Rock of Aged | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Rock of Aged

Have Pittsburgh's rock challenges been left in the dust?

"Standing room only" barely described it. In a small, smoky rock venue, a crowd of about 250 went bananas as the third band in the line-up finished its set. But this was no regular Saturday-night crowd in Blawnox: Fans were jammed into every corner to support friends, family, coworkers, spouses ... four bands' worth of local musicians battling it out for a title -- and some loot.

A good chunk of the March 14 crowd was there to cheer on Steve Stiller, Jason Godek, Brian Laskey or Ben Solnick -- members of contest underdogs Kill the Drama. At the back of the stage, drummer Jason Godek put aside his sticks and pulled out his earplugs.

"I couldn't believe how loud the crowd was after we were done," he remembers. "I actually had to put 'em back in."

Even though the band played its first show just weeks before -- and wouldn't know until the next day which band the panel of judges would deem the evening's best - the members' confidence was high as they left the stage. "Everything's gelled real well -- and real quick," Godek says.

The day after, Godek got the call.

"Steve actually called me and said, 'Congratulations, we won.'" Champagne corks would pop at the band's next practice, but Godek had time, for the moment, to reflect. "I'm not the most emotional person in the world, but it was a good feeling, a sense of accomplishment. ... I guess maybe we are creating something good, that more people will like."

If the story sounds familiar, it's because similar tales have been unfolding on Pittsburgh stages in the two decades since the creation of the Graffiti Rock Challenge. Maybe you've been one of the thousands of area musicians who've taken part. Some of those musicians merely dropped an entry form and CD in the mail and crossed their fingers. More than a few, like Kill the Drama, recorded a demo just so they could enter and have a shot at jump-starting their careers.

Those who are selected get a few weeks to get the word out to fans, hustle tickets and polish their material. And winning means ... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

For Kill the Drama, says guitarist Steve Stiller, winning "was a dream come true." Like every dream, such moments are based in reality. But as with every dream, eventually you have to wake up.

There's something decidedly Pittsburgh about the rock challenge's myth-building and pageantry. The premise is simple enough -- get a bunch of hopefuls together to play, see who's the best and give them some prizes. The rock-challenge legend, though, is much more elaborate.

The godfather of the Pittsburgh rock challenge is Tony DiNardo, who began holding the event in 1984. The venue was the fabled Graffiti club in Oakland, arguably the city's premier showcase for local original music.

Graffiti was shuttered in 2000, and DiNardo has largely withdrawn from the local music scene. "I'm on the slowing-down phase," he says, "not on the building up, growing it, surviving phase" of the business. But once a year, he emerges from semi-retirement to ensure that the Graffiti Rock Challenge continues to outlive Graffiti itself.

"The Graffiti Rock Challenge is a prestigious vehicle of encouragement and credibility for local bands in the greater Pittsburgh area and has launched the careers of notable area groups," DiNardo's PR trumpets. Among the bands the press release claims to have launched: The Clarks, Brownie Mary, the Buzz Poets ... and of course, Rusted Root.

Much like this year's champs, Kill the Drama, Rusted Root was "extremely, brand new" when it debuted at Graffiti 16 years ago, recalls Liz Berlin, who handled vocals, guitar and percussion duties. The band had played its first show -- a "secret" performance at the Electric Banana -- just weeks before.

"We literally figured out what the name of our band was going to be so we could turn in our tape to get in the contest," Berlin recalls. "I don't think anyone knew us. We were from nowhere."

Kill the Drama actually fared better in its first challenge: Rusted Root had to settle for fourth place. Still, says Berlin, "We didn't win, because we weren't tight and professional, but we were the surprise. I think we got noticed quicker than we would [otherwise]. It helped spark off a 'Who the hell are those guys!' -- an awareness of us that wouldn't have happened as quickly."

Over the next couple of years, Rusted Root attracted the attention of Mercury Records, who signed the band and released its platinum-selling When I Woke in 1994.

And that appearance on Graffiti's stage is influencing Berlin's career even today: DiNardo is what he calls "an angel investor" in Mr. Small's Theatre, the Millvale venue Berlin co-owns. Small's, in fact, hosted DiNardo's event in 2004 and 2005.

But skeptics wonder whether participating in a rock challenge -- or even winning one -- can still have that kind of impact today.

"I don't know if it was like that back in the day, back in the '90s when you had bands like Rusted Root," says Vinnie Ferguson. "But now it's like, 'Great, so you won something at the Rex Theatre. I'm still not going to book you at Sports Rock, because I don't have the time, I don't have the interest, and I don't know you.'

As rock jock and music director for the Clear Channel station 105.9 WXDX, Ferguson is wide awake to the realities of the music industry.

"I don't know what kind of kick [bands] get out of it, outside of the fact that maybe they get a grand or some new equipment or some studio time. ... You don't see these bands after they win running around getting shows left and right."

Berlin agrees that times have changed, and that winning a rock challenge means something different. Back when Rusted Root first surprised the city, the standard rock-challenge prize -- a free recording time and CD-duplication package -- may have been a huge temptation. These days, the story is different.

"Studio time was $80 an hour, nobody had CD burners -- they didn't exist yet," she says. Now, though, "Kids have the Internet, there's Myspace, there's so much more that young bands have access to, to create a buzz. And back then we didn't have any of that."

Competing in a challenge, she says, has an educational value, and "gives people an incentive to learn how to roll their [own] ball." But it's "not the big carrot that it was back then. ... There's still benefits, but it's not like you can't go out and figure out a way to pay for studio time or promote yourself another way."

Ferguson himself says he regularly makes use of Myspace to cherry-pick music for his Sunday night "Edge of the X" program, which features local rock artists. Industry professionals and fans often prefer such sites, as well as download services such as iTunes -- all of which require little investment.

"Ultimately let's call it like it is: [a rock challenge] gets people into the bar and drinking for four hours straight," says Ferguson. "In February, when otherwise people would be home, because it's effin' cold. The touring set's pretty [over] on a national level ... so it's a perfect opportunity to generate bodies in the seats. And they'll turn to those bands that they think will bring in people, or have been able to promise to bring in people."

"Is there commerce involved?" Tony DiNardo asks rhetorically. "Of course there's commerce involved. ... [But] we have to be judged from the very beginning of our event. Was it constructive and proactive for everybody? The reason we're doing it 20 years later, the answer must be yes. There'll be cynics out there and detractors, and competitors out there looking at us. Would we be better off without the Graffiti Rock Challenge? I don't know. I like to believe we help the bands."

Indeed, the Rock Challenge mission statement contends that, for the past two decades, the event has been "a proven way of providing the local musicians with the tools they need and exposes both the bands/musicians and the audiences to the support of local music industry advocates and enterprises."

Of course, DiNardo isn't blind to the changes affecting the music industry. "We don't live in a vacuum," he says. "There's a lot of entertainment and distraction that goes on in life. People on video games, being plugged into the Internet, going to discos, sporting events -- anything after 5 o'clock will attract people's attention. So the original-music component of the pie is a very small sliver."

DiNardo's own event has seen changes as well. Since Graffiti closed, the event has bounced from now-defunct venues The Beehive and Rosebud to Mr. Small's -- and this year to Moondogs, after a dispute with DiNardo's first choice of venue, the South Side's Rex Theatre.

DiNardo describes Moondogs owner Ron Esser as "a real generous, musically conscious person, very supportive of original music, [who] more than graciously hosted the event." But playing at Moondogs and playing The Rex are hardly the same. Even though Moondogs held capacity crowds each of the five nights of the challenge, its under-300-person capacity does not compare to the 1,100 drawn to a given round at the old Graffiti.

In his PR materials, at least, DiNardo suggests the winning band might have access to a much larger audience. WXDX once co-sponsored the contest, and DiNardo's Web site still pledges radio play on the "Edge of the X," "subject to availability."

"All the bands have to do is follow through on the prizes," DiNardo says in a subsequent interview. "They'll call the stations up, and the stations already know who won it. ... [S]omewhere down the road they'll put that band on their air, do whatever they do with it in their format."

Or not. "When they [the winning band] call me, I will most likely say, 'a conclusion was never reached between myself and Tony, so unfortunately I'm not going to be able to honor something that we never agreed to,'" says WXDX's Ferguson. "[O]ur involvement with the Graffiti Rock Challenge has consciously waned over the past couple of years because we've noticed that nothing's really coming of it."

DiNardo concedes, "Is there any written [agreement]? No, we don't dictate to any of our sponsors what they're gonna do. We can't dictate to them; we can only say we can work within your parameters and see if we can give these bands a little opportunity.

"Nowhere in our literature do we promise making a band a success," he adds. "All we can do is give them the tools and highlight them."

Still, participating in the challenge carries some financial risk. At the Graffiti Rock Challenge, bands are on the hook for selling at least 50 tickets at $8 a piece. Graffiti's location, tiny Moondogs in out-of-the-way Blawnox, made that a harder sale this year. But regardless, if sales come up short, the band has to pay the balance of that $400 out of its pocket ... and that's in addition to the $10 entrance fee. If they make it to the final round, bands must sell another 50 tickets at $10. Being a finalist in the Graffiti challenge makes you responsible for $910; bands who play the challenge have a 1-in-16 chance at the grand prize, which DiNardo values at about $4,000.

South Hills alternative hard-rock act 3LB Universe found this out the hard way. The night before, the band was out partying with its fans and trying to drum up support for the Graffiti challenge. "We were like, 'Feel free to drive out to Ohio to see us for 10 minutes tomorrow,' and they were like 'Go fuck yerselves!'" jokes Mark Larimer, the group's tall, gruff-voiced vocalist.

Once Larimer arrived at Moondogs to play, he was in for a surprise. They had a few unsold tickets remaining. "I tried giving the girl the 300 dollars and 10 [remaining] tickets or whatever, and she was like 'Well, you gotta buy 'em all.'"

By that point, 3LB Universe had already assembled an impressive resume over 14 years. The band had performed in front of thousands at 2004's X-Fest, played countless local shows, built a following, and been featured in industry magazines. They'd also self-released recordings, including their song "Crawdaddy," which was added to regular rotation on WXDX -- a rare feat which brought the major labels knocking.

Despite all that, 3LB Universe didn't even make it past Graffiti's semi-final round.

Why play a challenge at all? "We thought we had it made two, three years ago. We thought we were outta here, but it was just beginning," says Larimer. He thinks playing these events is important "just to stay active, just so your name's constantly in the paper or on a radio ad. You gotta keep the buzz out there, let people know you're alive. And who knows? You might just win the damn thing. There's nothing you can compare to the gift of radio play, and ... I wouldn't mind winning a case of beer and a shitty guitar from a rock challenge, either!"

Indeed, DiNardo must be doing something right. This year, his Graffiti Rock Challenge has encountered a couple fresh-faced challengers itself: the year-old Winter Rock Challenge, presented by Hard Rock Café and K-Rock, and the Rex Theatre's newly minted Rex Rock Rumble.

Apart from the desires of the bands involved to win something -- anything -- and the events' ability to pull in crowds (and income for the promoter), the differences in prizes, requirements and judging make them difficult to compare.

Hard Rock's Winter Rock Challenge doesn't ask bands to take quite the same financial risk that DiNardo's event does. There's no entrance fee, and while groups take 50 advance tickets to sell at $5 a pop (or $7 for fans under 21), there's no need to meet a quota -- extras can simply be returned. Bands compete in three semi-finals before the final in March; the grand prize includes $1,000, 30 hours of studio time, a future shared bill at Hard Rock with Joe Grushecky, airplay on K-Rock ... and a nifty title: "Best Rock Band in Pittsburgh."

"I thought, heck, those are words. Nobody can take those away," says Pam Simmons, guitarist and singer for the punk-metal group Motorpsychos, who won the event last year.

As with DiNardo's event, this year's winner of the Winter Rock Challenge, hard rock act Cystym, is extremely new. Playing the elimination round was the band's first show. Then again, unlike the Graffiti event, the Winter Rock Challenge is less a battle of the bands than a battle of the fans.

Everyone who buys a ticket gets to vote for that night's winner on the back of their tickets. And there's the rub: While bands aren't financially obligated to sell more than a nominal amount of tickets, winning the contest depends on getting your people out. To win the contest, it's all but guaranteed you'll need to unload $270 worth of tickets for your semifinal, plus another $540 for the final.

Allowing fan turnout to help determine a winner is "hokey," DiNardo grouses -- a mere popularity contest.

But to Simmons, it's a plus. "We would probably feel more comfortable with the fans voting, because we have a really strong fan base. When judges vote ... it's all subjective."

Still, the Motorpsychos didn't enter this year. For one thing, Motorpsychos were already a well-established local draw. The band has a strong following, with CDs out and local radio play. It's also played X-Fest, the Graffiti challenge in 2003, won the Rolling Rock Heavy Rock Wars in 2004 at Nick's Fat City, and went on to win the local round of the nationally sponsored Zippo Hot Tour at the end of 2005.

Too, turning out fans for contests is "a lot to ask," says Simmons. "The [contests] we did we did because we liked the prize packages or liked the whole contest itself. But when you do those things ... you really have to rally the troops. So we're selective in terms of the favors we ask our friends and fans for."

Especially because, Simmons says, some of the prizes were slow to materialize -- when they did at all.

"Some prizes did not exist that were advertised, and other prizes weren't followed through on because the companies they hooked up with as sponsors dropped the ball," Simmons says. Some of these included recording time booked through a studio that went out of business, and promised "on-demand" TV appearances that fell through after two nights of filming.

"When the Rock Challenge was advertising 'this, this and this' -- the 'this' that you won had never been contacted about donating a prize," Simmons says.

"We have made several attempts to contact them and try to change their [prize] package," says Patrick O'Connor, who manages live music at Hard Rock. "They have yet to return a phone call or come back. They left on a bitter note." He didn't know the recording company had gone out of business until the Motorpsychos brought it to his attention. The event has changed the sponsors in question this year.

More laid-back than the Hard Rock Café event is the challenge that was held at the Rex. Owner Chris Theoret, who created the event after DiNardo moved to Moondogs, takes a much different approach.

The Rex challenge doesn't require an entry fee, and bands are not required to sell a quota of tickets. Instead, they receive printed coupons for $2 off the $10 admission fee, which they're encouraged to distribute among their constituents. Winners were determined in part by a fan vote and rotating "mystery judges." And Theoret goes beyond pledging recording-studio time and a CD package. Promotional materials also promise "a one-year contract including a media package with local and national advertising, opening spots for appropriate national acts, and the placement of the final product in stores and online."

No one undertakes a financial risk by participating, but the lack of incentive to sell tickets and promote the event no doubt exacerbated the poor attendance. The elimination rounds in February drew an estimated 120 people each night -- just enough audience to feel lonely in the Rex's cavernous space -- while the finals drew approximately 240.

"This was all sorta tied to me building a recording studio upstairs at the Rex, which is something I'd been planning to do since I got the joint," says Theoret. He's already used the proceeds from the Rumble to purchase high-end analog studio gear. Shatterpak, this year's winner, begins recording shortly.

Theoret is excited to be working with Shatterpak, because "they really fit in with a lot of ... the harder bands" the Rex hosts, "which gives us an opportunity to put them in front of a lot of people. Which made a difference, from how we looked at it."

Indeed, being under contract to fledgling Rex Theatre Records for one year will appeal mostly to groups who feel they're unlikely to get a contract from a larger label in that time.

Indeed, what all these rock challenges share is that they're mostly of value to young, untested acts. Pittsburgh's music scene can be tough for novices to crack, and if a Rock Challenge guarantees them nothing else, it guarantees a stage. Ask Country Music Gas Station, an up-and-coming country-rock outfit (see City Paper, Feb. 2), who'd played a couple haphazard shows prior to participating last year.

Before playing at the Hard Rock challenge, "We were nobody," confesses Nick Liberg, the band's singer and guitarist. "These other bands were all, 'We played here and we played here and here,' and we were like, 'Well, we played a party in Oakland ... that got busted.'' We did a hippie jam-band thing in the park -- that was fun -- and then suddenly we're playing the Hard Rock. Which smelled a lot better. Less patchouli."

CMGS didn't win the contest, but it's seen the intangible benefits of association with the Hard Rock name become more tangible. "This was an accessible way to get in front of an audience," says Liberg. "And it led to us getting a whole bunch of other shows, and meeting a guy who'd do our booking. It was a good way to break in."

Then too, even the most novice band can pull off an upset -- witness the fact that a veteran band such as 3LB Universe could be ousted in a contest whose winner, Kill the Drama, had barely been seen on local stages before.

Sophisticates, of course, may smirk at such outcomes. "You're getting those bands that are desperate for attention, or are trying to carve themselves a niche in the genre or in the scene," says WXDX's Ferguson. "That doesn't necessarily make them good, it doesn't necessarily make them bad. I just see it as kind of a desperate thing."

Then again, perhaps gaining a reputation as a newcomer with a fire under your ass isn't such a bad thing. Rock challenge winners might be stamped as newbies ... but at least they're newbies with potential. As DiNardo says, "We give all the dreamers who are still in the garage a chance to really circumvent two, three, four years' worth of just grinding it out and dealing with the politics and becoming disillusioned."

"There will always be new bands who want to enter things," Simmons, of the Motorpsychos, says. "And if you enter and lose, at least you played a show, you probably met some new people. ... [T]here's nothing bad that can happen. The advertisers get some business, the bar sells alcohol, everybody's happy."

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