Will Baltimore become the next Seattle?
That rather rosy possibility has been on the minds of many in recent weeks, after a couple of the area's alternative rock acts unexpectedly entered the limelight. First, there was Bovox Clown, an Annapolis-based quintet that beat out 2,500 other aspiring video stars to win the MTV Beach House Band Search last month. Then, just a few weeks ago, the Baltimore quartet Love Riot became the first American band ever to win the Yamaha-sponsored Vision Quest international band competition.
Granted, that's not quite the same as being home to Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney and the Posies, much less an entire sub-genre, the way Seattle is. But factor in the growing national reputation of acts like disappear fear and the Greenberry Woods (each of which made its major-label debut earlier this year), and suddenly, Baltimore's local rock scene doesn't seem quite as small-time as it once did.
Or does it? Check the club listings around town, and you'll find pretty much the same names that were there nine months ago -- a list that for the most part tends to exclude the likes of Love Riot, the Greenberry Woods and Bovox Clown. In fact, odds are that many local music fans had never heard of these groups until they made their leap into the spotlight.
"We don't have an original-music scene," says Matt Huseman, lead guitarist with the Greenberry Woods. "It's more of a cover-band scene." Because most of the clubs in town prefer to book bands that play other people's music -- cover tunes, in the musical vernacular -- Huseman feels that success on what most people perceive as the local scene actually limits a band's chances for success outside of Baltimore.
"Before we got with management, we were talking with a friend of ours who kind of helped manage the band for a little while," Huseman says. "He was involved in what I would call the scene, which was at that time Honor Among Thieves and the Loft, two of the biggest bands going around at that time.
"He was telling us, 'This is how these guys are doing it,' and they were doing a lot of covers and things like that. We said, 'Well, we don't want to do that.' We didn't want to get caught up in the Baltimore whirlpool, because that just sucks you down -- you play the same clubs and play the same clubs until you reach a certain point of success, and then everything starts to fade from that."
Breaking away from the pack does seem to have its advantages. Even though the Polkats' accordion-driven, Tex-Mex flavored sound didn't exactly make the band a hot commodity on the local club scene, guitarist John Margolis feels that having such a distinctive sound helped the band win Musician magazine's Best Unsigned Band contest in 1990.
"Bands that play the most often either are playing all cover material or are decidedly commercial," he says. "They're very mainstream, and in the last few years, the contests are rewarding more off-beat music. Contest judges seem to be looking for something they haven't heard before.
"But the price a band plays for trying something new is that they're not going to have as many venues to play. Love Riot, I think, is one of those bands that decided to go with something different than what had been done in the past. They probably won't have as large an audience locally, but there are perks to it, like attracting the attention of the judges from Yamaha."
Still, those kind of perks don't exactly put bread on the table. Lisa Matthews, lead singer in Love Riot, reports that her band often made next to nothing when it was trying to establish itself locally. "Though the gigs we're getting now are better-paying, back then, if it was $50 or $100, you were lucky," she says.
Not that any of that money went into the band members' pockets. "This is not a band like a Top-40 band, where you go home with your money," she says. "We don't make any money. We have a little Love Riot account, and all moneys go in there." As a result, each of the band's four members has to find other means of financial support, a struggle Matthews admits could get tough at times. "The contest money has been a real godsend," she says.
Matthews and her band-mates were willing to make that sacrifice, though, because they believed it was important for the band to spend time in the recording studio.
"The recording process for us is part of the band's evolution," she says. "You find out what you're doing that way. You experiment, and sometimes it doesn't work, that this really isn't us. But sometimes you don't realize that until you record."
Because Love Riot doesn't use a drummer -- its line-up is just guitar, bass, violin and voice -- the group can record faster and cheaper than many alterna-rockers. Even so, Matthews says the group spent about six days and almost $800 recording its last four-song demo tape.
Making a tape is just the beginning of the process. Once the group mass-duplicated copies of its first demo tape, Matthews began mailing them out to record companies across the country -- a haphazard method at best. "We did get a couple of responses," she says, "and when you get a few bites, you want to keep on doing it."
But what interest Love Riot got from its tape was nothing compared to the way industry ears perked up in the wake of its contest victory. "Factions like BMI and some club owners definitely started calling us back and giving us dates," she says. "As far as [record company] people, yeah, there were some who, after we won, took interest. We reached new people." Among those currently interested in Love Riot are A&R; (artist and repertory) representatives from Capitol, Elektra, Arista and Private Music.
Attracting the interest of a major label isn't easy, though -- particularly when your band is outside major markets like New York, Los Angeles or London. Says John Lay, the Boston-based manager whose clients include Squeeze and the Greenberry Woods, "Without any real introduction to [the industry], a band is just getting blanked. They're just waiting in reception areas and giving their tapes to the girl at the desk, who gives it to the most junior A&R; guy, who might listen to it. They'd never get it to a decision-maker."
Not having that kind of access to the recording industry's ear is the biggest difficulty facing Baltimore-area musicians, he adds.
"When we got the record deal with the Greenberry Woods as quickly as we did, I realized that in Baltimore, there is no real avenue to the music business," he says. "It's very local, and there isn't any serious management. In other words, all the kids ++ in Baltimore who are abuzz with creativity have no real way of getting their tapes further than that big dustbin in the A&R; department."
Lay signed another Baltimore act, Andy Bopp's group Love Nut, in addition to the Greenberry Woods. "Now, there was a really creative guy, a good songwriter with good musicians around him, but he had no avenue to go to until they happened to open up for the Greenberry Woods when I was in town," he says. "The band are really good. They came over to London to see me when I was still based in London; I played some tapes to A&R; people there, and I had a couple people come to the show. People liked it -- really liked it."
There's still a certain amount of luck involved in winning a contest or getting a recording contract. But as the Polkats' Margolis observes, the bands in Baltimore that have gotten ahead "may have gotten lucky, but they were also ready when opportunity knocked."
It may just be a matter of breaks, too. "I have an absolute feeling that you could start a Baltimore thing that would be like Seattle," says Lay. "If Athens, Ga., can do it, if Akron can do it, if Seattle can do it, Baltimore could do it. There's a whole pool of talent sitting there, with nowhere, really, to show their talent."
To hear selections from recent recordings by Love Riot, the Polkats and the Greenberry Woods, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6228 after you hear the greeting.