Ready for a Mystery Date? Sonic Temple Live takes the hype and spin out of the music biz.
By Gretchen Giles
Last year in the tiny Humboldt County hamlet of Ferndale, population 1,390, a series of concerts sold out at the town's only venue six consecutive times. Residents filled the small 1920s-era Ferndale Repertory Theatre to hear live music produced with millions of dollars worth of equipment, including a full light show and elaborately dressed stage. They paid $25 to $40 a ticket, absolutely rabid to hear this music. And at each and every single concert, the audience had absolutely no idea who was going to play until they arrived.
Called Lost Coast Live, the series was an experiment, and it was a hit. Now redubbed Sonic Temple Live, this same experiment is poised to rock the North Bay, with three concerts planned for the month of November in San Rafael, Napa and Santa Rosa, all featuring unnamed musicians performing in the highest-end concert conditions possible.
The audience will not know until it is seated and a short documentary film introduces the artist who it is that will come onto the stage and perform for the next two hours. The idea is to take the preconcert hype and spin away and return intelligent appreciation to the work of a musical artist.
As the promoters could never begin to realize a return on their investment, the idea is also to funnel 100 percent of the ticket sales to the community. And furthermore, according to Jon Phelps, the genius behind the project, the idea is to "see artistic music find its way sanely to much larger audiences. Lots of artists don't have any way to build; if the audience knew of them, they'd love them, but they'd never heard of them. And they're not going to find their way onto radio. There's great art out there that no one's aware of."
Performers who participated in Ferndale's Lost Coast Live slate included slide guitar master Sonny Landreth, former Frank Zappa "stunt" guitarist Mike Keneally and singer-songwriter Mindy Smith, who Phelps says might ordinarily spend her nights "fighting with blenders at the bar and espresso machines" in order to make herself heard to an audience. Framed by the velvet curtains that are part of the series' traveling show, Smith was instead resonant in a full-blown sound system and bathed in lighting designed by professional engineers flown in from New York and Los Angeles just for her.
Sonic Temple Live tour director Azurae Willis brings the concept back to community. "In Ferndale," she emphasizes, "we really saw people take a risk with us. Every time they went, they were taking a risk. The interesting thing was to watch this eclectic group of people--different in age range and income and interest; the thing they had in common is that they live there--responding to something. And we want to create a platform where these artists have a chance to excel. The artist gets a brand new audience and the audience gets a brand new experience."
Two unnamed artists will perform this first round of North Bay concerts. In Ferndale, the local radio station KHUM 104.3-FM cooperated with the program, dropping musical hints as to the performer's identities and interviewing them anonymously on the day of the show.
"I'd never heard of any of them," admits Ferdale Repertory Theatre directorMarilyn McCormick, speaking of the musicians who took her stage. "I'm so absorbed in what I'm doing at the theater here. The radio doesn't even work in my car. I don't know these artists, but I was blown away.
"Because not knowing who was going to be playing turned people off at the beginning, we really praised the brave hearts who came down," she says. "Once word got out that the people who did perform were no hicks, that these were exceptional entertainers, we were packed."
Jon Phelps founded Full Sail College in Orlando, Fla., in 1979. A fully accredited media production school and college, Full Sail is one-of-a-kind in the world, allowing students the opportunity to receive a college degree in such subjects as producing a traveling rock show.
"I didn't like education," Phelps says by phone from his Seattle office, explaining the impetus to start Full Sail. "I wasn't good at it, and when I wanted to get into sound and production and music and film, I felt like most things I experienced were very detached from reality, very theory-based. If you wanted to study media education, for example, you'd get a communications degree. Full Sail was like a positive rebellion.
"That's kind of the same passion and mentality looking at great sonic art and thinking what nobody else is thinking: how would you do this so that musicians have sane careers that are composed of a life and a career at the same time? If you look at the world of classical music, they do that. They build halls and sponsor it and endow it. But if you look at singer-songwriters or jazz musicians, they're just kind of troubadours hanging out there."
Phelps and his team pick the musicians themselves. Explaining his deep roots in the music business, he says, "We have a lot of inroads to that. Most of the artists have established their own world, but their world could and should be 10 times its size."
Full Sail has allowed Phelps, who is based in Seattle but with his wife keeps a home in Ferndale, the opportunity to do exactly as he wishes with his life and his money.
A co-owner of Paste magazine as well as the entertainment company DC3, what Phelps wishes to do at the moment is to launch a coffee company. Which curiously enough ties back into the Sonic Temple Live series. Looking at the way that Red Bull has aligned itself with aviation and Formula One racing and Coca-Cola has aligned itself with everything else, Phelps aims to launch a subscription-based line of Storyville Coffee products in conjunction with Sonic Temple Live's mystery concert series.
"Instead of being the typical type of start-up that needs to make a profit right away, we're looking at it as an investment," Phelps explains. "There is no deep secret to it other than we believe in what we're doing and we're willing to look to the long term." Storyville Coffee, which Phelps assures will be so fresh as to have only a 12-day shelf life, will be served at each event in a miniature porcelain coffee mug that concertgoers can take home.
"It's a beautifully done vision of a company," he says with evident satisfaction. The Storyville brand and the Sonic Temple Live brand will grow at the same time, allowing the coffee company to offer a positive interface with the community and support the singer-songwriters that Phelps likens to small businesses unto themselves.
"The idea for us, when we looked at all the economics of it, is that since it's not going to live or die based on ticket sales, what a great idea to have a new brand that's being built and give to every town that it visits," he says. "I watched that Wal-Mart movie and it was all about taking from towns. How about giving to every town and leaving it better than it was when we got there?"
Tour director Willis explains that the organization contacted 10 communities in the Bay Area to see who might support the idea of the anonymous concerts. Three cities in the North Bay as well as Santa Clara in the South Bay responded. Ticket receipts in Ferndale totaled some $30,000, all of which was given away, most significantly to school music programs. "We're like, why not stir it up a little?" Willis says. "Why not give something back to your community? Buy a ticket and give it back. It's something in your community that has an impact. Hopefully, there's a ripple effect in a lot of different areas."
Reflecting on the series, Phelps says, "I love music, I love art, I have found myself wildly frustrated at how dark and dysfunctional the music business can be. I love the idea of the positive rebellion approach, where rather than bitching about it, we actually do something about it. I get a big thrill out of where this could go."
He chuckles. "I'm one of those people who wakes up every day with ideas and you've just got to go carry some of them out."
Sonic Temple Live plans three North Bay concerts with unannounced musicians. All gigs are $25 and begin at 7:30pm. Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Marin Center's Showcase Theater, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. 415.499.6800. Friday, Nov. 17, at the Napa District Auditorium, Napa Valley Unified School District, 2425 Jefferson St., Napa. 707.253.3711. Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.568.5381. Ticket info: 1.888.323.3349. www.sonictemplelive.com.