Around suppertime on a Friday evening, rain pounds the wooden deck of the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach. Twenty-somethings wearing tight jeans knock wet sand from their leather boots as they strut their way onto the deck, sashaying past a row or retirees whotake in the scene from blue, plastic chairs.
Meanwhile, a quintet of well-dressed young men from Northampton, Mass., presides onstage, performing a kind of polished, lite rock for an audience of about 50. The guys are a band called Darlingside, a group of college-aged musicians whose songs sound ready to soundtrack a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.
Across the street, Diego Paolo, a band from Newark, takes the stage at Nalu Surf Bar just after sunset. Wearing a blue sun dress with black leggings and a flower headpiece, singer Katie Dill sways and croons in the spotlight, where, a few minutes prior, a man with an acoustic guitar was performing Jimmy Buffett covers.
Darlingside and Diego Paolo are hardly the sort of boozy cover bands that perform most nights at Dewey bars. They are here not only to perform, but also to network, to hang with other musicians, and to further their music careers.
They have traveled to Delaware for the Dewey Beach Music Conference, a three-day event that draws 175 original bands from around the world to perform on 14 Dewey stages within five blocks. This year’s conference is Sept. 22-24.
With any luck, Darlingside will join the ranks of indie bands like Locksley, Halestorm, The Crash Motive and others who sharpened their chops at DBMC on their way to record deals.
“It’s great to get out and play for a different area and region and other musicians and fans,” says Darlingside’s cellist and vocalist Harris Paseltiner. “You come here to take notes. There’s a lot of industry involvement. It’s about getting your band’s name out there into the hands of industry professionals and selling yourself to as many people as possible.”
Now in its 10th year, DBMC is a well-oiled machine of a program, one that encapsulates band showcases, industry insider panels, clinics, trade shows, mentoring sessions, brunches and more.
For the bands, the weekend is one big networking mixer. It gives them a chance to perform in front of new audiences in a fun beach town with a legit musical reputation. It also allows them to pad their music industry acumen via osmosis; mingling with, and asking questions of managers, booking agents, printers, producers and others who make their careers in rock.
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DBMC is the creation of Vikki Walls, whose career until 2002 was as a band manager, and who once a year ran the Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg, Pa.
A working relationship with Bottle & Cork owner and Dewey mogul Alex Pires kept Walls coming back to the beach. She booked bands at the Cork, and one summer brought Pires to South by Southwest, the mega music conference held yearly in Austin, Texas.
“He wanted a music conference here,” Walls says. “So he invited me down in April and showed me Crabbers Cove, the Lighthouse, the Rudder, the Cork. I thought it could be amazing.”
Armed with an army of volunteers and a Rolodex filled with tradeshow merchants and music industry bigwigs, Walls knew if she built it, bands would come.
“You’re in this little beach town with 175 bands, 600 musicians, free food, free passes, yeah, there’s going to be a lot of networking,” she says.
“You’ll do more for your career here than most other places. You can hand your CD to a record producer who’s on a panel. A booking agent might hear your showcase.”
It’s happened before. Locksley, a group from New York, played DBMC in 2007, where they were spotted by Joe Cuello of MTV Music. The exec flew the band to California, shot a music video, got the band a mention in The L Magazine and soundtrack time on MTV programs.
Halestorm signed to Atlantic Records shortly after their DBMC showcase where a producer saw the show. The band later reached No. 9 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts.
Fact is, with all the talent buyers, mentors and musicians crammed into multiple panels, workshops, classes and gigs—connections are going to be made, particularly with the variety of VIP parties and meals, which the town’s many bars and restaurants open their doors to accommodate.
“It’s like band camp,” Walls says. “They don’t want to leave by the end. If you’re in the music biz, you just get it.”
David Silbaugh, a revered talent buyer for Milwaukee’s vaunted Summerfest, attends DBMC every year to pluck six to 10 bands for side stage duty at Summerfest. Brian Waymire, the festival director of RedGorilla Music Fest, and Lisa Light from 930 Club, do the same.
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“Anybody we can think of that can help an indie band, they’re there,” Walls says. Add the town of Dewey and its business owners to the throng of supporters. Besides the Pires-owned clubs, spots up and down the strip welcome the conference and the business that a couple hundred music-folk brings.
Gary’s Dewey Beach Grill has made itself a venue from the very first DBMC. Woody’s East Coast Bar and Grille is a relative newbie. Rick Shindledecker, owner of the popular Sharky’s Grill, plays DBMC bands’ CDs over the house stereo all weekend while serving breakfast sandwiches and coffee.
“It brings in a lot of energy and fun,” says Gary’s owner Gary Cannon, whose bar hosts smaller acts every fall. “Vikki and her people do all the work and we just rotate six to 10 bands in here all weekend.”
Adds Cannon: “It’s the off-season for us, and the weekends are what they are. But this conference is a good little shot in the arm for business. Even when nobody’s playing, we’re busy feeding the other bands, too. That, and it’s fun seeing the bands go places. Is this shy girl singing in my bar going to leave here and become the next Jewel?”
It remains curious to some people that Dewey, well-known for its droves of cover bands, could become such a mecca of original music. But the scene has truly thrived, and the original Dewey Beach Music Conference spawned PopFest, JamFest, ChickFest and other beacons to non-cover musicians.
“At the beginning, I wondered about putting original music on in Dewey,” Walls says. “But after the success of the first one, we knew what we had could work.
“Alex loves it because the bands have become famous. The bartenders are happy because it’s not the norm for them—original musicians. They’re not in polo shirts or puking on the deck. It’s this huge pride thing.”
And the feeling is reciprocal. Walls recalls an artist named Davin McCoy, who was preparing to perform a showcase last year when Walls spotted him from across the room. She proceeded to leap into his arms and deliver a big hug to the slightly freaked-out performer.
“He said, ‘You are the head of the music conference, and not only did you recognized me, but you hugged me. You’re like the Martha Stewart of rock ’n’ roll,’” Walls says. “Here everybody smiles, everybody’s happy. It’s almost disgusting, like, did I just watch a Lifetime movie?”
Turns out that a small, charming beach town can be friendly toward its musicians—even if they aren’t performing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in polo shirts.