Friday, August 7, 2009

Laura Hamlett: Musing On Music

Laura Hamlett doesn’t know precisely where her love of music originated, but she has definitely parlayed her passion into ventures that have allowed that love to grow and blossom.

Hamlett has racked up some pretty impressive credentials. Once a fledgling writer for the defunct NoisyPaper magazine, she co-founded PLAYBACK:stl (then called Playback St. Louis) with her husband Jim Dunn and enlisted the help of a few other music journalists from the former zine.

“We had been working on NoisyPaper when it suddenly folded. We then felt we/St. Louis needed an outlet. We thought, ‘We can do that,’ not realizing that, well, to do it right, it was a hell of a lot more work/expense than NoisyPaper ever was. It's probably good we didn't know that going in or we never would have started PLAYBACK:stl,” says Hamlett.

But start it they did, and from the start, PLAYBACK:stl has provided St. Louis with the necessary, in-the-know info that our creative arts scene needs. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, your trusty blogger worked for PLAYBACK:stl from 2004 to 2007 as a music and theater reviewer and eventually as the Theater Editor. The magazine and I parted ways amicably.

When the magazine first started publication, its pulpy, black and white pages focused almost exclusively on local music. The magazine covered national acts, too, but its St. Louis roots were at the forefront.

“We were fairly St. Louis-centric, that's true, but if you'll remember, our very first cover story was They Might Be Giants. From the outset, we thought of ourselves as St. Louis-based but not just about St. Louis. Shortly after the magazine's creation, we began mailing it out to venues across the country.”

As the months and years wore on and the staff of writers and editors became more accustomed to running their own publication, the magazine then expanded its scope and included art and theater reviews and, eventually, comic book reviews. In 2005, PLAYBACK:stl adopted a more professional, glossy look, and the quality of the printing was eye catching. Getting the magazine into more and more venues across the country was getting easier, but wrangling consistent advertisers proved to be challenging. Eventually, the battle to keep the magazine afloat took a painful turn. By September of 2006, the magazine ceased print publication altogether, citing a shortage of ad sales. Not to mention the mental stress of running the magazine was beginning to take its toll on Hamlett and Dunn who exhausted themselves month after month to get the magazine to the public.

But the saving grace came in the form of the publication’s Web site. Always on the cutting edge with a sharp design and easy navigation, Jim Dunn’s digital creation became the backbone of the magazine, and when print publication ceased, their efforts on the site were stepped up a notch. No longer having to meet grueling deadlines for print, more and more reviews and features became easier to manage, and now PLAYBACK:stl is able to cover just about every cultural event taking place in St. Louis and beyond.

Now that she has a little more free time, Hamlett has taken on booking duties for Cicero’s in the University City Loop and occasionally does promotions for musical artists. But why does she do it? I talked to Hamlett recently to find out.

PTSTL: Where do you think your love of music originated?
LH: Honestly, I'm not sure. I don't play music, but have always been into it. Neither of my parents played either, though I do remember my mom playing records: George Benson, Lou Rawls, Leon Redbone, Stevie Wonder, Bread. I suppose I got it from her, though way more intensely.

What was the first record you ever bought of your choosing?
Oh, this is embarrassing. Probably either Donny & Marie or Shaun Cassidy.

Do you play an instrument? Were you ever in a band?
See #1 for the first question. As for the second, I was in a band in high school. It was a joke, mostly an excuse for five of us to get together and goof off. I played keyboards (funny because, well, see #1...though I did do OK at it. I probably could have done well with piano lessons had I taken any). We had a few practices, nothing much. Had the greatest name ever, though: Half Apology.

Who is your favorite artist?
I have four, each from different countries: Matthew Good (Canada), Bluebottle Kiss (Australia), a-ha (Norway...and yes, they are still around. Just released something like their 9th studio album), Morrissey (England). Were I hard-pressed I would go with Matthew Good as my favorite.

Do you think that digital media has overall been a good thing for fledgling bands? Or has it led to music overload and oversaturation? Do you ever have any trouble keeping up with new music?
Honestly, I am in the latter camp: overload and oversaturation. Keeping up with it all is overwhelming, to be sure. I mean, it's leveled the playing field, so to speak, in that anyone can produce a quality recording and sell it for themselves. But there is just so much out there; it's kind of overwhelming. It's as if there is no longer anyone manning the gate of what's actually good music and what's not. And believe me, there's a lot that's not.

When did you start booking for Cicero’s?
I started booking Tuesday nights in December 2005, I believe. Did that for a couple years, then the booking agent left and I was hired to take his place. Been doing it full time for just over a year.

I’m guessing that the contacts you make with PLAYBACK:stl help out when booking. Have you ever had any difficulty getting that one act that you just really had to have?
It all feeds into itself, all the things I do. (I also do PR for musicians, but only the ones I really love.) I'm still in the process of getting Cicero's name out there, of convincing people that its days as jam-band central are no more. Variety is the name of the game! Due to our size (we're a 225-capacity venue), we can't possibly book all my dream bands. I try not to set my sights on out-of-reach acts; it doesn't do either of us any good. Besides, what I'm bringing in is rather good.

What was the biggest show you had the pleasure of booking?
Hmm...maybe a Margot & the Nuclear So and So's. Semi Precious Weapons is always good; I totally broke those guys in St. Louis.

You get sent a lot of demo CDs and sample discs as part of both jobs. Is there one in particular that stands out as being the worst?
I would have to go with the worst MySpace bio I have ever read; I couldn't even attempt to listen to the music after reading it. I won't name names, but here it is verbatim: "I'm a 25 year old male. I've got 4 piercings, 20 some odd tattoos. Currently going through a divorce. I have a son who'll be 6 this year with 1 ex. A daughter who'll be 2 this year with my soon to be ex-wife, and 1 daughter I don't believe to be mine with my ex-wife. Jesus I almost sound like a country song. If u wanna get to know more about me I guess write back." #1, this isn't about his music AT ALL, and #2, wtf???

You get to cover a lot of special concerts and festivals for the magazine. Do you have a favorite?
South by Southwest, hands down. It's springtime in Austin, the entire city is overrun with music folk; it's like summer camp for music people. It's given us a chance to see a lot of bands we otherwise never would.

If you could open up the perfect music club, what would it be like?
Like Cicero's but twice the size. I'm definitely on the "introducing new bands to you" side of the fence; would like to be able to book a little more up-and-coming artists for a larger audience. In the small-sized venue, though, I absolutely love everything about Cicero's. Well, maybe except for the jazzy artwork on the walls of my rock club.

Where do you see your love of music taking you?
If you'd have asked me this a year ago, I would have gone with the artist management side of things. Now, I'm not so sure. I want to do more writing about music, especially the ways it has influenced me/affected my life. I want to continue working with artists on the PR side of things, and also helping to advance their careers through licensing, publishing, touring opportunities. My heart is really into helping bands I love; unfortunately, it takes a lot out of you, especially when things don't work out. For now, I'm enjoying learning more about booking every day and booking shows; ultimately, I'm making things happen. Which is a pretty cool way to be.

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