Hello, outlying areas!

Nadine’s Wild Weekend, the giant late summer San Francisco rock ’n’ roll blowout, has its eye on Sacramento

Everybody wants to be a star.

Well, not really. Some of us are content to sit back in our easy chairs, remote firmly in hand, cycling through the channels. Look, there’s Ed McMahon introducing some Mariah Carey wannabe, whose melismatic voice is flopping around like that striped bass a fisherman on the Outdoor Life Channel just hooked and pulled into his boat! And there’s an earnest young Creed-like band, whose singer looks and sounds like a third-generation Scott Stapp intently trying to suppress a post-falafel methane blowout!

While the entertainment industry’s search for new talent can be likened, metaphorically, to the all-seeing Eye of Sauron gazing hungrily across Middle Earth, searching for a certain band of gold in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga, the reality is that, in recent years, showbiz has been hawking reasonable facsimiles of the One Ring of Power under the table—for anyone who has the cash.

In fact, the entire star-making process has been demystified. For example, send $49.95 to subscribe to InsideSessions, and you’ll receive a CD-ROM and Internet access to “From Demo to Deal,” a curriculum that promises step-by-step instructions on how to break into the music business and the opportunity to submit your demo recording to the Universal Music Group, which happens to own InsideSessions. An additional $49.95 promises “return feedback” from a “Universal A&R exec.” (Dunno about you, but for just under $100, the words “you suck!” hastily scrawled on a cocktail napkin by Fred Durst, whose mug graces the InsideSessions.com homepage, sounds like a real bargain.) To be fair, Universal is offering information and a service, for a price, that some musicians might find useful; other companies, such as StarPolish and Tonos, offer similar programs.

Another route up the ladder for the aspiring musician is the regional music conference. The granddaddy of these is the South by Southwest festival, which takes place every March in Austin, Texas. Its success has spawned imitators around the country, each of them promising to expose fame-hungry bands to whatever record-company executives with signing power the conference can lure to a nearby Four Seasons Hotel bar. So, by day, bleary-eyed band members pack into convention-center rooms and listen to oversized egos drone on, either giving the “how to make your major-label contract experience feel like a mildly unpleasant sexual liaison instead of brutal gang rape” lecture or retelling, once more, the Horatio Alger-like saga of how Ani DiFranco made it without any help from The Man—and how you can do it, too! And by night, everyone hits the bars, music gets played, people get hammered, some of them get laid and a few of them even get record deals.

Two guys from Slow Lorries. Social life: solitary, nocturnal foragers. Diet: mainly fruit, with occasional insects and bird eggs.

If there’s a flaw in the formula, it’s that with all the partying by night, forcing people to drag themselves out of bed for seminars constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Which brings up Nadine’s Wild Weekend. Three summers ago in August, Nadine Condon, who among other things had run Jefferson Starship’s business affairs in San Francisco, revived the regional conference idea in that city. Condon had watched two other longtime movers in San Francisco’s music scene, Bonnie Simmons and Queenie Taylor, attempt to establish the SXSW formula there from 1994-96. Their conference, called SFO, never quite acquired the cachet of Austin’s spring break. So Condon stripped away the seminar component, and what was left was a glorified pub crawl—70 bands at seven venues, over two and a half days.

Her motivation? “Part of it is to show the public that we have talent, to show the industry that we have viable talent,” Condon the veteran publicist admits. But she also saw a side benefit to all the schmoozing in overdrive that takes place at these things: “Show bands to each other,” she says, “so they know that there are like-minded people doing the same thing. When you get all these people talking, that makes good business happen and gives careers a positive boost.”

By last year’s Nadine’s Wild Weekend, the event had grown—135 bands at 20 venues, over four days, with the help of co-producers Jocelyn Kane and Caroline Rustigian. Of course, there’s a downside to that kind of success; while you might be able to find 135 bands in San Francisco, Oakland and nearby, finding 135 good bands—at least good enough to convince record-company executives to hop on airplanes and abuse their expense accounts to come see and possibly sign them—presents a quality-control problem.

Condon’s solution was to enlarge her frame of reference. “Each year that I do [Wild Weekend], I get more bands contacting me from the outlying areas,” she says, alluding to locales in Northern California that bring knowing sneers to the faces of some of Condon’s more pretentious San Francisco compatriots. Places like Sacramento. “The last couple of years,” she continues, “there’s been such a movement of bands coming out of outlying areas, and with bands from San Francisco wanting to play in outlying areas, that I keep extending [the Weekend’s parameters] to all of Northern California. These regional shows are really a way to reach out to them, to say, ‘we’re doing this, and we want you to get involved.’ “

The Wild Weekend won’t be happening until August 22-24, and bands can still sign up at the Web site (nadineswildweekend.com, then click “apply”) through June 15. Condon will be promoting her enlarged frame of reference at one-night showcases in San Jose, Modesto and Sacramento. The local event, dubbed “Nadine’s Wild Night,” takes place this Thursday, May 2, at Old Ironsides, with four bands on the bill: Victory Gin, Slow Lorries, Las Pesadillas and Forever Goldrush.

Las Pesadillas, whose name does not translate as “a good night’s sleep.”

Adam Dickey, drummer and co-manager for Victory Gin, knew about the Wild Weekend through co-organizer Jocelyn Kane, who books the Voodoo Lounge, the San Francisco Mission district club where his band sometimes appears. When Kane told Dickey she was putting together a local showcase, Dickey recommended Slow Lorries. “We always have a really good time when those guys play with us,” he says.

Dickey, whose band plays eight to 10 shows a month, with most of those outside of the Sacramento area, epitomizes the kind of working musician who thinks hard about what it will take to move his band’s interests forward. “Unless you have some visual presentation that’s always changing, you burn your market out,” he says of playing the same clubs night after night. “While we really believe that a live performance will carry you further than anything, it’s a lot more fun to play one show for two or three hundred people than to play four shows for 50 people.”

And those calculations work even better if some of that crowd of 200 are employed by record companies. But Bonnie Simmons, the longtime Bay Area rock-radio fixture and former manager of local band Cake who co-organized the SFO conference, offers words of caution. “I didn’t want to ever cross the border of having people believe that the streets would be full of A&R people with record contracts in their pockets,” she says of her convention. “Playing at these showcases is not inherently a bad thing, but that it’s all just part of a process.”

Nevertheless, Simmons thinks that if an area band wants to get a label deal, the kind of critical mass offered by these conferences can increase a band’s chances. “Northern California is less convenient than being in Southern California,” she explains, “so it causes us to be a bit of a backwater as far as people coming to see groups. And if you have a hundred bands, it’s more likely that you’re going to be able to entice people up here.”

Condon knows that what she’s promoting won’t necessarily pave anyone’s route to the top of the charts. She may make a living as a motivational speaker—her Web site (nadinecondon.com) offers seminars and mentoring to musicians, along with information on another passion of hers, hospice care—and she’s writing a book for musicians that she says will spell out the balance that needs to be struck between art and commerce. But she’s seen how the consolidation that has occurred at all levels of corporate activity, but specifically in radio, with such companies as Clear Channel and Viacom/Infinity dominating the airwaves, and records, with five major-label consortiums owning the lion’s share of CD sales, has made the aspiring musician’s chances to get noticed that much harder.

“Musicians need to realize that in one way, in today’s marketplace, they have to be career savvy,” Condon concludes. “But if they’re not called to it, as a passion, then all the market savvy in the world is not going to give you a leg up on writing good music. Because the bottom line is, the music’s got to be there.”

And if it is, and if the record-company weasels show up and the expense-account wine is flowing, an up-and-coming band may not need the likes of homeland security pitchman Ed McMahon touting its virtues.