This is a rather long introduction to the video below in which Lou Reed verbally pistol whips a founding member of the New Music Seminar. Reed’s disdain for NMS is something I shared at the time…still do. Here’s some reasons why from somebody in the thick of it:
In the early 1980s, New Music Seminar may have actually provided an alternative to the established music industry but it quickly degenerated into a case of the new boss being the same as the old boss. I participated in the seminar as a member of a band that played NMS (1985) and later as a music booker. I eventually severed ties with them because I was starting to see that the whole damned thing was becoming more and more about the greed side of the business and less and less about the bands and the music. When NMS started forcing venues to hang banners above their stages advertising Newport cigarettes, I knew there was bad karma brewing.
What I saw were musicians travelling from all over the world to perform at NMS and getting little out of it. On the other hand, NMS was profiting from membership fees, ticket sales, booth rentals, corporate sponsorships and an entry charge from the bands themselves - which only guaranteed musicians that someone would listen to your demo tape, not a slot at the fest. If you were one of the lucky ones and got an NMS showcase, you’d more than likely never get paid. In many cases, you’d be lucky to even be seen - lucky to be playing some hole-in-the-wall while the masses of seminar-goers were attending some blue chip act’s gig at The Ritz or Danceteria.
The whole thing had the stink of a scam. Thousands of bands were sending checks ($50?) to NMS just to have a shot at appearing at the seminar. Do the math. This was a highly lucrative way for NMS to make money without really having to do much of anything. I saw how the process worked first hand: In a loft on Lower Broadway, a group of NMS flunkies would sit around a table with a boombox and a large pile of envelopes in front of them. They’d tear open the envelopes and separate demo tapes from checks. They’d slip the tapes into the boomboxes, play a few seconds of music and wait until someone would shout out “garbage.” The cassette tape would then be thrown into the trash. This would go on for days. Checks would pile up as tapes would be tossed out. For the most part, the people making these decisions were volunteers who had little grasp of the music they were listening to. On the day I was privy to this cold-hearted and unprofessional process, it was being overseen by someone mentioned in the video below. An organization supposedly in the business of promoting new music was being run by people who seemed to hate it. It made me sick. So much so that I pulled my music venues from the seminar and wrote a lengthy letter to the Village Voice describing what I’d seen. The letter was published in column form and the unexpected result was that it instantly established me as the go-to guy for bands who wanted to avoid the bureaucratic bullshit of NMS. I wasn’t looking for the gig, but I took it. I booked several venues unaffiliated with NMS for the duration of the seminar. The bands got some exposure and collectively we sent a big “fuck you” to NMS. In addition, the bands were paid in money, drink and food.
There’s something about the music industry that kills the best intentions. Big corporations driven by money eventually reduce everything to product. The indie music business was in many ways worse. Because they generally had no money, they were more inclined to bend to the will of the marketplace and sell their souls in order to survive. I’ve experienced both sides and the only money I made from music was from big corporations. The only time I ever really felt ripped off was when I was never paid for records sold by indie labels.
RCA, CBS, NMS, SXSW…essentially it’s all the same.
Reed interviews NMS co-founder Mark Josephson on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in 1986, the year before I cut my ties to NMS.