New Chicago music conference hopes to rival SXSW
by Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic
Posted on Tuesday, May 11, 2004

If Chicago promoted its music scene the way it did its fiberglass cows, life as a musician here would become a lot easier.

That's the thinking behind the Musician Education and Career Advancement Conference, a four-day event that kicks off Wednesday and is expected to run annually. The hope is it'll one day rival the two main music industry shindigs, South By Southwest in Austin and CMJ in New York City.

"We thought the Midwest really needed it," said co-founder Kevin Morrissey. "There are an awful lot of musicians in the Midwest and these bands have to spend a fortune to hop a plane to go to Austin."

Music conferences have become a popular way to market new bands in recent years. At South By Southwest, the oldest and most prestigious conference in its 19th year, Austin clubs are inundated with baby bands looking for label attention and also veterans trying to jump-start their careers.

This spring, about 1,300 bands performed showcases in four days to an industry crowd of just over 8,000. Although SXSW has its roots in working with independent artists, the conference lately has been overrun with major-label showcases aimed at hyping new bands to press outlets from all around the world. Norah Jones, Beck and Hanson are just a handful of artists that got their starts by playing SXSW showcases.

Morrissey, 34, of Des Plaines, said MECA is an outgrowth of chicagogigs.com, a Web site he and his sister Kathy launched in 1999 to promote the Chicago music scene. After graduating from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Morrissey worked as a drummer around town but decided to hang up his drumsticks to dedicate his time to the site. Kathy, who holds an MBA in statistics from the University of Chicago and lives in Barrington, helped and soon they saw a need for a conference to match the volume of bands they were promoting.

Two investors signed on soon afterward and suddenly the siblings faced the tumultuous task of convincing venues, advertisers, media outlets and musicians they were legitimate.

"Obviously we feel that if the first year doesn't turn a substantial profit, there has been enough interest from potential attendees and advertisers ... to hang on to the long term," he said. "We're probably going to have to prove its value."

So far, the conference is far more ambitious than MOBfest and International Pop Overthrow, two smaller festivals that are smaller and traditionally unorganized. MECA, on the other hand, is boasting 250 showcases by bands from Chicago and from out of state booked in 18 venues ranging from the Double Door to the Abbey Pub. Daytime panel discussions and workshops will take place at the Congress Plaza Hotel.

Most of the shows are concentrated in Wrigleyville and Wicker Park so fans can easily walk from club to club. "I've had conversations with people going to CMJ who went broke just with cabfare," he said, laughing.

Morrissey said he handpicked panelists who impressed him at SXSW and CMJ. "Our first goal right out of the box was to have credible panelists," he said. "You have to convince people you have a vision."

Among the panelists are Jason Jordan, vice president of A&R for Hollywood Records, Bryan Leach, vice president of A&R for TVT Records, Jim Welch, vice president of A&R for Arista Records and Eric Beall, vice president of A&R of Sony Music. "We have a fantastic industry turnout. I put our A&R panel against anybody's any day of the week. We have the decision-makers. They are excited about checking out the bands," he said. All panelists received free air fare and hotel to attend.

So far, Morrissey said about 1,000 attendees have signed up. Anyone can attend a showcase by paying a cover at the club but day passes to all events are available via the conference Web site, mecaconference.com.

With the recent surge of Chicagoans like Kanye West, Twista, Fallout Boy, OK Go and Mest, Chicago steadily has risen in the national spotlight, which is something the city deserves. "I found the scene made me want to stay in Chicago. I just didn't see a need to go anywhere else. People may say 'move to L.A. or Nashville or New York,' but it just didn't seem necessary," Morrissey said. "Bands are signed out in Chicago all the time. It just doesn't make a lot of noise."

GRAPHIC: MECA Music Conference

Where: Congress Plaza Hotel and Conference Center, 520 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Tickets: Prices vary for shows and conference events. Visit mecaconference.com.

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