During the summer months, Josh Rifkind barely sleeps. Instead, he listens to hundreds of songs by hundreds of artists, in order to whittle the number of acts performing at his six-day, single-elimination tournament -- Open Mic Madness -- down to about 150.
When he's not planning this event, he's hosting weekly open mics and fronting his band/comedy troupe, Lithp. He sees himself as a born leader, but, to the outside observer, he's more like a mad scientist.
Attempting conversation with Rifkind about Open Mic Madness is like peering into a open, running blender. Assuming a frantic speech pattern, he seemingly spews thousands of thoughts per minute, ranging from the tournament's conception, to his behavior while serving as emcee, to his reaction at the event's conclusion.
"I wanted to do something big, something fun," Rifkind says. "Basically, it was just like, 'OK, 128 bands, music tournament, one week, 48 bands a night.' And then I was like, 'Oh shit, how is that going to happen?'"
Rifkind begins planning his event in May. He chose Smith's as the setting because of its high stage, sound quality and its established reputation as a Southeastern concert venue. He gets sponsors, a Web designer, gear, judges and does his own PR; he essentially works himself into a solid dementia for showtime.
"I didn't sleep literally the entire week of the tournament," Rifkind says of last year's inaugural event. "I was having dreams -- even the two hours I slept a night -- of the bands that had been performing the night before. I was waking up and I was having dreams of the person or that band being on stage. It was really surreal."
Last year's winner, Athens-based singer/songwriter Bain Mattox, remembers Rifkind on edge throughout the tournament. Usually, a brilliant conversationalist and networker, Rifkind eschewed with small talk, chasing every last detail and making sure everyone knew the tournament ran on his schedule.
"People would go up to him and be like, 'Hey, I won tonight, but can I get a later spot because I have to work 'til 8?' And he just turns around and says, 'Don't fuck me,'" Mattox recalls. "Over and over again. ... It was his catch phrase for the whole week."
Still, Mattox can thank Rifkind's vision for his sudden stream of success after winning last year's Open Mic Madness -- he has since signed with management, played on the Rock Boat and heads a quartet that bears his name. After all the complaining about the meager opportunities afforded by Atlantis, Rifkind's little baby may be launching careers.
"I mean, it totally changed my life," Mattox says. "I was struggling for a while and then suddenly I just kinda entered this contest. And then I ended up winning it, and got to be on some really awesome tours with Sister Hazel and Jump, Little Children. [Performing for] 2,500 people at the House of Blues in Orlando -- I would have never done that on my own without the recognition from this, so it's been awesome."
To Rifkind's credit, the best part about the whole event is not the prizes, the booze or even the chance to convert new legions of fans, but rather the camaraderie between the performers. Rifkind recalls attending a party thrown soon after last year's tournament, where he saw several bands he introduced at the competition hanging out.
Mattox also mentions developing strong relationships with other contestants -- the members of local acts Y.O.U. and Trances Arc. "When I won, I got off stage and everybody that I went up against -- and everybody that I didn't go up against -- all came up to me and hugged me and said, 'Congrats.' It was very warming."
Rifkind remembers Mattox's triumph fondly, too, both as a moment of happiness for a superior competitor, and of pride for his own efforts. "I do all this because I love when things feel like it's not going to come together and then it does," he says. "It's cathartic. I kid you not, when Bain won, when he played his final song, I was in tears, dude. I totally lost it."
Then after picking himself back up and drying off, Rifkind slept through most of September.