Philly's Weathervane Music boosts careers of new talent

Posted: January 16, 2011

Back in 2002, when Brian McTear was producing an album for chamber-pop songwriter Matt Pond at his Miner Street Recordings studio, the two friends batted around ideas about the future of the music industry.

CD sales had peaked the preceding year. And though Napster had ushered in the file-sharing revolution, the recording industry was not yet in free fall.

"It was obvious even back then that the music industry was on an unsustainable path," says McTear, executive director of Weathervane Music, the Fishtown nonprofit that assists young artists in a response to the music business' transformation.

Sharon Van Etten, the Brooklyn songwriter, is the breakout success story for Weathervane and its Shaking Through program, the collaborative series with adult-alternative radio station WXPN (88.5) that has also spotlighted Philadelphia buzz bands Reading Rainbow and Party Photographers. On Thursday, Van Etten headlines the Fishtown music club Johnny Brenda's.

"We realized that popular music, while perceived to be a booming business, had only a fraction of the respect and organized support that, say, classical music had, or jazz, or dance," says McTear, 38, recalling the discussion during the recording of the band Matt Pond PA's The Nature of Maps. "It seemed inevitable that at some point pop music would have to fight for its keep as well."

Weathervane aids rising musicians in that battle. "With everything falling apart in the music industry," asks McTear, who founded the all-volunteer organization in 2009, "who's going to help artists figure out what the next step is?"

Acting as a "new music incubator," Weathervane aims to do just that. Artists are selected by such taste-making curators as Scott McMicken, of the West Philadelphia pop-rock band Dr. Dog; Daniel Smith, of the South Jersey avant-rock act Danielson Famile; and Mark Schoeneveld, of the Fishtown-based music blog "yvynyl" (pronounced why vinyl).

With Weathervane, pop acts such as the Long Island indie quintet Twin Sister have gained access to resources that are not commonly available to scuffling bands on a no-budget business model. It's another example of the music business under today's ever-changing new rules, as the Internet makeover of the industry forces aspiring acts to adapt and build their careers in creative ways.

With the loss of revenues from album sales, "record companies are no longer doing development deals," says WXPN general manager Roger LaMay. "We think this project is really important in finding and nurturing young talent."

Typically, a Weathervane band records for free for two or three days at Miner Street, which is named after its original location in West Chester. It was founded there by McTear when he played in the psychedelic pop band Mariner Nine in the 1990s. The studio relocated to Manayunk, then McTear and partner Amy Morrissey moved it to Fishtown in 2005.

A group selected by Weathervane walks away with one song completed, as well as behind-the-scenes video calling cards - shot in HD by videographer Peter English - meant to introduce the band to a wider audience. The songs and videos in each "episode" - there were 10 last year, during Vol. 1 - can be streamed and downloaded at shakingthrough.com or WeathervaneMusic.org, where the nonprofit seeks donations via the online arts fund-raising tool Kickstarter.

Trying to Stand Out

Music blogs advocate for little-known bands that are trying to make it in the overcrowded, Internet free-for-all.

Weathervane takes it further, focusing attention on acts that have begun to build an audience and offering invaluable career-building experience. The studio time, video crew, and promotional efforts are worth about $7,500, McTear says, but the opportunities that arise from the experience can be incalculable.

"The music industry is changing so rapidly right now," Schoeneveld says. "Artists are scared, but also more enabled by the Web to create their own careers. It's awesome to have a way to enable them further, as well as give them a little extra push to create some great media with professional studio and video in a way that they may otherwise not get."

"There are just so many music makers out there," says Elise O of the Brooklyn blog "Pixelhorse." For Weathervane, she picked A Classic Education, a band from Bologna, Italy, that came to Philadelphia to record in October.

Their episode will launch Vol. 2 of Shaking Through on Tuesday. "Someone needs to showcase the remarkable, the talented, and the most enjoyable," she says. "Shaking Through does that in an aesthetically and aurally polished way."

"The whole idea behind Weathervane is incredible, showing people how much love and care there is behind a song," says Jonathan Clancy, of A Classic Education, via e-mail. The singer, who grew up in Ottawa, Canada, before moving to Bologna as a teenager, says: "We had recorded in nice studios a long time ago . . . but for the last three to four years we had gone back to home recording. Boy, it's easy to forget how much a nice studio can do, but once you're back in one you see how much it's important, how much more magic and possibilities you have."

McTear, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a child, grew up in Exton and South Coventry before attending West Chester University. He's earned an esteemed reputation in indie circles with his bands Mariner Nine and Bitter Bitter Weeks, and for his production work with acts including the Bigger Lovers, She-Haw, and Matt Pond PA.

Around 2008, he started getting serious about his notion of "creating a place where musicians could go and make music and not worry about the expenses involved."

When the recession hit, "I figured it really was time to get cooking with the idea," he said recently, talking over lunch at Ida Mae's Bruncherie in Fishtown.

In 2009, he launched Weathervane, spotlighting acts such as Philadelphia orchestral pop whiz B.C. Camplight. Then, last January, XPN came on board to provide marketing and fund-raising support, "plus some cold, hard cash," says LaMay.

Shaking Through, he adds, is part of the station's growing local focus. "There are all of these online music communities out there. You need to be from somewhere. And we're from this region."

The station has signed up to pay $50,000 over a two-year period. McTear says $12,500 of that went toward Weathervane's total budget of $35,000 in 2010, with the reminder coming through fund-raising. Weathervane will get $25,000 from XPN in 2011, and aims to raise an additional $50,000 in hopes of going from an all-volunteer organization to hiring two full-time employees.

XPN gives Weathervane bands further exposure, which could mean being added to the station's playlist, or being featured on the station's indie-centric Web radio station, Y-Rock, or local music blog "The Key."

Successfully

'Shaking Through'

Van Etten recorded her Weathervane track, the hauntingly beautiful "Love More," at Miner Street in December 2009. The next month, she became the first Shaking Through artist. Word of Web spread as Pitchfork, the career-making online music magazine, raved about the song, which went viral when Justin Vernon of the indie-fave band Bon Iver covered it in concert and on YouTube.

Working with Weathervane started her whirlwind year, says Van Etten.

"I had an amazing experience," she said, backstage before a performance at World Cafe Live last fall. When it came time to record again, she returned to Miner Street in April to cut her seven-song album Epic.

"I loved working with Brian," said the lush-voiced 29-year-old, who grew up in Nutley, N.J. "I've always been really scared of recording in the studio and working with other people. He really brought out the best in my songs that I didn't even know existed before." A case in point would be Epic's majestic "Save Yourself," which features McTear's uncle, Jimmy Callan, on pedal steel guitar.

Epic was showered with praise upon release in September. Robin Hilton of NPR Music said of Van Etten's music: "I can't recall hearing anything more beautiful in all my life." Van Etten is working on her next album with Aaron Dessner of the National.

Van Etten is "the poster child" for Shaking Through, says LaMay, but blog buzz has been building for others, too, such as Reading Rainbow, the Philadelphia duo of Sarah Everton and Rob Garcia, and Twin Sister, which is recording an album at Miner Street.

Both bands were curated by Schoeneveld of the influential "yvynyl" blog, who says McTear's enthusiasm makes Weathervane go. "He's so into the life and art of recording and music, and you know it instantaneously. It's contagious. He's pretty stoked to become a mentor."

Dr. Dog's McMicken also felt McTear's passion. "I could see how psyched he was. He talked about how it was a new model that potentially puts the power back in the hands of the bands and the artist. That got me interested right away."

Weathervane will introduce 10 new Shaking Through artists in 2011, with Peter Silverman of the Antlers, from Portland, Ore., acting as the newest curator. McTear hopes to one day help acts record entire albums, fund bands to go on tour, and present a summer music festival.

But why, exactly, is it called Weathervane?

In 1996, McTear's band Mariner Nine released an album called A Little Something From the Weathervane's Perspective. He also had a later band called the Weather, which broke up before releasing any recordings.

"When it came time to name this new nonprofit, I thought [Weathervane] seemed appropriate with respect to the cultural storm that has brought down so much of the music industry," he says. "A weathervane points into the wind as if it knows the source of the dangers that beset us. When it comes to music and society, I feel like that's us!"


For music and videos from Weathervane's "Shaking Through" series, go to Dan DeLuca's "In the Mix" blog at www.philly.com/philly/ blogs/inthemix.


Contact staff writer and music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ inthemix.

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