Hype vs. Reality at the Independent Label Fest

As Leo Lastre and his nine-person crew put in the long days needed to prepare for next weekend’s second annual Independent Label Festival, what they might have hoped would be a unified and supportive scene behind them was nowhere to be found. Many local labels, bands, and industry types are involved, of course. But what one hears from the more self-consciously cutting-edge quarters is carping and criticism. The troubles crystallized when John McFadden, the mischievous March Records chief who goes by the nom de indie “Skippy,” posted a less-than-enthusiastic note on America Online about the prospects for the fest. “Um, Yeah, ILF,” as his message was called, started a week-long internecine Internet battle with Lastre. McFadden, sharp-tongued and articulate, dismissed the fest as an amateur hour. “It’s basically like a big, overblown we’re unsigned please sign us kinda fest,” he wrote–and produced a damning list of local independent labels who weren’t participating.

Lastre lacks McFadden’s flair for invective but responded doggedly, noting that reps from many of those labels had indeed been part of the fest’s first year. In response, McFadden brought out the big guns, crafting long lists of the ILF’s perceived failings and trashing Lastre personally. It’s probable that the exchange turned the perceptions of many to disdain toward the fest in general and Lastre in particular. Is Lastre a bozo? Or is he a doer who’s getting far too much smoke from sideline critics?

Lastre, who’s 24 years old, studied management at Columbia College and worked for the Chicago International Film Festival and the Midwest Music Conference, a sometimes interesting but ultimately desultory affair that ran annually from 1989 to 1991. He says that he’s crafted the ILF to combat some of the MMC’s failings. “The perception, fair or not, was that if Material Issue ended up with a great gig at Metro at 11 PM, it was because the organizers managed them,” Lastre notes. Also, he says, “it was pitched to bands as the NMS of Chicago”–i.e., styled like New York’s New Music Seminar, which is supposed to be a way for unsigned bands to get attention from labels. Lastre says the title of his fest is supposed to keep his event downsized. “We’re a nonprofit corporation,” he says. “Our first purpose is to educate young people in the industry.”

The festival, which runs next Thursday through Saturday, September 29 through October 1, includes three nights of music in local clubs and two days of panels at Columbia College’s Hokin Annex, 623 S. Wabash. At-the-door registration is $75, or you can buy a pass for just the music for $40. For details call 341-9112.

McFadden’s opinions should be respected: he has a demonstrated eye for talent that recently got him an A and R deal with RCA. Right now he is pessimistic about the Chicago scene in general. “I think this is the absolute end of the Chicago hype,” he says, with perhaps just a touch more world-weariness than you’d expect from a 25-year-old. And it’s true that the ILF needs people like him to give it more credibility. (“If he’d approached me last year I think I would have tried to help,” McFadden says.) But he’s unrepentant now: “The fest is a joke, a complete joke,” he says. “Out of all the important Chicago indie labels, none are participating, not one. He never called me once. Never called Touch and Go once.”

The trouble with some of McFadden’s criticism–which is frequently repeated around town–is that it’s wrong. Lastre says that he did call McFadden, and Touch and Go publicist Stacy Conde says that he called that label as well. “He was very accommodating, but we’re not big on seminars,” she says. “I was on a panel last year. I didn’t want to this year, but Leo really hounded me. I would have broken down eventually, but I have to go out of town.”

Hitsville called around and found that Lastre had a lot of his bases covered. Wax Trax’s Bobby Shea said he couldn’t participate last year, but heard good things and will be on a panel for this year’s fest. While the label didn’t want to host a showcase, it did have one band to offer, but logistics interfered. “Considering that it was their first one, they’re doing OK. These things take time,” Shea said. “It’s easy to stand around and pan.”

Another drumbeat of criticism involves Lounge Ax, which isn’t hosting showcases. “We’re not involved with the ILF because it sounded like a terrorist organization,” says booker and co-owner Sue Miller dryly. More seriously, she says Lounge Ax opted out for economic reasons. Typically, conferences sell badges to participants, who are then given carte blanche in the clubs. “We need paying customers to pay the bands,” says Miller. “That’s why we don’t participate. Other clubs can afford to do that. We can’t.” Still, she says that the fest did aggressively pursue the club’s participation, though it didn’t ask her to sit on a panel.

Hitsville thinks Shea’s point is well taken. Lastre isn’t standing around carping: he’s doing the work to put on a conference. It’s possible a more Machiavellian operator than Lastre would have deflected the war with McFadden, would have insured that someone like Miller–who’s important symbolically, besides having worthwhile information to impart to registrants–would be present somehow. Still, an organizer has only so much time for the bigwigs. If they’re being coy, he sooner or later has to figure he’s wasting his time. After this year’s fest, maybe we’ll get to hear less armchair quarterbacking and more reasoned and constructive criticism from actual participants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.