WESTAF is a Denver-based, regional non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion, advancement and preservation of the arts in the West. WESTAF recently launched the Independent Music on Tour (IMTour) program, which offers resources to touring independent musicians and grants to nonprofit organizations to present independent musicians. In its inaugural year, IMTour grants were awarded to the following six Colorado musicians/bands: Ian Cooke, Mane Rock, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, The Changing Colors, Paper Bird, and the Photo Atlas. Read on as we interview Bryce Merrill and Andy Thomas from WESTAF.
Audiovore: Tell me about how the IMTour program came about.
WESTAF: The program came out of research WESTAF conducted in 2008-2009 on the Creative Vitality™ of Denver’s independent music community. The study, Listen Local: Music in the Mile High City, identified the geographic and financial challenges Denver musicians face in touring regionally and proposed the development of a grant-funded program to support independent music touring. WESTAF then convened a Denver Music Task Force consisting of members of Denver’s non-profit and for-profit music sectors, and the Task Force worked together for nearly three years to develop IMTour. Many of the Task Force members were also part of conversations in 2005 to develop a “sister-city” touring program, where bands from, for example, Portland and Denver would trade shows and develop mutually beneficial tour routes. In many ways, IMTour and the work of the Denver Music Task Force represents the cumuluative efforts of many committed supporters of the Denver music scene over a number of years! We are quite happy that IMTour is the result of all of this work and dedication. In future years, we hope to extend the program to include musicians throughout the West and, eventually, the nation.
AV: What kind of musician or band was eligible to apply?
WF: We encouraged musicians of all genres to apply, but we asked that they fit the following criteria: Artists had to be tour-ready, have high artistic merit, be excellent musicians, and have a career trajectory and a plan for growth. Additional information on eligibility and selection criteria is available at http://imtour.org/eligibility.
AV: Who picked the bands?
WF: We had over 60 bands apply to the inaugural year. While WESTAF staff were not involved in the selection, many of us reviewed all of the bands and remarked on the high quality of nearly all of the applicants. We felt like the number and quality of the applicants spoke very highly of the vibrancy of this community. (To say nothing of the volume of bands willing to complete a grant application!) The selection process involved members of the Music Task Force evaluating all 60 artists on how well they fit the program. The evaluators then ranked the top 20 bands, in no hierarchy (e.g. the evaluators were asked simply to identify the best 20 of the 60 bands). A national panel of music industry experts–including Erick Carer of Uncle Booking, Craig Grossman and David Priebe of Green Room Music Source, and Stefan Goldby, Executive Producer at Buzzine Networks–were given 1) materials for all sixty applicants and 2) the Task Force panelists top 20 recommendations. The national panel then were asked to recommend their top five picks. There was a great deal of consensus among the national panelists, but we ended up with a list of six instead of five! Rather than extend another round of review, we opted to include all six bands, as they represented musical and professional excellence and musical diversity.
AV: How does the IMTour program benefit bands?
WF: The primary focus of the program is to support independent musicians and nonprofit presenters in the West. This year, Colorado musicians are benefited by receiving opportunities to perform for new venues and audiences for artistic fees that are higher than those to which they are typically accustomed. IMTour also provides technical support to the bands in the form of merchandise support, booking, and public relations work for a tour. In this way, IMTour helps to strengthen music infrastructure. IMTour is dedicated to building a solid foundation for independent music and nonprofit presenting that is comprised of like-minded businesses, innovative nonprofits, and individuals with a commitment to support musical vitality.
AV: What is required of the selected musicians?
WF: The selected musicians have to book a tour within 18 months of being selected into the program. Along this route, the bands will stop at a minimum of two presenting nonprofits. Some venues may ask the musicians to take part in a community outreach program, engaging a different group from their community.
WESTAF will also convene these bands monthly (starting in November 2012) in order to engage in professional development activities and to help the bands acclimate to the nonprofit presenting world. IMTour is much more than a grant to help bands tour. The program is really focused on professionalizing a community of musicians that achieve high levels of artistic vibrancy but often lack the business and professional acumen to sustain musical careers. In contrast, the nonprofit presenting world is very robust in terms of professional and business infrastructure and does more than the commercial sector to nurture and grow musicians and community. Our hope is that participants in IMTour will develop the skills and contacts needed to flourish in both the non-profit and for-profit presenting worlds.
AV: What kind of nonprofits are the bands paired with?
WF: The venues where the bands will be presented will be very diverse, as will the crowds and communities. The shows range from massive outdoor music festivals to quiet, community-driven performances at libraries. Because we have such a diverse roster of bands, we will work with the presenters to make sure that each performer is paired with a show and venue that makes sense for them.
City of Kent (WA) is bringing in an IMTour artist to perform at their “Thursday on the Lake” series–an outdoor music festival at the shore of Lake Meridian Park. The City of Las Vegas is presenting their Arts Connection Program, which travels throughout the city presenting accessible cultural experiences in different neighborhoods. Churchill Arts (NV) is planning their annual “Tractors and Truffles” event, and we’re not exactly sure what it entails, but it sounds like a great fit for Paper Bird.
AV: Have any bands already toured with the support of IMTour, and if so, how have they fared?
WF: So far, the only show that has occurred has been Ian Cooke traveling to Evanston, WY to play for the organization Young Musicians, Inc. Ian said the show was filled with an attentive and interested crowd. Most of the tours will be scheduled for late spring and summer 2013.
Moving forward we hope to document exactly how these shows go by offering up blogs, videos, and other content created by the bands, hopefully encouraging fellow musicians to take place in this groundbreaking program. Stay tuned to the IMTour website for regular updates from the bands!
AV: Will this program run in future years?
AV: What has been the most challenging part in organizing this program?
WF: We really prepared ourselves for both nonprofit presenters and indie bands to approach the program with a lot of skepticism. We imagined bands like Photo Atlas balking at playing a small nonprofit arts organization in Whitefish, Montana; we also imagined that same organization questioning the sanity of our suggestion that the Photo Atlas would be a good fit for Whitefish! But we couldn’t have been more wrong. The most surprising part of this program is how open both sides have been to the idea. We’ve met big indie bands touring out east that have asked how they can get involved in our program. (Sorry, it’s a Western thing for now!) Of course, many of the local bands we’ve discussed the project with couldn’t be more supportive. In addition, at two of the major conferences for nonprofit presenters in the West-–Arts Northwest and the Western Arts Alliance–IMTour has been the hot topic of conversation. At this point, the challenge is growing and sustaining the program to match the enthusiasm for it! We have no doubt that we could launch an IMTour program in every state, if we had the resources. Anybody want to give us money to franchise IMTour? We kid. We kid.