What Atlantis and IG shared -- aside from the fact that both were music showcases held at the same time in the same city last weekend -- was a healthy dose of nepotism. Both events were organized by folks who work with bands (as managers, promoters or musicians), and both events featured many acts with close business or personal ties to the organizers. But where this was a point of criticism for one, it was the chief strength of the other.
That Atlantis featured a number of acts with relationships to the conference's organizers is, of course, no big crime. After all, the assumption is that Atlantis folks like these acts -- otherwise they wouldn't be working for/with them. Still, Atlantis sets itself up as a meritocracy, where bands pay an application fee to be impartially considered. Whether real or imagined, having friends and business associates perform diminishes the conference's credibility as a true reflection of the best bands that applied.
In the case of the Atlantis-organized Atlanta Local Music Awards, the credibility problem is far more insidious. The ALMAs position themselves as an official recognition -- by default, the city's own Grammys -- hell, they even got the mayor to present an award. But the preponderance of awards given to acts affiliated with Atlantis (for instance, an award went to Sick Speed, managed by conference founder Mark Willis) turns the awards from a celebration of Atlanta's music into a source of municipal embarrassment. If the winners were tied to Atlantis but at least reflected some consensus of the most popular or respected acts in town, that would be one thing. But while many of the winners are undeniably talented, most don't fit either criteria by a long shot.
Atlantis claims to determine winners by polling members of the local music industry, and evidence suggests that this is absolutely true. But democracy for a limited group is not true democracy. Members of the music industry have their own conflicts of interest, essentially turning the contest into one where the award goes to the act with the most connections to industry folks. That's fine, but then don't call it the Atlanta Local Music Awards. Call it the "Industry-Connected Awards." Then again, who really wants to see that?
That said, the IG Music Art Film festival was molded by an even smaller and more tightly knit cabal of people who have no more right to say they represent the city's music as a whole than the folks at Atlantis do. Fortunately, they never made that claim. Its six principle organizers are tied almost exclusively to the indie-rock scene -- relatively small in the scope of the city's full music offerings -- and their world revolves around the out-of-the-way hipster district, East Atlanta. As musicians, talent bookers, local shop owners and artists (each of them fitting at least two of those descriptions), they're very closely tied to the scene and make no bones about IG being an intimate celebration of their extended network of bandmates, mutual admirers and friends.
Packed in tight at The Earl Saturday to view a short film by local artist R. Land, a key figure in this scene, dozens of artists, musicians and writers huddled on the floor as organizers scrambled to set up the video projector. Sensing how small and tightly knit her scene seemed at that moment, Girl Chris vocalist Yellow Gray leaned over to her roommate, Ultrababyfat's Michelle Dubois, and said, "We are so at Earl High."
But the smallness of IG's world was also its greatest strategic asset. By situating its showcases in one three-block area, it made the thought of club-hopping a whole lot more appealing than Atlantis, which asked audiences to travel between 13 venues -- from Little Five Points to Midtown, Virginia-Highland to downtown -- with virtually no venue within easy walking distance to another. While Atlanta's geography ensures Atlantis could never reproduce the kind of user-friendly showcase frenzy created along 6th Street in Austin each year for South By Southwest, IG's commandeering of East Atlanta suggests the neighborhood's potential to be the center of a major arts festival. Somewhere down the line, that is, if IG builds on its modest success this year.
For IG, building means stronger outreach. While organizers made efforts to include elements of the local hip-hop and electronic music scenes, this year the results were token at best. That's a shame, because as much as IG thrived as a rallying point for indie-rockers, it has great promise to become a meeting point between acts with little social or musical connection -- acts whose point of consensus is their existence as independent artists.
For Atlantis, this year's event also seemed to point toward future growth potential. After having introduced its Urban Symposium a few years back, the conference's focus on black music has grown to where it now dominates the proceedings. Jermaine Dupri and his father/partner, Michael Mauldin, were keynote speakers, and the best-attended showcases I witnessed were happening at the Apache Cafe. As Atlantis seemed to struggle more than ever with ambivalence among the rock scene, it has found some enthusiasm in the urban-music world. To some extent, given the dominance of black music in the city's music industry, this was just an inevitable function of Atlantis finding its true audience.
But it would be a real shame if IG turns out to be the white kids' music festival, while Atlantis develops more and more as the place for black folks. That might make business sense for Atlantis, but for IG -- which does position itself as an artistic endeavor separated from the business concerns of the music industry -- the responsibility remains to live up to its name, as a forum for independent Georgia artists of no specified style or color. When nepotism -- or whatever you want to call people's natural inclination to gravitate toward what they know -- is based around shared ideals rather than social networks, then we'll have something for everyone to celebrate each August. Additional reporting by Jamie Allen,
Lee Smith and Tony Ware.