Xposing One's Self
BY JASON ARBENZ
No doubt one of the greatest thrills in the life of any musician is hearing your own music on the radio for the first time. Whether your band is The Beatles, or Fred and the Water Shortage, it doesn't matter. Everyone starts somewhere. And for musicians in the Cincinnati/Dayton area WOXY (97.7 FM) in Oxford is where we start.
For each of the last 15 years, except 1998, the Modern Rock station has hosted a competition for unsigned local acts, the aptly named 97Xposure contest. Entrants are invited to submit a couple of original songs to be judged on their musical merit and degree of professionalism by the station's staff. The Top 20 qualifiers are then broadcast, constituting the semi-finals, before the Top Six from that group advance to the live performance rounds. The winner emerging from the final play-off can count on a nice prize package, along with the title of champion and its trappings. Of this year's 153 entrants, three remain: Homunculus, Parker Ben Parker, and Ruby Vileos. The finals will be held at Bogart's on Friday.
The 15 years of 97Xposure have seen the contest grow and evolve along a curve that parallels the respective growths of the station and the local music scene. Submissions in the range of 40-50 were the norm early on, and the station had to struggle just to find 20 decent enough to air. That number has climbed above 200 in recent years, and the quality of the songs and the production values combine to make the weeding out process extremely difficult for the panel of judges. Recording technology has become accessible enough so that it is no longer rare for bandmembers to have home studios stocked with various digital recording devices so that almost anyone is capable of making a "radio ready" track.
CD entries make up the vast majority of today's submissions. In 1986, however, the band I played in at the time entered with a cassette we'd recorded live onto a boom-box in our basement. The thrill of hearing that distorted crackle over the airwaves has always stayed with me.
For last year's winners, Simpletons, the whole thing could not have come at a better time. They were in the midst of making their first record, and the prize package eased several steps in that process.
The group won free time at (sponsor) Ultrasuede Studios, which was used to mix down their home-recorded tracks. And the 500-copy pressing of the band's CD helped them propel their cause even further.
"The best thing to come out of it for us, though" says singer Eric Deidrichs, "was exactly what the contest was named for, the exposure, and the support we got from them afterwards."
The band obviously comes out ahead, but the station, by providing the forum, endears itself to the local scene, and curries favor and credibility among the local glitterati. It has taken some time for the prize package to so accurately fill the needs of up-and-coming bands. 1988's winners, Oxford's Love Cowboys, were presented with four black satin "Coors Light" tour jackets.
"Three minutes, right after the announcement" is how much wear the jackets got says Michael Horrigan, Love Cowboys bassist, and current Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers rhythmist. In fairness, the band also won several much-needed microphones.
Brian Lovely, who won with his band, The Secret, in 1994 recalls the "underrated" satisfaction of winning. "It's actually kind of fun to win," he says. "The music community is known for its 'it doesn't matter, it's no big deal' sort of attitude, when really, to receive that acknowledgement feels good."
Top man at 97X, station owner Doug Balogh, is right when he says the two-tiered aspect of the judging process is what makes Xposure unique. The in-studio, on-air portion first, then the show. To get from 200-plus submissions down to the 20 that make it on-air is a difficult, time-consuming chore. Each judge hears each entry, and they try to pick the ones that have "something that reels you in, has a good hook (and) something that starts off well." says Matt Sledge, DJ from 97X.
In other words they look for something that sounds good on the radio, but then the arena shifts, and the finalists are judged on their live performance. A fine system of checks and balances, indeed. But what about the audience at one of these talent shows? If three or five bands each bring their own tribe of supporters, isn't the largest portion of the crowd always going to be rooting against a particular band as it plays? Brian Lovely recalled the '94 final being hugely attended by the partisan following of an un-named Oxford band who loudly booed his performance and subsequent victory announcement, launching F-bombs over the barricade. It is not the crowd who determines the winner, though. That task is handled by a committee of 97X people, record people, and sometimes representatives from the sponsors.
How good has their judgement been? An examination of the list of winners through the years suggests it's been pretty good. The Highwaymen, the inaugural winners back in '85, featured Jimmy Davidson (guitarist, road manager, gear outfitter) and Germantown's Campbell brothers, who went on to Austin stardom as the True Believers. Lizard 99 drummer Pete Riley has stayed in town, drumming with El Gigante, while his band scattered to San Francisco, Seattle and New York. Other years yielded winners that remain forces in the local scene: Dial Viking was a transitional moniker for Roundhead, basically the Cincinnati band of the decade. Bu Bu Clan was huge, and members still groove with the Black Magic Rhythm All-Stars. The Rottweilers sent Ian Sefcick and Sharkey Laguna to San Francisco where they've struck gold with Creeper Lagoon, while the other members have resurfaced with Buckra. Brian Lovely has found a career niche as a record producer, and songwriter/guitarist in the Lagosa Studios camp.
Conspicuous by their absence, however, are some of the larger names to emerge from the area's music scene. No Afghan Whigs, no Brainiac, no Ass Ponys, no Over The Rhine, no Wolvertons, so either the contest format didn't attract these bands' interest, or they participated without winning. Not winning, unfortunately, is what the lion's share of 97Xposure's candidates must eventually face, and Homunculous, Parker Ben Parker, and Ruby Vileos all understand that going into Friday's final.
But someone's got to win too, and maybe that victory will be a stepping stone to propel one band on to great things. I'm sure 97X would love nothing better than to ignite some local's successful career, and with the ever-improving quality of the submissions, that boost would be well-earned. In the end though, it is the opportunity, the exposure that is most valuable. To play on that Bogart's stage for the first time -- not to mention hearing your song on the radio -- is the stuff of dreams. ©