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Going Underground: Denver’s Indie Music Festival Wrestles with Corporate Ties

When you call your event an "Underground Music Showcase"—the title of Denver's 14-year-old local music festival—are you obligated to adhere to all the weird rules and intricate politics of indie culture, no matter how big you get?

Denver band Blue Rider performing at a house show unconnected with the Underground Music Showcase. All photos by Glenn Ross

If you want your money
Better stand in the line
'Cause you'll only end up
Picking up nickels and dimes
-The Kinks, "Powerman"

Who owns a community music festival? The sponsors, the organizers, the ticket-holders, or the bands? And when you call your event an "Underground Music Showcase"—the title of Denver's 14-year-old local music festival—are you obligated to adhere to all the weird rules and intricate politics of indie culture, no matter how big you get?

My city's beloved Underground Music Showcase began in the early years of George W. Bush's first term, back when Denver looked more like Detroit than San Francisco, and smoking marijuana could still land you in prison. In the eyes of the world, the Denver indie-music scene was little more than a footnote in a Neutral Milk Hotel biography; this was before DeVotchKa recorded the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack and Elvis Costello was Tweeting about Esme Patterson. Back then, the UMS hosted only a few bands and a couple hundred people. It was a modest affair co-founded by the Denver Post's music editor, Ricardo Baca.

After Baca and others moved the festival into the various bars, clubs and shops along Denver's Broadway Avenue, the event swelled in size, bringing in armies of musicians and drunken revelers to the rapidly Brooklyn-izing neighborhood. It was the show every band worked toward and every fan's summer lead up to. "I'd always modeled The UMS as a mini-South by Southwest," says Baca, who has gained some national fame as the Post's first marijuana editor.

After expanding into multiple days encompassing hundreds of bands, the newspaper took control of the event, removing Baca and replacing him with corporate-finance man Kendall Smith. This year, severe cuts in payments to bands led some musicians to boycott the event, either publicly or quietly. They coalesced around alternative neighborhood shows and parties that don't require a UMS bracelet. A clear narrative had formed: the corpulent capitalists were feeding off the workingman's art, but the proles wouldn't stand for it.

But the reality was much, much more complicated.

"As far as the business end of it, when you're in a band, all you are is just a beer salesman," Aaron Collins says to me on Thursday, nursing a 10 am mimosa at Sputnik bar, one of dozens of UMS venues along Broadway Avenue. His band, A. Tom Collins, is a top-billing local group for the festival (which begins seven hours from the time of our chat, hence the roaring of alcoholic engines), yet were offered a fraction of the payment this year compared to the year before.

One of the many alternative house shows going on in Denver's Baker neighborhood during UMS

Getting musicians to open up about money is like getting your grandmother to talk about sex: there are things that could be said, but etiquette prevents you from feeling comfortable saying them. Collins notes that his band could be making a lot more money playing the same venue outside of UMS, but also quickly adds: "I don't deal with the money. It would make me more jaded than I already am. I've been in bands since I was 13, and I just assume we're gonna get fucked. The music industry is built off of fucking the artists."

Despite the economic shifts, the underground in UMS was stronger than ever this year.

Located only one block from Broadway Avenue, my house exists within the trenches of this four-day festival, where booze is absorbed like oxygen and sweat stains are most definitely in fashion. Four days, four hundred bands, and enough marijuana to stuff God's pillowcase—UMS is a marathon of the senses. Unlike being corralled into zoo-like conditions for Lollapalooza in Chicago or Coachella in California, this grand bacchanal is within my urban backyard, affording my neighbors and I the decedent opportunity to have melodies tumble into our ears as we traverse the sidewalk to buy more cigarettes.  

Many who don't live nearby set up residence for the weekend at various non-stop house parties, which sprout all over the neighborhood throughout the festival, featuring live music at all hours of the night. The Baker neighborhood becomes a networking orgy, a landmine field of ex-lovers and potential job opportunities. Being exposed to that is good for everyone—whether you're a musician, journalist or just a scenester with Mommy issues.

"The more people that pay attention to something, the more it funds projects for that community," Denver songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff tells me later that afternoon, nursing cider-ale in his backyard. The sound of UMS amps and kickdrums begins rumbling from nearby. "Yet with the less attention and less pressure, people put on great shows because they don't give a shit."

Rateliff has become one of the biggest names in Denver music over the last few years, receiving mainstream praise within the hallowed pages of Q magazine and the New York Times. Last year, the reunion of his former band, Born In The Flood, was a mainstage attraction, with Governor John Hickenlooper drunkenly singing Rateliff's praise in a rambling introduction.

Rateliff's success is the carrot dangled before bands who agree to play UMS. Previously, acts were always thrown some small payment, along with bottomless cups of beer and extra passes for performing in multiple groups. This year, many bands were paid either 50% less than in previous years, or not at all. Kegs of beer were replaced with two drink tickets, and passes were limited to one per musician.

As the popularity of the festival has grown, the value of playing UMS has come to reside almost entirely in the exposure, rather than financial compensation.

"For many of these bands, playing UMS is going to be the biggest audience they'll play to all year," Collins pointed out to me earlier in the morning, noting that the large shows he's played at UMS contributed to the notoriety his band enjoys today. At the same time, he notes that paying the bands something is a good gesture of recognition for anyone putting on a show. Cutting everyone's pay with no explanation was a dick move, and poor PR to boot.

"I have opted OUT of playing The UMS this year," Denver musician Joshua Trinidad, who had played every UMS since 2005, posted on Facebook a few days before the festival, causing a daisy-chain of idealistic scorn and support. "I am a big supporter of this festival and the community connections it has built over the years. However this year I don't agree with the new business model that the festival has adopted; not paying musicians and forgetting the important relationships they have built over time."

Trinidad went on to play three shows in Baker over the weekend, but all of them werehouse-shows at non-UMS venues—none of which pay bands, but also don't ask a cover. Other musicians I spoke with had similar feelings, but were aware of the social force that UMS has become in the Denver music scene, and either agreed to play for little or no money, or quietly declined to be a part of the festival. Strong feelings permeated the scene, but few people other than Trinidad wanted to go on record in opposition to UMS.

Adam Baumeister of Meep Records cuts a vinyl 45 of me drunkenly reading a Dave Eggers story about dogs.

Having an overwhelming sonic buffet to choose from on the first night, my friends and I are like hyper children forced to wait another hour before opening presents on Christmas morning. Not being actual kids, we use drugs to both enhance and temper our enthusiasm. Adderall is traded for cigarettes, and lines of coke are separated with a press badge. Two blind friends of mine decide to try mushrooms for the first time, which makes navigating the crowded sidewalks an interesting adventure. A local musician records me reading a Dave Eggers story aloud, and cuts it directly onto a vinyl 45 before my bloodshot eyes.

Wandering the streets, so many bands look suspiciously to me like closet Evangelical Christians disguised as a indie-folk musicians. So much wonderful; so much terrible. Psych-rock band Tjutjuna plays faster than the speed of consciousness, while the cello-sporting math rocker Ian Cooke explores the dark side of Twee. Stumbling toward a 1 am comedy show, I see a girl with aqua-blue hair for the twenty-eighth time tonight, and ask aloud to no one: Is sea-punk still a thing?   

Adam Cayton-Holland about to record his My Dining Room Table podcast for a live audience at a Tiki bar

Swaying on my heels at the UMS comedy stage, I struggle to hear the stand up comics over the sound of a crowd half-deaf from rock music talking throughout each set.

"Have you ever been to Denver? Now there's a drunk place," I suddenly remember Marc Maron asking Todd Barry on his WTF podcast. "There's good crowds, but people get just shitfaced there.

This kind of thing tends to go unnoticed at a rock show, but Adam Cayton-Holland has to corral the audience like an overworked nanny, spoon-feeding the drunken crowd joke after joke. While today he's a professional comic appearing on Conan and @Midnight, Cayton-Holland's barroom open-mic roots are in full employ this evening, never missing a beat lest the audience's attention wander like cabbage-brained spider monkeys.

After four nights of this, our brain chemistries are depleted, and I begin to take stock of what reckless children we all reduce ourselves to during UMS, and what an invaluable luxury that is. No other time during the year are we afforded the opportunity to casually bump into almost every single person in the Denver music scene, enjoying a (seemingly) consequence-free world of intoxicants and hookups within this buffet of sound stretching ten blocks down our very backyards.

The musicians have a fair argument to make when it comes to being paid to perform, though a larger context has to acknowledge the infinite amount of work, financing and risk that goes into providing us with this hipster-Vegas playground each year in July.

Earlier in the week, I was on the balcony of the Denver Post offices, overlooking Broadway Avenue with the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Standing next to me was current UMS director Kendall Smith, referred to earlier in this story as "corporate-finance man" due to his career before taking over the music festival.

Denver musician Maria Kohler outside a house show

I'd been interviewing musicians about the pay-cut to UMS bands and was prepared for a confrontational vibe. Standing there, I thought of Hunter Thompson's story about interviewing a wealthy British man in Columbia who repeatedly hit golf balls into the villages below his penthouse while sucking down gin. After all, here was (supposedly) the face of all that was going wrong with the UMS, the man who had snatched a humble little festival from the arms of its idealistic founders, and turned it into the cultural equivalent of a 5 Hour Energy commercial.

But I didn't meet that man, because he does not exist.

"The challenge that we're faced with is trying to grow the audience for the Denver music community," Smith told me. While he refused to discuss the specifics of band compensation, the implication (albeit never directly stated) was that funds that had previously gone to local bands were now being diverted toward getting larger headlining acts, such as this year's draw, Blonde Redhead.

"We call ourselves an 'independent music festival,' though clearly we have label acts and indie acts," he said, explaining that by growing the festival, you grow the exposure for the Denver music scene writ large. "The question is: What is too big? The answer is different for everybody. Are people happy that Paste magazine and BrooklynVegan are writing about UMS? I'm not sure. Since I took over, my goal has been to continue the path of creating a destination festival, which ultimately strengthens the scene."

The main stage at UMS

The narrative that I, and many musicians I spoke with, held onto was that Kendall Smith had commodified UMS with this tactic, altering the tide of local support in favor of national recognition. But UMS co-founder Ricardo Baca defends the emphasis on local acts, and has been impressed with Smith's handling of the festival.

"Kendall often talks about maintaining the original communal spirit of The UMS, and he has," Bacca tells me. "While that original spirit was certainly rooted in camaraderie and music and community, it was also about ensuring there would be another UMS the following year. Each year we would bring in larger national bands to compliment our talented stable of local artists."

Smith adds that any net proceeds that come from the event are deposited into the Denver Post Community fund, which provides millions of dollars in grants to local charities. In light of this, it's difficult to accuse him or anyone else at UMS of picking musicians pockets in to fill his own Scrooge McDuck vault.

Smiths' background makes him an easy target when looking for a reason why UMS is loaded with sponsored advertising yet has no money to pay local bands. But considering he abandoned a lucrative career in economics to direct a Denver music festival that gives its proceeds to charity, I hesitate to make him a scapegoat. My fellow attendees and I may disagree with him about what's best for the Denver music scene, but his intentions seem as pure as anyone else's.

IItchy-O in their non-UMS performance on Broadway Avenue

In modeling the festival off of South by Southwest, there's certainly the risk of mainstreaming the process of corrupting a regional community. But there's also the groundwork being done here to draw enough ancillary shows that Denverites might soon enjoy a weekend of entertainment without even purchasing a wristband.

Jim Norris, owner of Mutiny Information Cafe bookstore, received a city permit this year to shut down an off-street of Broadway and host his own 60-band, free of charge event. Even he said this year was the "the best UMS we've ever had." His event concluded with the electro-psych marching band Itchy-O, which paraded down the sidewalk of Broadway accompanied by Japanese dragons and a flame-shooting hearse. This stunt, along with Norris' event, could be viewed as a confrontational protest against the commodification of a community gathering—or maybe just a badass thing to do.

Either way, the original spirit of the Underground Music Showcase remained intact this year, providing us all with the opportunity to blast our ears and livers with some heavy spirits in the company of our closest friends and some of the best musicians the world (or at least Denver) has to offer.

Mutiny Information Cafe collects donations for UMS underpaid musicians.

Josiah Hesse is a journalist from Denver, Colorado, covering the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.