Unless you're a music writer or an arts/sociology professor, you might not know that this weekend, Experience Music Project is holding its annual Pop Conference, where dozens of music essays/studies will be presented. Only a few years old, one of the purposes of this gathering was to bring together academics (who usually present their work at conferences) with journalists (who usually present their work in publications). In theory, it's a bold idea but also an idea that's not without its problem.
In the first year, the Conference, headed by editors/writers Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers (who are also EMP curators), had an unexpected flood of responses. Obviously, it was an attractive idea. Out of curiosity, I asked some of the participants to let me see what I was missing and some of them were nice enough to share them. Curiously, some of them didn't, frankly embarrassed by their work. For the papers I read, I thought they were good but frankly, not the strongest things I'd seen from these writers.
I tried out for the second year because I was interested in this enterprise. While I attempted to rope in a local musician as part of a show and tell, I was told that this would be too much of a chore or expense. Later, EMP came up with idea of charging attendees for the conference (reasoning that this was done at academic conferences). After such a stink rose about this, they had to reconsider this- not only because they realized that the attendees were adding worth to the conference by being there but also because a lot of the writers probably wouldn't flip the bill.
After I got through my presentation, I had an empty feeling. Since this was a conference, I took it very seriously and went through the process of interviewing about 20-3o people and spent weeks writing this up and now it was over, vanishing into the air. What I didn't know then was that many of the other journalists who participated wrote their paper on the plane ride to Seattle: someone later joked with me that I should have used the Randomly Generated Paper machine (which did get its paper into another conference). I felt pretty foolish, working extensively and diligently on it, often pushing away other projects. Feeling that all this information shouldn't just disappear after it's done, I took it upon myself to share it with the online world through my zine: Between A Rock and An Experimental Place is the end result of this.
Which is all good and well but what about all the other presentations? One published collection of the first year's conference came out (This is Pop) and that's been it so far. Caryn Brooks had written an excellent think piece last year on Liz Phair and the Dixie Chicks that I published but everything else that happened at EMP seemed to disappear.
I liked seeing the museum and some of Seattle but I didn't feel the dire need to come back again and again each year. It seemed that the best you could hope for is to turn your paper into an article or get an assignment to cover the conference itself, which unfortunately I found that there wasn't a lot of interest in.
Meeting up with and chatting up other writers and academics was good but it still felt that something was missing. When I was going around to listen to other presentations, one thing I noticed was that the non-academics were usually much more amusing that the scholastic folks but had less substance. That shouldn't be too surprising since they're usually from different worlds- one puts an emphasis on entertaining an audience while the other doesn't but leans more on research. One thing that would ideally happen is that when the two worlds would collide, each side would gain something from the encounter- the journos would gain some respect by the company while the academics would gain some measure of mainstream recognition and acceptance by rubbing elbows in Seattle. And both sides could also put this on their curriculum vitae.
But for the academic side, the conference made much more sense. Their bread and butter consists of the papers and theses that they work on for months and years- compare that with the time that many journos spend on their EMP papers. The prof's and PhD's attend other conferences and add these to their resume to bolster their standing in the academic world. EMP was something that they stood to benefit greatly from, just by being there.
Some of the other problems with the conference aren't easily handled. Part of it is that EMP has financial and staffing difficulties as chronicled in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. This means that even when they want to help writers with expenses for the conference, they sadly can't. Also, the timing of the conference comes right around SXSW as well as conference in Miami and Detroit. Because these other events warrant coverage (and an excuse for something of a vacation), that draws people away too.
The theory might be that EMP is for the more serious-minded writers and that's true to an extent but that also what may be part of the problem. If you look on EMP site, you'll notice that information about the conference is pushed off to the side and further down to make room for a larger banner about a long-running Bob Dylan exhibit there. The implication is that conference holds much less interest for the outside public and to an extent, it does. Except for the hardcore music fan or academic, what would be the pull to attend? It's a much too rarefied atmosphere. When I was there, one of the only people outside the conference to see any of the panels was a friend from the area that I invited (and she didn't stay long). Otherwise, when I was walking around the museum, I saw people there admiring the exhibits but who didn't seem to have any interest in (or maybe even any knowledge of) the conference.
If the panels had briefer presentations and more interaction or if there were more local shows tied into the conference, that would certainly go a long way but the question then is would EMP actually want more outside interest or do they want to keep in the small realm that it occupies now. It's not as if the topics aren't of interest but wouldn't the outside world benefit more from gleaming some of this knowledge? And wouldn't the attendees benefit from something coming out of a conference like this? No, I don't mean a tax-write off...