It was near the end of my first band battle of the weekend when a woman tapped my shoulder. I turned away from the group on stage at the Hard Rock Cafe, a four-piece that was executing an impressive take on the late-'90s last gasp of grunge.
“Is this a competition or something?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “It’s a battle of the bands. Four bands are competing to go on to the next round.”
“Oh, I see” she replied. She looked at the scoring sheet in front of me. "Are you judging them?"
“Are you a musician?”
“Then how do you know how to judge them for their musicianship?”
This is a good question. My answer was unsatisfying, something akin to “because I’ve been judging musicians for a dozen years already and for some reason they are just letting me continue.” I must have come off as defensive, or defeated, so she reversed course. “Oh, I’m sorry. I really wouldn’t know. I’m just a doctor.” Thanks, lady.
For those of us who choose to make a living in or around the world of musical entertainment, the band battle has become a part of the job. They are everywhere, especially right now. The months between the holiday rush and the festival glut has unofficially become battle season.
Last weekend there were at least three taking place in Seattle alone. Friday night I was at the Hard Rock Café judging the Hard Rock Rising competition, which featured four bands vying for the right to represent Seattle in a worldwide competition that ends with one unknown group opening for Bruce Springsteen in London later this year. On Saturday night, I was at the EMP|SFM Museum judging the finals of the Sound Off!, the much-loved 11-year-old competition for musicians under 21 years old where the winner earns entry into a pantheon that includes past winners like the Lonely Forest and the Globes.
At the EMP, I was joined in the judges’ corner by Andrew Hanigan Eckes, the bearded banjo player for folk ensemble Campfire OK.
“Is anyone else from the band coming,” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “The rest of my band is judging another battle of the bands over at Seattle University tonight.”
The question of whether music should be a competitive sport seems to now be settled. It resides alongside the question about whether musicians should lend their music to advertisers. In an era of uncertainty in the music industry, anything that attracts eyeballs, ears and possibly cash receives automatic validity from most quarters. So, when television competitions like American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice have introduced unknown acts with actual talent giving their all to an invested international audience of tens of millions, that answer to that question for artists and audiences of all stripes is, “yes, of course.”
And so I witnessed four bands of earnest young performers take the stage at the EMP and play for a throng of teenaged music fans and judgemental music industry veterans who had pocketed their cynicism for the night. When the event’s winner was announced, the reaction was heartswelling. The band, Nude, graciously accepted the honor in disbelief as the crowd of a couple hundred roared. This despite the fact that the band was from Spokane and did not arrive with a fanbase in tow. Not only did Nude win the competition with its endearing and intricate make-out pop, it also won a new audience, many of whom had arrived to support one of the evening's other, talented acts.
Back at the Hard Rock the night before, a 25-year-old woman named Whitney Monge took the stage with only her acoustic guitar. A busker who had been playing Pike Place Market for three years, she apologized for not bringing a band with her and then began strumming the opening chords of an original song called “Crash.”
““You’d give anything, just to be on the radio or a TV screen,” she sang with a soulful sandpapered voice pleasingly roughed at the edges from years of barking her pop songs on street corners. "The American idol, the American dream. Oh and one day, one day, you’ll be free.”
She won. It was a moment made for TV.
Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him about it. You can also follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Nude at the Sound Off! 2012 finals by Brady Harvey
Video of Nude from the Sound Off! 2012 preliminaries: