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New owner moves to reinvent local music awards

Chip Rives is a music nut. So are a lot of people, but most of them aren't nutty enough to buy the Boston Music Awards and New England Music Organization conference.

The 38-year-old marketing executive's music-industry experience begins and ends with 10 consecutive trips to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest -- the Big Kahuna of music conferences -- where (he sheepishly confesses) Rives skipped the panels, ignored the trade show, and bounced from club to club with the aim of hearing as many different bands as was humanly possible in four days.

He's the sort of high-octane music fan whose voice jumps half an octave describing a defunct Japanese art-rock collective, and that's a job qualification not to be underestimated, especially in conjunction with Rives's formidable business resume. He purchased the 16-year-old Boston Music Awards and the seven-year-old NEMO conference -- a two-day event that features educational panels and nighttime showcases by 250 bands in 20 Boston-area clubs -- in January from the events' founder, Candace Avery (Rives won't say for how much). Before that Rives devoted his post-MBA work life to running sports and entertainment marketing divisions at prestigious firms such as Lapham/Miller, Woolf Associates, and Arnold Communications.

Exactly what does this music-loving marketing whiz have in mind? Nothing short of turning the BMAs into Boston's answer to the Grammys and transforming NEMO into a world-class conference that draws musical artists and industry insiders from around the globe.

"I just thought from the outside looking in that this event could be better, and bigger, and make an impact," says Rives, a former college football jock who looks like he'd be more at home in a FleetCenter sky box than a rock club. "I want it to be the biggest event in town. And I understand that doesn't happen overnight. I'm in it for the long haul." It's a good thing, because the road to respectability -- let alone prestige and glamour -- for the Boston Music Awards and NEMO is likely to be a long one.Back to the beginning The awards show debuted with a bang in 1988, when local pop stars New Kids on the Block headlined the sold-out ceremonies at the Wang Theatre. But in recent years the BMAs, which moved to the scruffier Orpheum in the early '90s, has generated minimal interest beyond the local nominated bands, their managers, and the usual throng of scenesters who spend the evening yakking in the lobby.

"A high school talent show with a bar," says bassist and Q Division label manager Ed Valauskas, who's been a presenter, performer, and award recipient at the BMAs. Valauskas's sentiments were echoed by other high-profile members of the local music community who declined to be quoted for this story. Likewise, the NEMO showcases, conceived as a breeding ground for new discoveries and record deals, has failed to lure a critical mass of label scouts and buzz-worthy bands to Boston.

Rives and his staff have had six months to whip the Boston Music Awards (which, along with NEMO, was rescheduled from the usual April time slot to September 4-6) into something approaching the high-wattage event he envisions. A move back to the chandeliered Wang Theatre will inject the festivities with a good dose of cachet. This year's lineup, while hardly star-studded, is sturdy: a Taylor family tribute with Kate, Livingston, and Ben Taylor; Blue Man Group with Tracy Bonham; Rubyhorse; Howie Day; James Montgomery; Bleu; EDO.G; and the Dresden Dolls. Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones is hosting the ceremonies, which will include a tribute to the late Billboard editor and Boston resident Timothy White. Proceeds will be used to establish a scholarship fund for the Wang Center's Young at Arts program.

The revamped awards show is being produced by Ron Cameron, who won't have far to travel to his next job: Bruce Springsteen's Fenway Park concerts. Rives is optimistic that the tight production, with elaborate video elements, dynamic pacing, and slicker visuals, will kick-start an image overhaul via a powerful little marketing tool called word of mouth.

"It's going to be so different and so cool," says Rives, who despite serious sleep deprivation sounds excited as a school kid. "People will walk out of the Wang and say, `That was unbelievable.' People will talk about it. I think we can make a pretty big impact this year, and next year it will be a hot ticket."

Addressing the critics But Rives has had to deal with more than just a tepid attitude toward a worn-out awards show. Disgruntled members of the Boston music community have grown downright hostile toward the annual event, which during Avery's tenure was criticized for everything from its financing (a for-profit operation that receives support from an array of sponsors, including the Boston Globe) to the nominating process (a small, unrepresentative group controlling the balloting) to treatment of showcasing bands (who were unpaid).

Rives is quick to defend Avery.

"I've seen the numbers. I've inherited the numbers. She didn't get rich, and I'm not going to get rich," he says. "I'm losing money this year, and I will next year too. But it makes sense for me because I do other things.

"As far as the nominating process goes, we're tweaking it, but we couldn't blow up the system in five months. Next year it will be more like the Grammys, with different committees composed of experts focused on different genres. For showcasing bands, honestly, the way these conferences are set up it's almost impossible to pay them. What we can do is make the experience better -- get more people here to see them. Some of these bands get good money to play, and we need to make sure we give them something else, like better service and better opportunities."

Avery herself concedes that she ran a one-woman show, and what some perceive as her dictatorial management style alienated many.

"It's a bear of an undertaking, and Candace wasn't a delegator," says Dave Herlihy, a Boston-based entertainment lawyer, former lead singer of O-Positive, and winner of the first Boston Music Award for local male vocalist. "I respect what she did. I think she started from a very pure fan point of view and didn't know how to deal with this huge administrative behemoth. She wanted to keep her fingers in everything."

Others are less diplomatic in their assessment. "She ran it as a profitable business enterprise, primarily exploiting the Boston music scene for personal gain," says Oedipus, vice president of programming for WBCN-FM (104.1).

Avery, a former musician who moved to Boston in 1980 to attend the Berklee College of Music, is stung by the criticism. "I was always so pro-artist. I created this event to help musicians," says Avery, who is focusing her energy on the International Songwriting Competition she established last year and an upcoming move to Nashville. The deal she cut with Rives includes a yearlong stint as consultant to BMA/NEMO. "But I'm entitled to make a living. Anyone is. I lived and breathed this event for 17 years. Creating NEMO, especially, was like a mission. I wanted to help educate young musicians and provide opportunities. When I met Chip I thought he shared my vision and would continue in the same spirit. But I think a fresh perspective is always good."A new approach Indeed, Rives's style couldn't be more different than Avery's. While his expertise in building brands, negotiating sponsorships, and managing events (he's worked with the NHL, ESPN, the PGA Tour, and Adidas, among many others) will be important, Rives's warm and exhaustive outreach to each corner of this city's music community is generating the sort of goodwill that many believe is the most critical component of his job. He met with more than 300 people during the early planning stages -- learning, soliciting advice, and inviting participation from musicians, promoters, publicists, the media, radio directors, club owners, and civic leaders.

"He listened," says Oedipus, who's on the new BMA Board of Advisors. "So far, people are feeling very good. I think using [longtime Boston concert promoter and Clear Channel executive] Don Law and [Wang Center CEO] Joe Spaulding as cochairs of the Board of Advisors is very astute. Every radio station that wants to participate is welcome. I believe this gentleman came with the right intentions."

The very existence of a Board of Advisors -- which includes Newbury Comics CEO Mike Dreese; Cecily Foster, the mayor's director of special events, tourism, and film; Black Wolf media group owner Ralph Jaccodine; nightlife impresario Patrick Lyons; Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau president Patrick Moscaritolo; and Berklee College assistant vice president Curtis Warner -- speaks volumes about Rives's intention to expand the scope and breadth of this event.

"It's going to take a combination of things," says the Wang Center's Spaulding. "One is putting on the best show you can, the other is getting a commitment from artists here to jump on board. The local music community needs to learn that we can be trusted. "

Rives agrees, and takes it a step further.

"The whole community needs to be engaged," he says. "With NEMO, our biggest goal is that every band, panelist, and consumer has an unbelievable experience. Things happen in music that are emotional and wonderful and can't happen anywhere else."

There have been obstacles, not the least of which was losing three venues on Lansdowne Street (Avalon, Axis, and Copperfield's) after Springsteen booked two shows at nearby Fenway Park. There are also major issues that have yet to be addressed, such as adequately cultivating the diversity of genres -- hip-hop, jazz, and folk are underrepresented -- Rives would like to see at NEMO.

But substantial strides have been made. Shuttle buses will run regularly to transport attendees from venue to venue. Each out-of-town band and panelist -- somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 registered conference attendees are expected -- will be assigned a volunteer concierge, who will be on call via cellphone to dispense restaurant recommendations and other advice. Rives has also negotiated discounts and no-waiting at a number of centrally located eateries.

"It's the little stuff," says Rives, who will spend a week on the Cape post-NEMO, then immediately take off on a national tour of record labels to spread the word. "People are still standing on the sidelines waiting to see what the kid can do. We'll let them know what's going on here. And we'll build it from there."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

BOSTON MUSIC AWARDS
Tracy Bonham with the Blue Man Group performing at the 2003 Boston Music Awards Tracy Bonham and the Blue Man Group opened the 16th annual Boston Music Awards.
A few of the winners of 16th annual Boston Music Awards
  • Act of the year: John Mayer
  • Album of the year: "October Road," James Taylor
  • Song of the year: "Your Body is a Wonderland," John Mayer
  • Outstanding female vocalist: Aimee Mann
  • Outstanding male vocalist: Howie Day
  • Outstanding hard rock band: Scissorfight
  • Outstanding rap/hip-hop: Mr. Lif
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  • NEMO CONFERENCE / SHOWCASE
    NEMO
    NEMO at night is all about the live music showcases. Almost 250 bands at all levels of development jam 20 of Boston's best clubs in two nights. From rock to hip-hop, folk to r&b, blues to country, and everything in between, NEMO’s got it covered.
    NEMO music highlights:
  • Superdrag at the Paradise, Friday.
  • Dresden Dolls at the Paradise Loung, Friday.
  • Francis Jocky at Harper's Ferry, Friday.
  • Jenae Raquel at the Middle East upstairs, Saturday.
  • Gargantua Soul at Bill's Bar, Saturday.
    Attracting almost 2,000 registrants, NEMO provides topical and in-depth panels geared toward everyone involved in the music industry.
    NEMO panel highlights:
  • Getting a Gig In Boston Friday.
  • Getting Your Music In Film & TV Friday.
  • How To Keep The Band Together Saturday.
  • Getting a Job In the Music Business Saturday.
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