(Launched by the Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002, the EMP Pop Conference is designed to convene academics, critics, artists, and fans in a collective discussion. This year's EMP Pop Conference took place April 17-21 in Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York.)
By Nikki Delamotte
The very opinionated public notions about how we should preserve and honor the roots of pop culture are a reality the staff of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces every day. In the museum's inaugural hosting of the Cleveland installment of the EMP Pop Conference April 19–20, scholars and fans gathered to discuss, debate and sometimes dismantle how we curate the popular music standard and its potential to shape a city.
It was a weekend spent tracing the way we retell the stories of songs that have transcended generations and the uncertain future of the digital age. That means deconstructing the use of Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" to teach social force or tracking the evolution of blues from Muddy Waters to Adele, explained Rock Hall education instructor Kathryn Metz, and examining how Pandora recommendations, dueling online blogs and YouTube comments influence our tastes. And with the advent of a digital age, the floodgates of information have been opened to both rock archivists and casual consumers.
"We're not just going to preserve things in a dark room forever," said newly appointed Rock Hall President/CEO Greg Harris. "We want to make things accessible so you can take it further, beyond what we're doing."
Within the walls of the Rock Hall's recently established Library & Archives where the conference began with a tour, boxes of documents from the files of eminent punk label Kill Rock Stars share shelf space with those of Elvis Presley and indie 'zines sit snugly near vintage issues of Rolling Stone.
"The garage where people play music — the fan 'zine, the club, the street corner — those spaces of subculture have always existed in relationship to official institutions," said Northwestern University faculty member Michael J. Kramer, "and I think we can continue in our teaching to help our students think about those relationships without posing them against each other."
The archives may have complete series of festival posters from opposing coasts, but it also claims ownership to the contracts from the first Cleveland appearances of GRAMMY winners the Black Keys and the White Stripes at the nearby 150-capacity Beachland Ballroom.
"We've always been about taking risks on bands and hoping they grow with you," explained Beachland Ballroom founder Cindy Barber on Record Store Day, April 20. "We try to be a catalyst to show what our city is all about."
The historic venue is an anchor of North Collinwood, an emerging post-industrial home to renowned indie record stores Music Saves and Blue Arrow Records and a testament to the music community's impact on revitalization. To many Saturday was not only a national holiday but a celebration of locally owned labors of love that are inarguably pop's pioneer educators and continue to be its greatest curators.
Late into the night, conferencegoers were invited to Happy Dog, a musical landmark of the bourgeoning Gordon Square Arts District. Each attendee was given a mixtape by compiled Happy Dog staff featuring the night's performers, including openers Little Bighorn and Dead Sweaters, the latter a fledgling low-fi garage band discovered when a demo was left behind in the car of the co-founder of nearby DIY recording studio Bad Racket.
On the low-lying stage, local power-pop heroes Herzog ripped through "Rock And Roll Monster," a song that playfully chants, "Rock and roll will make you a monster." But lyricist Tony Vorell's role in the community is considerably less scary: he's known to moonlight as a volunteer with non-profit Ohio City Writers, teaching songwriting workshops to city youth. Last July, the band played the Rock Hall's Summer in the City series, a season-long outdoor event that pairs rising acts with area musicians and has become a who's-who of local music.
When looking toward the future of how pop culture will shape our lives, the EMP Pop Conference didn't lose sight of the fact that there are answers in the books and in the museums, as well as in the streets. The conference also underscored that sometimes the most defining music experiences are the least expected and no amount of academia can prepare you for them, and above all, by bringing the conference to a regional level, that music still has the possibility to shake up the neighborhood.
(Nikki Delamotte is a Cleveland-based writer who regularly contributes content to the region's leading festivals and is head writer of the arts and entertainment blog Cellar Door Cleveland.)