By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
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The term is not perfect, but it's useful and expedient: Local rock scene. And what a great one this is. Dozens of thoroughly professional bands making music in a range of styles. A healthy mix of venues for these groups' performances. Two powerful commercial radio stations that play local music on a regular basis, and provide live simulcasts of concerts by area acts. Daily newspapers that offer coverage of the scene to bolster the parochial reporting of the city's alternative weekly and a slick magazine. Well-established special events, such as an annual awards presentation. Though there's always room for improvement, this is a local rock scene with all its pegs in the right holes.
Too bad it's Tampa.
The rock scene in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, like the cities themselves, is smaller and younger than Miami's. South Florida has at least three times as many working rock bands, and can also brag that several of these have been signed by major labels. But it is not the quality of the music and its purveyors that's at issue here. It's everything that goes along with the actual music making.
"My theory is that the reason Tampa has more coverage is that the people in the key positions, the people making the decisions, are the same people who are really into local music," says Tampa promoter Max Borges, who stages local awards extravaganzas there and here. "In Miami the real important people, the editors and program directors, in general, seem to be above the local scene. The people who are into it don't have as much clout." The great irony there, Borges suggests, is that there is much more public support and interest in Miami. "There's no club here that is as successful as, say, the Button South," Borges continues. "We do not have bigger turnouts for shows here. In Miami, even without the media support, you have the people support. I think the two scenes are pretty close, although you've had some major signings, which is killer."
If major-label signings are a measure of success, Miami does have the upper hand with Nuclear Valdez (Epic), the Mavericks (MCA), Saigon Kick (Atlantic), and others. The only group to achieve national status out of Tampa is Savatage, signed by Atlantic about seven years ago. While A&R reps at these labels were reluctant to enter the Tampa vs. Miami debate, several sources say that both cities are highly regarded by talent scouts. "The record labels know what's going in a big way," says Austin Keys, music director for the Bay area's WXTB-FM. "We have A&R people from California and New York coming in and they're amazed at the material being recorded and the number of unsigned acts in Florida. Here, as opposed to L.A., the bands don't spend money showcasing, they use it to record because they're getting airplay."
Keys, who's been working in Tampa for three-and-a-half years, is not into local music for altruistic purposes alone. He says the addition of area talent has been a boon, both financially and artistically. "It helps our ratings in several ways," he says. "It gave us that street hipness, for one thing. It delivered that element immediately."
There is a difference between radio there and here, a profound difference. The Tampa Bay area has two contemporary, commercial AOR radio stations that compete for listeners. Miami has WSHE-FM. About a year ago, the Tampa area's top rock station, WYNF-FM, began a show called The Cutting Edge, which evolved into This Is Radio Clash, which mixes local material with national releases, and features a monthly concert by a hometown band performing at Morrisound, a studio whose owners have played a key role in Tampa's scene. Rival station WXTB had the first show for locals, and followed WYNF's live-performance lead by incorporating a live simulcast of shows at the Rock-It, Tampa's major rock club. WXTB's Keys claims that his station has recently ascended to WYNF's ratings level, and predicts they'll surpass the competition in the next ratings period, thanks in big part to the incorporation of local sounds.
WXTB's Sunday-night show began as an hour-long adventure into things homegrown. Then it expanded to fill the 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. slot. Then it grew to three hours. "I was playing everybody that had studio-quality material," Keys says. "And there was this onslaught. The discovery of what was going on was incredible. And it got better and better and better. As our ratings increased, YNF started a `local lick.' Competition certainly plays a big role in all this."
John Tovar, the well-known and successful local band manager, has taken to mining the fertile Tampa rock field, enlisting that area's Factory Black and considering others. "I was there not long agofor two days," he says. "I'm driving around Tampa and I hear Factory Black [on the radio] at three in the afternoon, right after Great White. That's totally unheard of here. I think there's more unity up there by the movers and shakers. They have a common goal: They want Tampa Bay to make a stand when it comes to the Florida scene. Between the two radio stations, the newspapers, a great magazine called Players, you have an excellent megasupport of the local scene. People from other parts of the country, and even the world, like Sepultura from Brazil, are now going to Tampa to record. We have more places to play down here and probably more support in terms of each band having an audience. But in terms of a scene, Tampa has a bond of making it happen. It's pretty sad we don't have that down here."