Better left unsaid?

NARAS panel yields reality check, but no overnight sensations

The local branch of NARAS — the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, best known as the folks who put on the Grammy Awards — held an R&B/hip-hop seminar recently, an all-too-rare foray into the black music community for such a mainstream organization (hats off to new executive director Michele Rhea Caplinger). The seminar featured some of the local scene's finest: V103's program director Tony Brown; Shakir Stewart, VP of Creative Affairs for music publishers Hitco; Grammy-winning producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs; Kim Smith of Dallas Austin's Darp production cmpany; and Groovefactor/Noontime producer Teddy Bishop. Organized Noize-maker Rico Wade was the moderator.
No doubt many attendees thought the seminar was wonderful. For me, it was OK. No reflection on the concept, the panelists or the organizers. It's just that when you've been to a zillion of these things, they become kind of predictable and, too often, boring. You can actually guess what the questions and answers will be before they're uttered:
Audience member: "I'm an aspiring rapper and I sent you my demo about three years ago, but I never heard from you. Did you receive it?"
Panelist: "Uh, I'm sure I did. But I receive so many submissions every day. Holler at me after the seminar."
Audience member: "I'm an aspiring songwriter and I've got this song that I think would be perfect for Toni Braxton. How can I get it to her?"
Panelist: "Uh, I might be able to help you out. Holler at me after the seminar."
And so it goes. But what if they said what they really think? That would be interesting:
Audience member: "I sent you a copy of my demo every month for the past three years. Last time I saw you, you told me to call your office but you never come to the phone and you don't return phone calls or respond to pages. I have a demo with me now and you're gonna listen to it before you leave or else."
Panelist: "Your demo? It's probably in that box in my garage next to my weight-lifting bench and all the other stuff I've been meaning to get around to. I wonder how she got my pager number?"
Even if that's not what they're really thinking, you gotta wonder if panelists leave these types of events feeling they've truly helped someone, or if they've simply spent two hours reminding everyone how wonderful they are. You gotta wonder if audience members leave feeling they actually gained something other than a few words of advice, or if they ever go out and apply what they've learned. Many folks don't view these seminars as an opportunity to gain advice, but rather as a chance to get hooked up and turned into stars. Sure, it could happen. But did it happen at the NARAS seminar? Don't count on it.
My favorite exchange of the evening occurred when a young man stood up and, addressing She'kspere, pitched himself as a songwriter, topping it off with, "Oh, by the way, I have a demo in my bag." Visibly unimpressed, She'kspere explained that his first commitment is to those who have been down with him since the days before four-year-old girls knew what a scrub was. Polite but candid, he basically told the audience they didn't stand a chance of working with him until he has looked out for his crew. I always liked Ske'kspere for his refined, gentlemanly, down-to-earth manner, and now I respect him for his honesty as well.
She'kspere also sent out fair warning to those inclined to accost him in public places in an effort to get heard. In a word: don't. From the grumbling I heard nearby, some audience members didn't like his attitude. But that's not surprising. Some folks think that when a black artist makes it, he owes something to every black person in the world with a song to sing; that he has a duty to stop in the middle of dinner to indulge every mother who thinks her child is the next Brandy.
Folks look at artists as public figures, but I don't. I look at them simply as artists, and I see their relationships with fans as an even exchange: both give, both get, the end.
There were some other interesting moments: Kim Smith explained how DARP uses ISDN lines to do mixes for an artist in Japan; and none of the panelists say they've faced any real racism in the industry. And Tony Brown, when asked how to get a record played on the radio, advised producers to just bring him the hits. OK, but when does a song become a hit, before or after V103 plays it? But that's another issue for another time.
I hope NARAS will do more urban events and if they do, I'd like to cast my vote for Rico Wade to moderate each one. Quick and smart, he's fun to listen to and watch. And who knows, maybe if I attend another zillion of these things, the audience and panelists will start saying what they're really thinking. Or else maybe I will.