A word of clarification before we begin: I think the One Spark festival is, on the whole, a good thing. It gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to get their ideas in front of large numbers of people (and potential investors), it's a boon for local businesses, and it makes it look as if Downtown Jacksonville could someday be an entertainment and arts destination (strong emphasis on the word "could").
But there are many problems, which is to be expected with any event of this magnitude. Last week in this column, I expressed concern about the inability – or unwillingness – of crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter and One Spark to offer guarantees to investors that their money will be spent on the promised projects or, at the very least, present some avenue for recourse when things go south. But that's a bureaucratic quibble that may not be sorted out. As long as people are willing to give money away, no strings attached, there will be some level of exploitation.
The bone I'll pick for the rest of this column is one that could – and should – be addressed if One Spark organizers want to show they truly care about their "creators." And I'll be driving this knife very deep, in hopes of hitting that very bone and maybe a few nerves along the way.
I've attended One Spark for the past three years, first as a reluctant "creator" and twice as an attendee. Every time, I have witnessed the unforgivable. There, in the center of the action, at Hemming Park and along Laura Street performed – cover bands.
Let that sink in for a moment. At a festival that encourages innovation, ingenuity and uniqueness appear the least innovative, least ingenious and least original groups imaginable. Let it be known that I am in three cover bands, and that I make a good portion of my living playing covers. This is not an indictment of cover musicians. My criticism is aimed squarely at event organizers, those who choose to reward blandness with a primo exhibit space in the festival center.
THURSDAY, April 9: I return home from my recent One Spark visit fuming. I'd been there for literally 10 minutes, and the first thing I hear is an announcer barking, "Get ready for the best band in the South!" I approach the tent at the corner of Laura Street near the library. It's a perfect spot to be seen, to exhibit your talent, highly trafficked and coveted by many. And what does "the best band in the South" open with? Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven."
I walk away, shaking my head in disbelief, elbowing aside the crowd gathered to dig this amazing cover band, to dance to a song that currently has 334 million plays on YouTube. A song the band did not write and, if BMI or ASCAP were within earshot, could have been fined for performing. A song whose verse is pretty much Michael Jackson's "Beat It" with different lyrics.
In other words, the epitome of unoriginal, uninnovative and ungenious.
I continue down Laura Street, and there, just a few yards away, is a friend of mine, an acoustic artist whose original music is completely ignored by passersby. I catch his eye; he grimaces at me as he sings. I approach him and say, "Right there on the corner, a cover band is playing." He sighs, "It doesn't surprise me." To his credit, he keeps playing as Bruno Mars wafts down the street.
I tried to reconcile this. How a wonderful festival, geared toward uniting the brightest and most creative minds with investors and financiers, that relies on artists and musicians to attract a crowd to what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing series of startup pitchmen lining the streets with their Next Big Thing, would admit musicians who play other people's music and place them in the most visible spot in the fest.
That night I posted a profanity-laced rant on Facebook (as that is where the finest in intellectual discourse unfolds these days), to which a guitarist friend responded: "Those guys are really solid musicians who actually write and play their original tunes at gigs quite a bit." Fine, then open with an original. Make the bulk of your set originals. If you're so fucking badass, show us – with your original, unique and innovative creations. Not a goddamned rip-off Bruno Mars song.
Again, I'm not faulting the musicians (so much), but the officials who select them, who aren't fully vetting the acts or simply don't give a rat's ass about the quality or uniqueness of those acts. And here's the great irony: If I were a visual artist, and I painted exact replicas of famous pieces of art and applied for a top spot at One Spark, the organizers would burn my canvases and laugh me out of the building. And yet they rubber-stamp, indeed encourage, bands that do the very same thing, only sonically. I know this because I called and asked. The One Spark rep to whom I spoke said cover bands are welcome. Very welcome.
This, friends, is bad policy. It does a huge disservice to original artists; it says to the person two tents down, "This highly polished and well-funded cover band deserves a hot spot while you, struggling songwriter, can share a tent with three others on a side street. Good luck!"
So I make this argument for any original musician who played One Spark. Because for every cover band that appeared (I've been told there were more than one this year, not to mention DJs spinning bullshit club music, a further disgrace), there are a host of original acts that will not be seen or will be drowned out by cover tunes and the sheepish crowd gathered to listen.
SUNDAY, April 12: The aforementioned band, the band that asked for $50,000 in their One Spark platform, the band that opened with a Bruno Mars song, the polished working cover band that also plays originals – that same band won $16,000 as the audience favorite ($5,000 more than original band Grandpa's Cough Medicine won last year). Good for them. Shame on One Spark.
One Spark organizers, you need to change this policy, or next year, I am coming downtown with a duffle bag full of my own renderings of classic paintings to do a little guerilla fundraising all my own.