IN "Dog Eat Dog," a song she introduced at the Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Ill., last Sunday, Joni Mitchell sang about the "land of the short attention span/Nothing to savor long enough to really understand." Paradoxically, she might have been singing about the concert itself, which presented more than 50 acts by limiting them to segments of 5, 10 or 20 minutes.
Many of New York's rock clubs are booked through the weekend with first-rate bands. The reason is the New Music Seminar, a cheerfully peculiar combination of music-business convention and rebel cabal. Now in its sixth year, the New Music Seminar started when it seemed clear that the big leagues of the music business were ignoring the music spawned by the punk movement. While large record companies and radio stations generally considered the music too abrasive, it was being heard - and prized - thanks to an alternative network of independent record labels, dance clubs and noncommercial radio stations that gathered at the first New Music Seminars.
Over the following years, that music - dance-rock, electro-pop, hip-hop and less classifiable stuff - escaped the underground. Such eccentric bands as the Talking Heads and the B-52's were on the charts, and the record business started to pay belated attention. Attendance at the annual seminar swelled with executives and talent scouts looking for the latest secret hit formula.
In recent years, the New Music Seminar has reflected the tension between business people and bohemians; is the seminar part of the music business as usual, or an antidote? This year, just to compound the confusion, the seminar's organizers are also trying to get participants involved in fighting apartheid.
Meanwhile, the bands play on -some to end up on major labels, some to stay independent, some to break up in a few months. And a lot of club guest lists are full of people looking for the next big thing.
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