A decade ago, when Ed Van der Kuil got his big break at Undercurrents, Cleveland's annual music fest, he didn't realize that it was his band's spirit that would ultimately be broken.
After performing at the fest, Dink, Van der Kuil's group of Kent electro rockers, signed a deal with Capitol Records. The band had moderate success with its first single, "Green Mind," and its self-titled debut, which sold over 50,000 copies. But the drummer and his bandmates weren't ready for the hassles of hooking up with a major.
"It was all drama," the fortysomething Holland native sighs in a mild Dutch accent, over a beer at Lakewood's Warren Tavern. "It was drama to get the lawyer. Then your lawyer all of a sudden says, 'I don't like your manager.' Then the record company starts saying the singer isn't right. It's really frustrating, and it changes the band. You start getting into these fights, and you never had these fights before."
Dink would record a sophomore album, but Capitol shelved it. The band broke up shortly thereafter, and Van der Kuil returned to Holland.
The fest that launched his band began encountering difficulties as well. Founded in 1990, Undercurrents gained prominence for helping Dink and Pittsburgh's Rusted Root land major-label deals and was a big draw in the mid-'90s. But in recent years, as staff left and bands lost interest, Undercurrents seemed to exist in name only, its showcases drawing little fanfare.
Now Van der Kuil has returned to share his experiences within the music industry and mentor younger bands. Along with festival founder John Latimer and regional director Derek Poindexter (of the bands Plasma and the Tellers), they're attempting to breathe new life into Undercurrents by transforming it from an annual event into something with a year-round presence in the local music scene.
They're off to a solid start. On the second Tuesday of every month, they hold networking sessions, where bands meet one another and learn everything from how to write a press release to what to look for in an entertainment lawyer (for time and location info, go to www.undercurrents.com). They've established sister chapters in cities ranging from Seattle to New York, with the aim of establishing Undercurrents nationally.
Already, they seem to be getting results. "We found a recording studio, spoke to a radio-station director, an attorney -- all in one night," says Jennifer Emmons from the band Peep, who attended a recent Undercurrents networking session at Dreamstate Studios in Akron.
"It's a great way to meet other local artists and make some valuable contacts," adds Bryan Waddell, bassist for the band Donny.Brooke, which also attended the Akron Undercurrents session. "The biggest thing my band has gained is insight into all the legalities of the industry and a way to ask questions about them, if necessary."
Aside from the networking parties, the other aim is to put on a local music fest that doesn't suck -- a tall order in this town. Rather than charge bands to play, make them sell tickets to line the pockets of the promoters, and allow any group with opposable thumbs and a checkbook into the event, Undercurrents is focusing on quality control. There will be a lone showcase event early this summer, in a single location to be determined shortly, says Poindexter. It will feature a few stages and a limited number of bands selected by their talent, not willingness to cough up dough.
"We don't take your money," says Poindexter, who teaches a class on the music business at Cuyahoga Community College. "With the people at the other entities, it ultimately comes down to [bands] having to pay to get in. We've got a monthly event that doesn't cost you anything. Just show up."
While Undercurrents' recent history inspires about as much confidence as a blind crossing guard, the fest's organizers make clear that this is still very much a work in progress.
"At this point, Undercurrents is still in a rebuilding stage," Latimer says. "Whether Undercurrents had a good year or a bad year . . . the concept has always been to help dedicated musicians. I absolutely think that something like this is needed for any regional music scene."
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