nature larger, having had years to attract fans before the tribute act itself was ever even formed. Further, barring purely cash prizes, tribute acts stand to gain nothing from additional exposure on a large stage. They have no records of their own to sell, and merchandise sales simply go toward creating more merchandise and regular maintenance of equipment. It is a glorified cash prize for a tribute band, and, as we’ve discussed, they already make more money performing than original bands can hope to.

On the other hand, an original band winning an opening slot for a national touring show enjoys potentially huge benefits. The attention that they garner from a prize such as opening for Heart would be tremendous, at the very least an increase in online word of mouth, merchandise sales, and album sales of music they themselves wrote and recorded. For the Quad-Cities music community on the whole, an original band performing before a famous turing group stands to bolster the entire Quad-Cities music scene in the eyes of all who see them on the big stage. As the saying goes, all boats rise in a flood, and an original act playing for the ears and eyes of a crowd of thousands is a musical flood, not just a drop in the tired radio bucket.
This was a tremendous missed opportunity for the local music scene. Instead of giving the stage to an act struggling to succeed on the strength of their own music and fans, the opening slot prize will not benefit the audience or the winners in any tangible way.

Instead of an audience of thousands being turned on to music that was grown in their backyard, giving everyone involved a sense of incredible pride, that audience will now hear the same tracks they heard in their car on the way to the venue or while working their day job, on the same radio station which hosted the battle. They will hear the same music that’s been easily available to them at any time for nearly their entire lives instead of brand new music from souls that live and work in their town and who believe in making it happen for themselves.

Nothing could have made the music fans of the Quad-Cities prouder than to be able to say that an original band took the stage ahead of a national tour gig at the area’s biggest arena, to potentially over 10,000 people, and held their own. Even if it’s unlikely that Heart themselves would have seen the opening band, the crowd would know, and that’s what it’s about, connecting with a crowd. You may be at the concert to see the headliner, but when the word is that “this is the original band from the Quad-Cities,” the audience would have paid special attention.

Instead they’ll hear familiar chords to familiar songs, and in their excitement for Heart they will still clap and cheer, but they won’t remember it or gain anything from it. If Heart themselves are listening, they, too, won’t give our area a second thought when the opening band takes the stage.

So what’s the takeaway? What would make future band battles worth entering for local bands, and worth attending and supporting for audiences?

Simple: No mixed Band Battles. Only 100% original groups, or 100% cover/tribute groups. Truly support local music, both the bands and the fans, by prioritizing original music above cover and tribute acts in Band Battles. Tribute bands work hard, they perform hard, and they are paid well, but they don’t represent local music any more than a photograph represents a painting.
Fans of tribute acts voting their favorite group through to win anything beyond cold hard cash are actually letting their local music scene down by not elevating the music written and performed in the Quad-Cities area by actual Quad-Cities area musicians. If you want to hear a radio song, put a quarter in the jukebox. If you want to elevate the music in the Quad-Cities, vote original, or put on your own Battle of the Bands with clear, transparent rules: no cover bands, visible rolling vote tally, public display of judges’ voting sheets. Make the mechanics of the competition part of the show and watch as fans become more involved than ever before.

Band Battles are too lucrative for venues to stop hosting, and they’re too enticing for groups who want the challenge. I love to see groups pulling out all the stops to put on a show that’s above and beyond a standard weekend gig. Truly last Friday at Rascal’s was an amazing show on all fronts, that cannot be denied. Like all Band Battles, everyone involved was riled and ready to share an amazing experience, and all four competing bands delivered. It was absolutely great to see young groups and more established groups mobilize their fans and interact and share a feeling of excitement and even comradery.

What’s not great is promoting an apples-to-oranges comparison then being surprised when apple fans are upset that the oranges won, no matter how many orange fans showed up and put in their honest votes. So, again, dogs or cats? Mustang or Corvette? The real answer is shut up and write some new songs, you have a gig coming up.

Battle of the Bands Battles Miss The Point of the Bigger War

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Devin Alexander Local Music Columnis

Devin Alexander has been a fixture of the Quad Cities music scene since 1998, when he took up bass guitar at the behest of multiple guitarist friends as a freshman in high school. Since then he’s played on albums by surf-spy-loungers The Metrolites and recorded and released albums by alt-rockers Braille Illustrated and bass-and-drums rock duo The Post Mortems, both through Gentle Edward Records, his record label and Quad Cities-area music collective.

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