An Informal Survey of Alt-Weekly Sponsored Events

Many restaurateurs, leery of negative press, would be nervous about taking a call from an alt-weekly. But when Aaron Switzer, publisher of The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore., contacts local businesspeople about The Bite of Bend, his paper’s annual food festival, he’s met with open arms.

“It’s opened doors for us into parts of the community” where the paper would otherwise have been shut out, he says. And it builds bonds with established advertisers. “We develop a relationship with them that’s more than ‘Send us your ad, we’ll send you the proof,'” Switzer says. He now employs a two-person promotions team to handle The Bite of Bend, two winter festivals and smaller Source events.

Publishers and marketers at AAN member papers across the country are confident that alt-weekly sponsored events are good for business, though increases in ad revenue and readership are hard to prove. What about measuring an event’s effect? “I’m not sure you should even try,” says Mark Zusman, editor of Portland’s Willamette Week.

Nonetheless, his paper is just one of many that are busy creating, purchasing, expanding and sometimes jettisoning such events, using newspaper staff or teaming with production companies. Only a few ventures are profitable; many more break even or lose money; and at least one is organized as a nonprofit just to avoid the whole issue.

Rolling out the red carpet

The granddaddy of alt-events is The Village Voice’s Obie Awards presentation, first held in June 1956. The program recognizes the best of off- and off-off-Broadway productions. For the past five years, The Voice has also sponsored the Siren Music Festival on Coney Island, which attracts national sponsors and soon-to-be-major bands.

Fifteen years ago, Syracuse New Times was the founding sponsor of the Syracuse Area Music Awards — or Sammys — providing seed money, two of the original 10 board members and a place to meet. While the event might not draw the national attention the Obies do, it’s been successful enough that the paper bought the naming rights to the theater that hosts the awards. The New Times name now graces a facade in the busy New York State Fairgrounds complex.

The paper also hosts the SALT (Syracuse Area Live Theater) Awards, which this year sold out a month before the June 2 ceremony, paying for itself. SALT draws people in limos, tuxes and gowns. “Lots of skin and lots of jewels,” says Arthur Zimmer, the paper’s publisher.

Maine’s Portland Phoenix hosts the BIMPIES (Best Music Poll awards). At the presentation, spray-painted gold records are given out as awards and a video, BMP Cribs, shows band members “in their filth and refuse,” according to sales director and operations manager Marc Shepard. “The local band community thinks this is the greatest thing. We literally get months of buzz,” he says. “You ingratiate yourself with the local band and club-owner community so much that it would really be difficult for someone else to come in” and compete for the paper’s music-pages business.

Getting the bands back together

The nationally renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival owes its formation to an alternative newspaper — namely, the Austin Chronicle in Texas. According to editor Louis Black, local band manager and club booker Louis Jay Meyers approached him and Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro about creating the event in November 1986. They met with Roland Swenson, then working at the paper on special projects, and spent the next four months planning the first festival, which was held in March 1987.

Black labels Barbaro and himself “the facilitators” of the event and Swenson and Meyers “the creative force.” SXSW has since become its own corporation, with each man owning a quarter. Its success has spawned the SXSW Film Festival and SXSW Interactive Conference, as well as Toronto’s North by Northeast (NXNE) and Portland’s North by Northwest (NXNW).

Toronto’s NOW Magazine is behind NXNE, with editor/publisher Michael Hollett and editor/CEO Alice Klein collaborating with the festival’s managing director, Andy McLean, and a local independent club booker to get the festival started in 1995. June 2005’s festival saw the event’s highest turnout yet — as well as the greatest number of bands booked in the greatest number of clubs. In recent years, the festival has added film screenings to its schedule. McLean says, “It basically takes over Toronto for those days.”

NXNW proved to be a mixed blessing for Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., says Joe Lesher, the paper’s marketing manager. Venue owners in Portland complained about having to deal with Austin-based outsiders. “We had an image problem with the festival year to year that was difficult to overcome,” says Lesher. NXNW lasted six years.

Now Willamette Week produces MusicFest NW, and does so as a nonprofit venture, funding music education in Portland schools with the proceeds. Still, Lesher adds, “It took about three years for the community to start to get behind it.” Creating an advisory board composed of local music industry bigwigs has been “an essential element to creating the continued goodwill within our music community.” The success of this event has become “part of the story of the paper, when [sales reps] are going out to meet” with potential advertisers.

Lisa Rudy, publisher of Metro Times in Detroit, says that her paper’s Hamtramck Blowout, featuring 17 venues and 225 bands, “gives us a bit of street credibility. They come in droves.” The week of the Blowout, the paper publishes four different covers by local artists. These have become collectors’ items that people carry around for the duration of the festival.

Pittsburgh City Paper’s monthly film and music nights flourish on an entirely different scale. Marketing director Traci Schneider believes that Film Kitchen, a regular film- and video-screening event, is unique among AAN papers. With a small entry fee and beer and restaurant sponsors, each evening pays for itself — and the series has raised more than $12,000 for grants to local filmmakers since 1998. A musical variation of the series, Sound Kitchen, began in March and is already filling its venue.

Alternatives to the standard soirees

New Mass Media, which owns Fairfield County Weekly, Hartford Advocate, New Haven Advocate and Valley Advocate, hosts a quarterly Collage event for young professionals — a combination of party and art exhibit. It has also sponsored free one-off events, such as Office Space: The Party, which was held at an avant-garde museum. It featured the movie “Office Space” projected on a wall inside, a copier outside for patrons to smash (“scarily popular,” according to group publisher Janet Reynolds), plus music, beer and a trivia contest.

The Coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia, wrangles readers with its anniversary party each June, says promotions and marketing manager Christa Harrie. The paper holds three separate “Best of” parties (one for food, one for music, and one for all the rest), but the birthday bash is “all about new readers,” she says. Current and potential clients, as well as the “Halifamous” in local arts and entertainment, are invited to a pre-party gathering. For the public, “prizes are always huge, huge” as a draw, says Harrie, and have included trips to Toronto, scuba suits, surfboards and vibrators. “Lots of people say it kicks off their summer.”

Any event publicity is good publicity

Even the best events can occasionally go awry. Long Island Press’s annual “50 Most Powerful People” list is celebrated with a 350-person party at a paper-owned venue, Maxwell and Dunne’s. The event is “all networking,” says publisher Jed Morey. “It gave a lot of legitimacy to an alternative paper. We were taking a lot of shots at people on that list and they’re still coming. It brings so many buyers into the room and people who are connected to buyers.”

It also brought one touchy moment in 2003, when the keynote speakers were the God Squad, a local cable-television rabbi-and-priest duo who had gained national attention and were number 17 on that year’s list. The father simply blessed the crowd, but the rabbi took his time to explain, as Morey recalls, “how disappointed God would be that we were ranking people. There was pretty much stunned silence all around.

“It’s not like he even left — he was hanging around all night,” Morey muses. “But it was really a beautiful night.”

The same cannot be said of the touring motorcycle show the paper once sponsored. “We actually hosted the biggest riot in the history of New York, outside of, I suppose, Attica,” Morey says. It was Pagans versus Hell’s Angels, and one of the Pagans lost his life. “That’s why we’re just doing cocktail parties now,” Morey says.

Biker groups and other niche markets remain attractive to AAN event planners. The Reader of Omaha, Neb., bills its annual Hell on Heels as a “fashion-cycling expo,” says Ethan Bondelid, a Reader production artist who handles event coordination through his own company, Ultramusique. Held for the first time last year at a small biker bar, it included everything from a motorcycle expo to biker fashion (“as classy but rowdy as you can get, if you can imagine that,” he says). This year it will move up to a much bigger and classier bar — one that’s biker-friendly — and feature bike-oriented video games.

Another game-oriented event hosted by the Reader, Halo A Go-Go, offered tournament and free-for-all play of the popular video game on giant screens, plus dancers dressed as Halo characters. The event helped Bondelid build a relationship with another segment of the paper’s readership — and with event sponsor EB Games’ marketing manager.

Perhaps the most unusual event hosted by an AAN paper is Willamette Week’s “Candidates Gone Wild!” Last year local political hopefuls faced a current events quiz and talent competition (one candidate ironed his shirt). The night also featured a band and stilt walkers.

“None of this is substantive, is it?” laughs editor Mark Zusman. It’s nonetheless so popular the paper has begun to charge admission just to keep the crowds down. “We were concerned candidates wouldn’t show up,” says Zusman, “but this thing, we’ve now done it four times, and it has created its own momentum. You can’t not attend.”

He can’t point to any tangible results. “But so far as we view ourselves as the source for uncensored, pull-no-punches coverage of politics and elective office in particular, this does nothing but help.”

Marty Levine is the news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.