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May 7th, 2008 Casey Jarman, Amy Mccullough | Special Section Stories
 

The Downside Of Up

Dissecting WW’s Best New Band “competition,” and other mysteries.

     
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PEP SQUAD (clockwise from upper left): Fist Fite, Valet, Starfucker and World’s Greatest Ghosts.
IMAGE: Photo Illustration: Daniel Toman

A visit to Starfucker’s MySpace page reveals the words “music should never be a competition.” It’s clearly a subtle (or not so) jab at Willamette Week’s annual Best New Band poll by this year’s second-place act (see profile). Though such grumbling initially felt like a slap in the face to us local-music-loving Best New Band writers, the question is a legitimate one: Is it OK to deem any art “best”?

The short answer is probably not. But despite its name, Best New Band isn’t really about rankings; it’s about recognition—a chance to give props to those artists who’ve knocked the socks off local music fans over the past 12 months or so. That said, every event needs a name. And “Best New Band” is as good as any when you think of it as a celebration. From its inception, this issue was meant to support local musical talent. On its fifth anniversary, the goal remains the same. And while the “Top 10” format is admittedly simple-minded (and the science behind the poll admittedly unscientific; more on that in a sec), the winners tend to reflect some of the most exhilarating live acts our city has to offer, from the furious (Fist Fite) to the mind-boggling (Valet) to the geekily uplifting (World’s Greatest Ghosts).

The poll is also an opportunity for Portland’s label heads, venue owners, bookers, PR people, etc.—the folks on the ground, if you will—to share the artists they love with the larger Portland music scene; after all, they see more shows than most of us (as an extension of their jobs if nothing else). In some cases, these are bands and artists we’re intimately familiar with (2007’s Best New Band, the Shaky Hands, was one of our favorites), and sometimes they’re projects that catch us by surprise (last year’s breakout basement faves New Bloods and Hey Lover)—not to mention the nearly 300 bands that don’t make the top 10. The poll gives us (and hopefully you as fans) perspective on what’s making our music scene tick.

So why do some people feel dirty about Best New Bands? Perhaps it smacks of American Idol, Portland indie edition. Perhaps it’s the haphazard way we solicit votes—basically, we poll as many industry types as we can get our e-hands on. And the list grows each year, as we ask the music-related folks we know of to refer music-related folks they know of, and so on (this year we sent out nearly 400 ballots).

Besides casting our own votes, we don’t attempt to sway the competition: The only criteria for band eligibility is having not placed on a previous BNB top 10—meaning “new” is pretty darn subjective, just as “best” and even “band” are; see 2006 BNB Copy, a one-man keytar-and-laptop project, for example.

There is a fair argument to be made that the Best New Band Poll leans toward rock, pop and electronic acts (jazz and hip-hop, for example, rarely make a showing in the Best New Band poll, this year being no exception). To some degree, this is a reflection of Portland’s indie-rock-centric club circuit. On any given night in PDX, there are literally dozens of bills that fit under the “pop” umbrella, with far fewer in the realms of hip-hop and jazz. But we’re always looking for members (label heads, bookers, promoters, writers, bloggers, etc.) of underrepresented genres to vote in these polls. As we say every year, if you think you should be considered as a voter for next year, please email us and let us know why we should add you to our list. More important, we hope representatives from less-visible scenes will see BNB as a call to arms—a challenge to build stronger, more vocal and supportive music communities around themselves.

But even with all the poll’s faults, isn’t it rad to see a great local band on the cover of Willamette Week? We think so. That’s why we do it: to share an artist with our greater readership that local music insiders have already fallen for.

Music shouldn’t be a contest. But as Against Me!’s Tom Gabel recently told Magnet magazine: “You’re trying to be the greatest band in the world. That’s half serious and half joking. I don’t think music should be a competition, but you should strive to be the best.” Arguments aside, the artists on this year’s list are doing just that.


BALLOT BREAKDOWN: Find a complete list of each of the 129 ballots returned in this year's survey at localcut.wweek.com/2008/05/07/best-new-band-ballots-08/.
 
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