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Heart of the Pit

Live music, and the relationship between publicists and writers.

There are a lot of suck-asses in the music industry, particularly when it comes to Public Relations.  On one hand, they suck up to anyone who can possibly do something for them.  In the same breath, they expect people to suck up to them, since they are the Handler for the musician(s).


It does not matter at which level you’re dealing with, for there are elitist publicists everywhere from the bottom to the top.  In fact, the real sketchy ones tend to be lesser-known cats, those you’d think would be more grounded, but rather seem to have a remarkable chip on their shoulder, a type of animosity wrought by jealousy.  At times, it seems that the only true, in-it-for-the-love-of-music types are either completely obscure and low-level publicists, or at the very top of the food chain.


Naturally, part of this problem lies with the community of “music journalists,” those who thrive on getting free tickets to concerts in exchange for press.  When they’re treated like dogs by a publicist, they behave like such, focusing on how the lead singer seemed bored or some other jive facet of the performance, instead of ignoring the arrogance, and maintaining focus on what they’re really there for- the MUSIC.


So am I crossing some sacred line in saying this?   Am I supposed to keep my mouth shut as I watch arrogant publicists actually hinder tangible publicity and attention for the artists they’re supposed to work for? 


I first encountered the roadblock of arrogant publicists when I was Music Editor for the raddest arts & culture publication to ever grace humanity.  While I found relative ease dealing with folks at places like Reprise Records (looked upon by many as the top of the rankings of record labels), I had a very hard time getting things done with smaller labels.  Not because they lacked the resources to send me albums for review or anything along those lines; they just weren’t prepared for any kind of criticism, be it positive or negative.


One outfit in particular was actually a conglomerate of 60 smaller labels, and because we gave one album a negative review, the publicist went off the handle, and refused to let any of their bands have anything to do with us.  We were blacklisted, and even some of my friends who were in bands under this umbrella caught some of the angst from the situation, dished out from their very own record label executives.


Despite all this, the true heart of music remains unthwarted.   Indeed, some of the sketchiest publicists represent some of the most pure music.  As it turns out, this year has displayed some of the best music ever recorded, particularly in the realm of harder rock.  Regardless of whatever quibbles the Press and Public Relations people may have against one another, the heart of music has continued to beat stronger and stronger. 


Take System of a Down for example.  They are by no means a struggling band, as they have been on American Records practically from their genesis.  Still, if there is any music even remotely as unique and provocative as theirs, it’s not being shared too publicly.  System of a Down produces a sounds that feels almost unreal, and certainly in its own land.


It is fitting, therefore, that seeing them live is a pretty exciting experience.  I managed to see them on September 26, at the Tower City Amphitheater in Cleveland.  As they had the Mars Volta play before them, for a solid hour, ticket prices for the event could be argued as reasonable (around $50 a pop).  The stage performance was excellent for both bands, but you could easily feel the excitement building up for System of a Down to take stage.


Shortly before they did, I was ushered to the front, past the barrier that held the audience back from the band.  Camera in hand, I prepared myself to act professional, even though I too was quite excited to finally see this band live.  Then a light shone down onto the rostrum, illuminating guitarist/lyricist/vocalist Daron Malakian’s silhouette, and the people behind me went nuts.  At one point, I backed up against the barrier to get a proper shot of bassist Shavo Odadjian.  Suddenly hands, many hands, grabbed me from behind, and started dragging me backwards into the rabid crowd.  Thankfully, two of the security guards I was talking with earlier saw this and acted fast, one grabbing my legs as the other smacked the audience away from me.


This is the level of energy that was present, and for all the claims of simply hyped up mania, it was very real and exciting.  Even so, it felt slightly contained, probably because there were several thousand people in attendance.  It never really exploded like a crowd can, with the right ignition...


A few weeks later, I was reminded of how intense a crowd can become with the proper music.


Again in Cleveland, this time at Peabody’s Down Under, on October 30.  I was there to see the phenomenal Soulfly, headed by the legendary Max Cavalera.  I was only a little more excited about this show than the other, but not by much.


We got to the club around 7pm, when the doors were scheduled to open, and took a seat at the bar to wait.  Unlike the SOAD show, this was less organized and timely, and three bands played before Soulfly.  I hadn’t prepared for this, and my stomach was empty as I sipped on rum.  Before long, I felt my soul beginning to smirk uncontrollably.  While this could be attributed to the liquor, I feel it was more, that anticipation of some wholesome revelry simmering at the surface of the evening.  I decided to push it a bit, and ordered a shot of Jaggermeister, just to encourage my own rowdiness.  After a few of those, I was indeed feeling feisty, but Soulfly had not yet come out.  Although I was pacing myself, my inner OY! was about to burst, and I told my friend, “Look, if you see me get punched, just let it happen and keep your eyes peeled for any real trouble, because I will have probably deserved it.”  Not that I was being out of line or anything, but my adrenaline was starting to get the best of me, and if Soulfly didn’t take the stage soon, I would have more than likely said something (in jest, of course) to the wrong person.


Luckily, I didn’t have to wait much longer, for shortly after my warning, Cavalera and Company took stage, and the floor exploded into a mess of manic fiends, all jumping in different directions and screaming at the top of their lungs.  I fought my way to the front of the crowd as fast as I could, camera in hand.  I wasted no time in getting what I felt was sufficient footage, then I secured the camera and threw myself into the storm.


Some call it “slam dancing,” and some call it “moshing.”  The area of the floor where this takes place is generally referred to as the “pit,” and if you don’t want to get roughed up a bit, you’re best to stay out of the pit.  That’s how it goes, and this is truly all in good fun.


There is certain etiquette when rocking out in this manner, and the vast majority of folks who do so understand this.  If someone gets knocked down, for instance, all those around grab the person and pull them upright, so as to prevent them from being trampled too much.  While this is aggressive behavior, it is not supposed to be malicious, but simply a rowdy dance of unity, where all those involved are one tribe, brought together by a powerful love for music.


And Soulfly brought that sensation out in full force.  Instead of an isolated area of the floor as the pit, the entire place was rocking out, ladies and gentlemen alike.  Sure, things happen, but that’s part of the fun.  At one point, I caught an elbow to the throat, and suddenly came to laying flat on my back, with no less than seven people grabbing me, helping me get back up.  Before the show was over, I would suffer a busted lip, several kicks to the ribs, a bruised testicle, and a few smudges on my new shirt.  But that was the point, in a sense, and it was the best show I have been too in a long time.


So, there’s the comparison.  While the System of a Down show may have been better in terms of production (lighting was pretty rad), it did not match the raw energy of Soulfly.  Even though the crowd for SOAD was easily five times the size of Soulfly’s, the latter was just more intense.


Now, I am taking for granted that everyone who is forced to approach a music publicist is truly a serious fan of music.  We have figured out a way to justify not only getting into shows for free, but also scoring advance copies of albums, and even talking to our favorite artists at length.  Therefore, we need to put our egos aside when a publicist acts like they are Holy, for what it really boils down to is getting the word out about the musicians’ art, despite how strange and sometimes mean a publicist may act.  At the same time, it would be nice to see more publicists be straight with folks like myself, and not act like they are better than the rest of humanity.  It kind of ruins the vibe when you have to get treated like a third-rate amateur just to write an article about something you love.

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