Austrian band contests and the next generation in pursuit of the big stage
by Benjamin Kubaczek & Cynthia Peck
“Competitions are for horses, not artists,” quipped Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Perhaps. But the world thinks otherwise, and competitions are flourishing – not only in classical music.
Band contests have seen an upsurge in recent years. There are 50 in Austria alone, according to the Planet Festival Tour: “Every little town, local radio station, pimperl (pipsqueak) publicity agent sponsors a contest,” open to all, as long as they perform music they have written themselves.
Some are genre based, like beatbox competitions for a capella percussionists. But bigger contests aren’t part of any particular niche. The “scene” is the contest itself, with each band bringing its own audience, creating an über-mix of people, music and styles.
Performers range from youngsters playing fantastic first songs to “old” guys energetically drumming out rhythmic noise. There are hip-hop caps and skateboarding shoes next to long hair and leather. And styles ranging from boogie, reggae, punk, rock ’n’ roll and ska, to metal in all its forms: death, heavy, space, black, industrial, grindcore…
The biggest contests have qualifying rounds in different regions and playoffs in Vienna. While a jury has the first word, audiences often have an equal or even larger part in the final decision.
It’s all about the people
Winners leave with the glory, a foot in the festival door, and a boost towards getting established and (with any luck) becoming successful. But the prize is not the main point and cash prizes are rare. Bands are here to find some fans and test their abilities on stage. And to have a great time.
Simon “Hano” Hanowski is an organizer of the huge SPH band contest, with qualifying rounds in 70 cities across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The goal of SPH is “to support bands just starting out, including networking with studio directors, agents and, not least, with other bands. A band contest,” he says, “brings people in the trade together.”
SPH qualifiers are currently under way at Escape Metalcorner, a metal bar in the 7th district near the Gürtel. The Vienna regional finals are scheduled for May 20th, with a lineup playing heavy German punk, hard rock, reggae-rock-rap, symphonic metal and heavy metal. The final playoff will be held in November in Steyr, Upper Austria.
Pick your Band
Founded in Germany in 1989, the Local Heroes band contest set out to promote a new generation of pop musicians from both sides of the newly opened border between East and West. The Austrian version was launched in 2005 by the music journal and internet platform “enemy.at.”
About 300 bands compete in Austria’s Local Heroes every year. If they get to the national finals, they perform at the Arena Wien, whose graffiti-covered walls of a former 19th century slaughterhouse have housed an alternative music venue since the mid 1970s.
Today the graffiti is only a prop: the Arena has a top-notch stage crew, making even kids look and sound professional. The Local Heroes winner takes all: interviews, video shoot, recording session, and slots at summer festivals around Austria, including the Frequency Festival and Donauinselfest.
Another multi-genre competition, Planet Festival Tour is having its “Big Bang” May 20 & 21 at the Bank Austria Halle at the Gasometer. Here the winner will be chosen by 50/50 weighting of jury and audience. And the Local Heroes of 2016 will be decided on May 28th at the Arena’s big outdoor stage.
How to prepare? Have a concept. Like with an elevator pitch, you don’t have much time: 20 minutes and maybe four songs to get the audience fired-up, dancing and shouting.
As for the audience, someday you might be able to say: “I saw them first and cast my vote.”