Irishwoman’s Diary, July 1992: New Music Seminar

From The Irish Times – July 1992

By Helena Mulkerns

Sinead cameo

Sinead O’Connor
Pic: John Francis Bourke

Last week, as Uncle Boris Yeltsin posed for happy snaps on the lawn with George and Barbara at the Whitehouse, and Sarajevo shuddered under Serbian mortar fire, a whole microcosm of Western youth culture carried on regardless, at the popular music industry’s annual “New Music Seminar” in New York City.

Emerging from the subway in Manhattan’s Times Square, the brief stretch from the underground exit to the hotel hosting the seminar exposes the walker to the buzz of New York’s glitz and grime. To the backdrop of expensive Broadway theatres and department stores, yellow cabs jostle whizzing messenger-cyclists, teenage homeless pan-handle sullenly on corners and street hawkers flash fake Rolex watches at passers-by.

Once inside the Mariott Marquis, however, umbrage is assured. It is a standard-issue American luxury hotel, futuristic in form, efficient in its operation and designed to accomodate the comfort requisites of both tourist and convention-goer. Normally, family vacationers in pastel-casuals ride the elevator with gray-suited businessmen carrying briefcases. The latter might wear a badge that says “John Doe – National Insurance Representatives Convention”. For the week of the music seminar however, the Insurance reps are upstaged flamboyantly by Babylon’s most shameless upstart, Rock’n’roll. The seminar effectively provides a forum for the big business side of the music scene, becoming the hunting grounds of managers, publishers, promoters, lawyers and other sharks. But it is also an annual chance for performers of all shapes and hues to party and to be seen, as a brief stint of people-watching will prove. Post-punk Japanese Divas in day-glo mini-skirts and platform shoes ride the escalators. Pale Rock’n’roll animals from America’s East Coast contrast starkly with suntanned, muscular surf-babies from Northern California. Rap brothers in spandex and gold jewellery flank slick latino-beat masters from Miami or Seville.

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77 Lucious Babes

The most interesting thing about the “New Music Seminar” is that its very concept is essentially a contradiction in terms: it is a Rock’n’roll Convention. While traditionally Rock’n’Roll claims to be the voice of youthful rebellion, and an alternative artistic force, it is also big business, so you have the rather hilarious situation where hip and trendy managers or members of bands like “The Toiling Midgets”, “Goober And The Peas” or “77 Lucious Babes” have to walk around the lobby of this conservative hotel (complete with Chanel/Waterford glass gift shops) wearing name-tagged convention badges!

The some 50 Irish delagates and musicians, coordinated by The Irish Export Board, convened on a stand among the hundreds of business “boothes” in a main exhibition hall. Most adopted a healthy attitude that combined the seminar’s business challenge with the more easy-going pace of the rock world. Deals would be initially instigated by a form of chat known as “schmoozing”, or initial contact-making, a process which has lead to a whole new vocabulary. For instance, the hotel’s lobby became the “schmoozatorium”, the bar was the “schmoozer”. A certain irrepressible band manager from Dublin earned the title “King Of Schmooze”, and since the field of operations was not confined to the convention hall, it was not unusual to hear one delegate ask another, at a late night rock gig, “will you have a drink or are you schmoozing?” The schmoozing, needless to say, got arguably better as the evenings went on, and indeed, it is not unheard of that a quick schmooze at the back of the hall has led to greater things. Like “doing lunch”, perhaps, another great New York convention.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 22.11.13If the seminar’s daylight ethic is taking care of business (as Elvis himself used to say), the night time idea  is slightly different. With literally thousands of acts from all over the world performing in clubs around the city, the idea is basically to see who can who can catch the most gigs, who can meet the most people, who can drink the most alcohol, and who can remain coherently vertical the longest in any of the after-hours bashes that inevitably follow the night of serious music. It’s a serious rock’n’roll challenge, and one which frequently leads to a sorry malady known unofficially as “schmoozeritis”.

Symptoms include extreme fatigue, involuntary exclamations of epithets such as “Jayzus, I’m wrecked. Musicians suffer temporary lapses of memory: as they crawl offstage they will announce their immediate intention to withdraw to the hotel room, and yet will be spotted four hours later in an after-hours watering hole waxing lyrical on the glories of New York City.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 22.20.21Irish rock hounds tended to descend mainly on two venues for the post-seminar hanging out (“hanging out”, as opposed to schmoozing, involves no business element, and a deal more liquid refreshments). Brownies, once a notorious after-hours bar on Avenue A in the East Village, has become (along with Paddy Reilly’s bar on 28th), Manhattan’s home to the alternative Irish music scene, and it hosted several excellent gigs featuring Irish and Irish American musicians. For post-gig intimacy and atmosphere, however, Sine-é café on St. Mark’s Place probably topped the list, with one post-gig seisúin involving the impromptu talents of no less than The Four Of Us, Marianne Faithful, Sinead O’Connor and the erstwhile king of coffee house performance, Allan Ginsberg.

Yes, it was there in the dawn’s early hours that one and all miraculously forgot about six figure record company deals, national tours and music publishing contracts, and converged into a generous, universal musical community. Schmooze-free, timeless and often slightly out of tune, musicians would play with great abandon and without set lists in that great traditional seisúin spirit, and not a name-tag in sight. “Badges?” As one wit pronounced on the sidewalk outside Sin-é early Saturday morning, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!!”

And the party just went on.

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