Wave // Breaker – 2017: The Rise of the Live Synth Shows

When Wave // Breaker was initially conceived as an ongoing series it was pitched as being a way to highlight acts within the synthwave scene through a mixture of interviews, reviews, research, and commentary. Of course, as with any scene, the artists and the music of which they make is but half of the equation. It’s like the old proverb of a tree falling in the woods, which is to ask: without promoters, labels, and various digital outlets in this internet age would the music and the artists be as successful? Maybe, maybe not, but regardless you can’t have a scene without that symbiotic relationship as in the end it’s that sort of every action has a reaction type deal.

With that in mind, originally this installment of Wave // Breaker that you’re reading was going to be your typical end of the year retrospective of the synthwave scene in terms of being either a top releases list or a general highlight reel. However, the more it was considered the more it became apparent that trying to cut down the exorbitant amount of releases this year into a sizable list, or even highlighting notable ones, was a rather daunting task. On top of that it felt a little off-brand in terms of how Wave // Breaker has functioned up to now.

Thus this installment now heralds not only the passing of time from one year to the next, but also a new approach going forward for Wave // Breaker as well. As stated before, a scene is so much more than the artists and their music so therefore we shall now follow suit by covering much more of the scene in turn. Don’t worry, we will still indeed cover artists and their music but once again sometimes you just need to share the spotlight a little with others that make it possible. Anyway, to start that transition we need to look backwards before we can continue to move forwards because a lot has happened in the past year which will have a great impact on the next year to come as a result. Perhaps the event, or series of events, which have had the greatest impact on the synthwave scene in 2017 has been the increase of live shows which have given many acts their time to shine.

After all, and for some time now, synthwave artists much like other electronic music makers have been looked down upon for being so-called “bedroom producers.” It was thought that they could never really make the switch from their computers to a live stage, however over the years this has proven to not only be wrong by a select few but their numbers have since grown to the point where seemingly one off shows have evolved into full-blown music festivals all over the world with yearly events being scheduled as a result of successful turnouts in 2017.

To clarify the point: It should be noted that while this assertion is not meant to belittle those shows that came before this year in any way, for example DNA Lounge‘s Turbo Drive in San Francisco which has been going strong since 2013 by putting on synthwave related events every month, I think it can at least be argued that 2017 was the year when live synthwave shows really started to explode around the world as a result of the paths that they and others paved. That all said, and for my money, that explosion started this year with Human Music.

Back in May, during Memorial Day weekend, I personally attended Human Music at the QXT’s nightclub in Newark, New Jersey and it was simply amazing. I won’t go too in depth on my experiences during the two day event, as I already covered both the first and second day quite heavily over on my own synthwave blog, but what I will say is that the event was such a success that there was an announcement of a follow up show planned for 2018 mere days after the conclusion of the first. I have personally heard rumblings about some of the potential acts being booked for said show next year, but although nothing has been confirmed you can bet that I will be there regardless. Human Music, as any festival should do, not only allowed me to see acts I already knew but it helped me to discover new ones as well and gave them plenty of exposure and experience all around.

Not to be outdone, the UK-based Retro Future Festival put on a show at the end of July this year as well but they’re not waiting until next year for their follow up as they’ve already got a winter event planned, entitled “Neon Winter,” in only a couple of days. Since synthwave has become such a global phenomenon, it’s therefore inspirational and encouraging to see that different continents are getting in on the music festival action because of the locations of specific acts. It should go without saying that mostly North American acts were at Human Music whereas mostly UK or European based acts tend to perform at Retro Future Festival outings; each part of the world has their own scene. Scenes within a scene, if you will, and while one could argue that Human Music was mostly for the New Jersey/New York synthwave scene, despite having some acts from other parts of the world, one could also argue that Echosynthetic Fest was mostly for the Atlanta synthwave scene while also having acts from other parts as well. Either way, it shows that if you stage it they will come and perform.

Echosynthetic Fest occurred a month ago in November and, much like Human Music and Retro Future Festival, there’s already plans for another one next year due to it’s success. The brainchild of James Mitchell, creator of the similarly named synthwave news and review website Echosynthetic, the genre entered his life through a well-known gateway into the scene. “I know that the movie Drive was a big inspiration for a lot of people, but I honestly didn’t see it until this year” James admitted, instead crediting Hotline Miami‘s memorable soundtrack as his personal launching point. “I started YouTube deep dives trying to find more music like it and stumbled across the album Journeys by Timecop1983. I was absolutely floored and I’ve been hooked since.” That hook held firm, and never let go, eventually becoming the inspiration behind forming Echosynthetic.

“I’ve been a blogger for years, mostly movie reviews and such, but nothing ever took off. I think the biggest issue is that I was mostly writing about films that I thought people wanted to read about, not what I had a passion for” James lamented. “That eventually led me to creating Video/Cassette, a retro blog that hit closer to home, but it still wasn’t quite right. My wife suggested I focus on something that I love and write about it, whether anyone reads it or not. That was the birth of Echosynthetic.” While writing about the scene is certainly quite the active act of participation, something else entirely can certainly be said about putting on a show within said scene; it gets taken to a whole other level. But much like how the blog started with words of encouragement, so did the music fest which would bear its name.

Chris Frain of Pattern Language and I had mulled the idea a bit, but nothing concrete, and nothing set in stone for 2017″ James explained, “I had an upcoming interview on the ACS Universe YouTube channel and in pre-planning I casually mentioned the possibility of a future festival, mostly as an aside of something cool I had cooking for the future. During my interview he asked me about it and before I got home I already had half a dozen artists asking about when it would be and if they could play.” James was immediately thrown into the deep end by booking artists, finding a venue, and coordinating everything in between. However, despite being a rookie on all fronts, the show went rather smoothly with not too many issues especially when you consider the rather stacked bill of ten artists in total. “The two biggest issues came from not everyone having time to soundcheck, which led to a few issues later, and the show running too late in the evening” James explained but, ever the resourceful one, he’s taken the issues in stride and plans to use them as lessons learned to make the next one even better. “Next year I am going to do a two-day show to ensure that everyone has more time all around.”

Vampire Step-Dad, an Atlanta-based synthwave artist, played at Echosynthetic Fest and recently released their album NIGHT:SHIFT which tells the tale of a cop with a grave secret alongside a crime dramedy soundtrack.

When asked if he could further elaborate on what he has planned for next year, specifically talent wise both local and abroad, James did not reveal all his cards but did proudly proclaim that “shining a light on the talent of Atlanta has always been a priority for me and that is something which will continue into the Second Annual Echosynthetic Fest. Expanding the show to two days in 2018 will allow me to bring more artists from out of town as well and from other parts of the globe too. I think that the mix of musical styles and the exotic flair of having artists from elsewhere playing alongside established local talent was the biggest win for Echosynthetic Fest. I’m already in talks to get the show booked early so that people can make travel plans a long time in advance.”

“One act can transport you back to 1985, while another can have you soaring through space, or maybe skirting the pits of hell. I think word of mouth is getting around. I expect 2018 to be a banner year for live synthwave.”

With such a heavy emphasis, first and foremost, on the local talent the question had to be raised: does it help to foster that local scene first in order to bring in people from out of town or do the names of the acts themselves carry the weight? That all is to say, would Echosynthetic Fest have been just as successful had it not already had such a supportive local synthwave scene? Is it the chicken or the egg? “I would say that the established scene here in Atlanta most certainly helped” James mused, explaining that “Vampire Step-Dad and Gregorio Franco, both Atlanta synthwave acts, had already played some very high profile shows in town and there were people there to see them specifically. Thankfully those people came and stayed for the rest of the show too, brought friends, and helped create a really positive vibe. On the flip side, I met people that came from California, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and more that were excited to see the show as a whole. Finally, walk up ticket sales during the show were strong, indicating that word got out that Echosynthetic Fest was worth checking out.”

Gregorio Franco, another Atlanta-based synthwave artist, also played at Echnosynethic Fest and although we’ve already covered him before on this site we would be remiss in not mentioning his equally amazing dungeon synth side project known as DRONN. It’s the perfect music to listen to when rolling dice!

Which is all anyone that runs a show can ask, but what is it about synthwave shows that have made them more in demand this year than any other and continue to grow? Is it simply a case of supply and demand, where more fans equals more shows, or is it something else? James weighed in by suggesting that “it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think you have quite a few artists who were already established in other forms of music who are used to playing live. Once they picked up synthwave the transition of that music to the stage was just a natural progression. Alternately, you’ve got an amazingly talented pool of artists out there and the support for them is overwhelming. The fans of synthwave want live shows just like any other fanbase, there just hasn’t been enough people pushing to make it happen. You also get something at a synthwave show that you don’t get at a normal concert. One act can transport you back to 1985, while another can have you soaring through space, or maybe skirting the pits of hell. I think word of mouth is getting around. I expect 2018 to be a banner year for live synthwave.”

The photos above are stills from an upcoming documentary about the synthwave scene which was filmed during Echosynthetic Fest. Massive shout out to Gene Priest (who is also known as the one and only Skeleton Beach within the synthwave scene) and Derek Jones of SNWF Films for giving me a sneak peak on a recent rough cut. As of this writing there is not currently an official release date other than “early 2018.” On a personal note: I was supposed to attend Echosynthethic Fest but had to cancel at the last minute. Regardless of this fact I can tell you that even from what I’ve seen of this documentary thus far it felt like I was there; it feels genuine and is a real look into the synthwave community. Expect a proper review of this documentary upon it’s official release.

One of the people interviewed for the documentary was Aleks, a promoter from Los Angeles that co-sponsored Echosynthetic Fest, who heads up the synthwave promotional label known as Neo-LA and is responsible for running synthwave shows in the greater Los Angeles area. “I first got into synthwave when my husband showed it to me” Aleks explained, “he is a synthwave artist and had been making music at night; just one of those unknown bedroom producers. He had been slowly releasing music, but hadn’t really known what his sound was; he loves the soundtracks of horror movies, and movies like Drive, so he eventually found his genre in synthwave. I knew I liked the genre immediately after I fell in love with artists like Dance with the Dead, GosT, and Carpenter Brut. At that point I knew I liked the music, and some of the big names, but in the end it was the fans and the community that really pulled me into synthwave.”

FacexHugger, who is managed by Neo-LA and is often booked on their shows, also played Echosynthetic Fest where they debuted a brand new song featuring The Encounter with Glitbiter on vocals. It’s mesmerizing.

With all the work that Aleks has done so far under the Neo-LA banner, from releasing a charity compilation for Halloween to helping put on numerous live shows and scheduling a few multi-city tours, you’d think that she’s been in the synthwave promotion game for quite some time now. However, much like how a lot of synthwave festivals celebrated their inaugural event this year, Neo-LA also just got off the ground this past calendar year too but what led her down such a path? “Kinda dumb luck I guess” Aleks admitted, explaining that “I was already managing FacexHugger and making contacts in the scene for him. Earlier this year a show was announced with Vogel, Future Holotape, Shredder 1984, and Facexhugger at the Complex in Glendale, CA. The show was cancelled pretty close to the show date, and I felt bad for the artists, so I put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone could help get these guys a place to play. I started messaging bars and eventually got a break with another bar in Glendale. Vogel couldn’t play anymore due to an accident he had just been in, but we filled the bill and announced the rescheduled show. With my drive, contacts, and previous promotion experience from working as a promoter for KROQ [a radio station in Pasadena, California serving the greater Los Angeles area], I figured I could keep booking shows. I came up with a name, made an announcement, and it all took off from there.”

“A good promoter promotes everywhere. Besides online, I talk to people at shows, I approach people at bars, on the street, in stores… I am selling a feeling; I am personally finding and inviting future fans to join this genre and this family.”

However just having the tools and the talent will only get you so far as a promoter, especially in a niche genre as synthwave, yet Aleks recognizes these challenges and not only tackles them head on but is looking to redefine their misconception. “For fans, artists, and people who work with this genre, we know synthwave, we know the sounds, the feelings, the fans, the artists big and small” Aleks attested, “but explaining all that to a venue is hard and it doesn’t always matter to them when they just want to make money and you just want to hear great artists perform. The other challenge is how to promote, who do we target, how do we find people in a crowd that would love synthwave if they knew? It’s not as easy as just targeting a specific group of people and saying “yeah, all metalheads are gonna eat this up” or “nah, punkers won’t understand.” You can’t just say “hey, there’s this type of music that’s heavy on synthesizers, it’s retro and cool, it’s heavy and pop, it’s small and it’s popular”; you’re just gonna end up with a confused person.”

“Being a promoter means getting the music out there, however you can, and gaining fans for the genre, the artists, the shows, and I think that’s what I do. I do plenty of online promotion. I pay for targeted ads. I pay for great art for my flyers; I love to use my posters as bait for promoting, and my artist is great at it as 99% of my posters have been done by Adam Carrini from Graphic Mercenary and he knows exactly what I am looking for when I send him details for shows. I push on social media, I search the hashtags, and direct people to my shows. I find people who RSVP to a similar show and friend them, invite them, post in other show events and Facebook pages to promote not only the brand I am building but the artists and the scene as well. A good promoter promotes everywhere. Besides online, I talk to people at shows, I approach people at bars, on the street, in stores… I am selling a feeling; I am personally finding and inviting future fans to join this genre and this family.”

Shredder 1984, who hails from France, has been cutting themselves a nice slice of the American synthwave scene pie on each coast between performing at Echosynthetic Fest as well as a number of shows with Neo-LA. 

Much like I did when talking to James about the rise of synthwave shows throughout the year, I was curious to get Aleks’ take on the question; is such a rise simply a case of a genre’s natural progression, a transition from being “underground” to more “mainstream”, producers being more willing to go live, a mixture of all that or something else entirely? “It’s a whirlwind of things” Aleks replied, further elaborating by saying that “I think Perturbator and GosT playing with metal bands helped expose synthwave, through the darkwave/darksynth subgenre, to other fans. I think that because many underground artists are active on social media it’s helped sell themselves a lot. I think all the coverage from Reddit, Echosynthetic, Watermelon Banzai, and other sites helped fans find artists and support them. I think synthwave artists in general just help each other more than many artists in other genres, and that support helps everyone rise together. I also think that the festivals, the promoters, and the fans share all these great artists with friends too so it’s hard to not love synthwave when you hear it. I’ve had family members, friends, and older people listen to synthwave and all have the same reaction from age 5 to 75! The genre sells itself, it’s just about getting the stuff out there, and I feel like the growth is because this genre is so needed; it’s rising because of the community surrounding it.”

As mentioned before, Neo-LA itself has been on a similar meteoric rise since it’s debut only but a few months ago and has already made an impressive impact, so what’s next for the budding promotion which shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon as we make our way fowards and into the new year? “Oh man, we already have shows booked well into April 2018 with some exciting plans to collaborate with other promoters to bring even bigger shows” Aleks exclaimed, “we also have a few tours planned too, a few more charity compilations as well, and hopefully exposing even more underground artists in the process. Neo-LA is also looking to expand to Seattle, hopefully by summer 2018, and therefore we’ll be able to book up and down the west coast. We are also hoping to come up with funding to do our very own synthwave festival and have already started talking to artists and looking at venues. At this point, Neo-LA is growing so fast, that I can’t promise what else we will take on!”

Needless to say, I am going to be quite busy in 2018 as it is my intention to attend as many synthwave shows and festivals that I can from the second annual iterations of both Human Music and Echosynthetic Fest to perhaps even a possible first annual Neo-LA Fest. There’s also going to be the NEON Retrofuturism Festival in Rhode Island, which is planned for August, that I didn’t mention before but you can be assured that much like every other show I attend there will be a proper write-up after my attendance. However, I would implore you to not simply wait for my words and instead experience any events for yourself. That said, if you’ve never been to a synthwave show before then make sure that 2018 is the year when you go to your first and hopefully even more.

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