Friday, April 2, 2004 | 8:47 a.m.
With last month's "South By Southwest" conference in Austin, Texas, the 2004 music festival season officially got under way.
The annual event drew thousands of music fans and industry types, along with hundreds of up-and-coming bands, for a series of conferences, panel discussions and showcase performances.
The concept might sound familiar to Southern Nevadans. From 1998 until 2002, Las Vegas played host to its own musical gala, EAT'M (short for "Emerging Artists & Technology in Music").
Designed to provide assistance for unsigned acts, EAT'M has helped promising musicians gain access to record label contacts, with several acts -- including Slipknot, Papa Roach and Michelle Branch -- going on to sign lucrative deals with major labels.
In 2003, however, EAT'M was conspicuously absent among local conventions. And now comes official word that the hiatus will stretch for at least one more year, with no EAT'M conference scheduled for 2004.
But Lisa Tenner, founder and producer of the event, said that EAT'M is still alive.
She said her company -- global branding agency Tenner & Associates -- continues to maintain its emerging artist database, and is hatching plans for a new EAT'M experience, one that she says could find its way to other cities and even onto national television.
"I can't disclose a lot, but I have decided to take EAT'M on the road," Tenner said. "We are ready to do a 26-week television series, and to take it to the college campuses.
" 'American Idol' has shown that the labels can find artists via a wide-range medium and with a built-in fan base. So we're going to do it with bands, because bands have longevity."
Tenner provided few specifics, but hinted that in such a scenario, the finals could take place in Las Vegas.
As for the city again serving as the host site for a full-blown EAT'M conference, Tenner said she would love to see it happen, provided she can find a title sponsor willing to contribute $250,000.
"I have 98 partners that come in for $2,500 to $5,000 (apiece), but that doesn't make it," Tenner said. "The budget to run this is about $700,000, $750,000 comfortably. Without the title (sponsor) at $250,000, it doesn't happen."
Las Vegas Events sponsored EAT'M for its first three years. Spin magazine then briefly purchased the rights to run EAT'M before Tenner bought them back. After the switch she opted to take 2001 off.
The event returned in 2002, with New York-based Internet communications company Pulver as its title sponsor. That relationship lasted just one year, however, leaving Tenner on the lookout for a new partner.
"I feel heartbroken because Vegas took this on, and Vegas should have stuck with this," she said. "The problem that we seem to find as an obstacle is that no one wants to step to the plate."
But, she quickly added, "I'm not going to go begging for money. You have to have great credibility with the industry or they won't respect you. And you have to understand sponsorships and fulfillment."
Judy Alberti, vice president of entertainment for Station Casinos, which hosted EAT'M's last three kickoff parties, is among those hoping Tenner succeeds in her mission.
"I'm certainly pulling them to come back," Alberti said. "It's certainly a great thing for the music industry and for Las Vegas in general. It brings awareness to Las Vegas, and helps de-stigmatize Las Vegas as far as our lounge image when it comes to music."
Leaving a hole?
Determining exactly how much Southern Nevada's music scene misses EAT'M largely depends on who you ask.
Shawn Eiferman, a local singer/songwriter who played the event both as a solo act and with his former band, Epstein's Mother, said musicians "got out of it what they put in."
"A majority of the musicians in this town are definitely kind of lost as far as direction goes, and EAT'M helped give them direction," Eiferman said. "You've got to take it seriously and network, establish relationships.
"I got a song placed in 'Dawson's Creek' on The WB because of a contract from EAT'M."
Robby Klostriech, ex-manager for local band Clockwise (formerly Phatter Than Albert), also saw opportunities for emerging acts at EAT'M.
"It was definitely an advantage to go," Klostriech said. "We had people who were willing to come to shows and talk to us, and I secured (the band's) attorney through EAT'M.
"For any artist or anyone who wants to be in the industry, to have it in your home town, you're crazy not to get involved with it."
Branch, who signed to Maverick Records shortly after her appearance at EAT'M 2000, credits the conference with helping to jump-start her career.
"That's where my buzz really got started," she is quoted as saying on the official EAT'M Web site, www.eat-m.com. "At night you get to showcase your talent, then go see other acts and hang out with them. During the day you can go to tons of informational panels."
But Jeff Higginbotham, who operates local music site www.yourlocalscene.com, recalled EAT'M's logistical difficulties drawing crowds to its showcase performances.
"It was spread across the city, with shows at Tommy Rocker's, at the Hard Rock, at the House of Blues ...," Higginbotham said. "It was three or four days of driving around town. Who wants to do that? I saw (promising Los Angeles outfit) H is Orange at the House of Blues at the last EAT'M and there were about 16 people there."
In 2002, EAT'M's 155 showcase acts performed on 13 stages over two days. Among the venues: the John Lennon Songwriting Bus (parked outside the MGM Grand) the Hard Rock Cafe, the Brooklyn Bridge outside New York-New York and the Harley Davidson Cafe.
By way of contrast, Higginbotham described his experience at last year's "South By Southwest," in which bands played in a series of clubs along the same street, located near the host convention center.
"I'll always support EAT'M no matter what, because it has to do with music," Higginbotham said. "But if everything was centralized -- the conference in the morning and then the showcases -- I think it could work better."
Tenner said her EAT'M artist database continues to grow daily, despite the conference's two-year absence.
"In the last 18 months, I would say we've had 4,000 new inquiries for artists to showcase," Tenner said. "There's not a day that goes by where there's not five or 10 people contacting me, asking how to get into EAT'M.
"And that's without one ad, one e-blast, one mention by the press, nothing."
With the Las Vegas festival on hold, Tenner directs interested emerging artists to new opportunities.
One is Camp Jeep, an annual summer festival held in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Last year Tenner helped place several acts in her database, including Charlotte, N.C., trio Justincase, on the event's concert bill.
Tenner said she is also working with Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar on a contest promotion in which the winning band will earn the chance to open selected dates for Hagar and his side project, the Waboritas.
The EAT'M fund also continues to be an outlet for local musicians in need, Tenner added.
"Silverado (High School) lost all of their band equipment, so we replaced it for them," she said. "We've also supplied two full scholarships to the Berklee School of Music (in Boston), we've sent artists to other conferences and we've bought about 6,000 books for kids in North Las Vegas."
Still, Tenner said she yearns for a return to the familiar festival format for which the acronym EAT'M is most famous.
"If a title sponsor can come in, they're going to get access to the best bands in the world," Tenner said. "Because that's what we've been able to find, and we have historically proven it for five years."