Monday, December 7, 2009

CCMF: Why Salem needs this party

Published April 2009 in Salem Monthly

David Ballantyne has an on-again-off-again relationship with the Salem music scene. Most years he loves it. So far, 2009 has been one of the off years.

Ballantyne doesn't relish the feeling. It's more of a sad fact. He's been an active member in Salem bands for more than a decade, watched the scene ebb and flow, heard all the talk from local band members with stars in their eyes and dreams of "getting out."

"Getting out isn't as important as building up. If there's a reason Salem needs the Cherry City Music Festival, that's it," said Ballantyne, who will be performing guitar and vocals with his band The Falcon on April 9.

The third annual Cherry City Music Festival will feature more than 110 local, regional and national acts, spanning most musical genres, at venues throughout downtown Salem, April 9 through 11. It's far and away one of the biggest parties to come out of Salem, but it just might be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Mik Gobel, another longtime Salem musician, bristles when he hears others complain about the lack of culture in Salem.

"Salem has culture. Getting people to recognize and support it is something else all together," said Gobel. "People need to support what we have if we stand a chance at making it better. I'm concerned about the reputation of my town."

Another local performer, Kristen Grainger, is somewhat less forgiving in her assessment of the Salem music scene before the Cherry City Music Festival.

"It was skeletal," said Grainger, lead singer of True North who perform at Boon's Treasury, April 10. "For years, the best music in Salem was at Lenora's Ghost in Independence."

Bursting the bubble

Stick around town long enough, and it's not uncommon to hear about “the Willamette Bubble." It's the term used for and by Willamette University students to characterize the lack of nightlife - some would say life at all - beyond the borders of the Willamette campus.

Ballantyne might call it more of a brick wall than a bubble.

"I've been trying for years to get the students off that campus to come to all-ages shows," he said.

In a recent review of the college published in The Princeton Review, Willamette students described their school as "'an oasis of enlightenment' surrounded by a 'sketchy' 'cultural wasteland.'" Among Salem's highlights, students cited the "45-minute drive to Portland."

For Grainger, whose day job is acting as vice president of Willamette, such assessments are hard on the ear, and as a performer, hard on the heart.

"Willamette's been a haven for arts and culture in the area, but we haven't encouraged our students to get off campus as much as we could have, in the past," Grainger said.

University officials estimate the financial impact of Willamette students on the local economy at more than $168 million. In addition to hosting a variety of cultural events, the Willamette campus is home to theater productions, a concert series produced by the Oregon Symphony Association, a lecture series, and Salem's only art museum.

"We've been economic partners, but we've only just begun to take steps to become cultural partners with the area. It’s thanks, in large part, to our president, M. Lee Pelton," said Grainger.

Sponsorships of local events, like this year's Cherry City Music Festival, are among the university's most recent attempts to burst the bubble.

A two-way street

If the success of the festival depended solely on the support of music lovers coming out to see the shows, it would be a lost cause.

“The venues themselves need to get out there and promote the events happening in their spaces,” Gobel said.

Gobel is excited about the line-up he’s been able to put together at Boon's Treasury, including his own Mik Gobel Band, but efforts to get people to attend needs to be community-wide, he said.

“We’ve got some top-notch acts lined up; it would be a shame to see it bomb,” Gobel said.

Ballantyne is no stranger to such fears. Scheduling bands in Salem venues has long been notoriously challenging and fraught with potential landmines.

“My band’s got a free show coming up in a couple weeks and another band is playing a show with an admission fee. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” Ballantyne said. “I want both shows to be successful.”

Lari DeLapp, owner of Coffee House Café in downtown Salem, said that part of the appeal of the Cherry City Music Festival is that many of the shows are taking place in alternative venues, like coffee houses and the Capitol Mall.

“It’s not the cigarette-and-drink crowd that people usually think of when they think of live music,” DeLapp said.

It’s time, and the Cherry City Music Festival is the reason, for Mid-Valley residents to rethink their assessment of the Salem music scene, DeLapp added.

“People have been trained to think they have to go Eugene or Portland for good music. It’s up to us to convince them otherwise,” he said.

Why it matters NOW

If the Cherry City Music Festival succeeds in attracting crowds, the potential for invigorating the local music scene is boundless.

In its first year, the festival was criticized for the lack of variety in bands selected to perform, but since then, organizers have made a conscious effort to diversify the line-up. This year, the festival features everything from alt-pop to ethereal pop, folk, country and jazz.

The mix of genres is essential to success, Gobel said.

“Salem has only so many people interested in alternative rock. Eventually, you’ve drawn everyone from that audience that you’re going to get,” he said.

Recognizing that no two musical tastes are identical means the festival taps into a much deeper well of music lovers.

“It also adds legitimacy to the festival overall,” Gobel said.

The legitimacy of the festival turns into legitimacy for the Salem music scene, said Ballantyne, who has seen firsthand how the music scene itself can be self-perpetuating.

“The kids I used to pay to take flyers into their schools are now the ones who are in the new bands in the area,” Ballantyne said.

Crowd support for bands appearing at the festival generates good word-of-mouth for the city and backstage chatter among the various band members.

“If they have a good experience here, they’ll tell the other bands they play with while touring – let them know that Salem is a place worth stopping when they’re making their way between Eugene and Portland,” Ballantyne said.

Exposure for the city yields interest in bands coming from the area, said Grainger.

“It becomes great exposure for our local bands,” she said. “It makes Salem a welcoming, supportive place for bands trying to make their names, which is only going to increase more and more people to seek out the Pacific Northwest as a place to call home.”

That makes support of this Salem party just as important as the ones that preceded it, or any that will follow in its wake. Success this year will be part of the foundation on which all future successes (and parties) are built.

If all goes according to plan, said Ballantyne, he might get to see a dream fulfilled: the birth of a band that proudly – defiantly – declares Salem their hometown.

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