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The Naked Songwriter (not literally): DEMO showcases local artists on YouTube

by Luke Muyskens

January 09, 2014

While some music promoters are out there trying to rope in heavy hitters, drum up big ticket sales, and wow the crowds with pyrotechnics, DEMO is quietly plugging away, working to promote new, different and underrepresented musicians.

The Naked Songwriter, a 15-episode Web series, is the organization’s newest project. It’s also part of a push to bring DEMO's efforts to a wider audience of musicians and people who appreciate good, local music.

DEMO, the Diverse Emerging Music Organization, has been serving emerging artists in the Twin Cities for almost a decade. They know the importance of music in community-building.  Since 2005, DEMO has worked to organize and promote musicians with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience in order to support the communities they are playing in, without focusing on ticket sales.

“We deal in an area of the music scene that is off the radar screen of the popular or trendy mainstream scene or the multitudes of various cliques that come and go over the years,” said the organization’s leader, Steve McClellan. “So, I guess you could say we exist pre-scenester.”

McClellan is no rookie. He began his work promoting diverse music during his 32 years as general manager of First Avenue, through its Diverse Arts and Music Foundation (DAMF). When he left First Ave in 2005, McClellan continued DAMF’s mission by starting DEMO.  Since then, they’ve showcased musicians from Patti Smith and K’naan to your neighborhood garage band.

The diversity of the music scene has grown more quickly than local venues have accommodated, McClellan said.  “Most venues need 'safe' bookings and sell beer to the 'safer' mainstream audiences within various genres, leaving many artists and audiences underserved.”

Despite having helped to put multitudes of artists on 22 local stages, DEMO recently felt the need for a kick-start. “DEMO had been stuck in a rut for several years and was struggling to understand its role as an organization,” said Ozzy Dahlstrom, DEMO’s community liaison.  “The artistic director, Steve McClellan, saw the need for fresh ideas and new volunteers to get things moving again.”

One new project DEMO developed to revamp their programming is the Naked Songwriter series.  Spearheaded by Dahlstrom, the 15-episode series features premiere Twin Cities talent performing and sharing stories in a coffee shop. Each episode features three or four songs performed in Precision Grind Coffee on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis's Seward neighborhood.

The first episode, released on December 16, featured Ben Kyle of Romantica; the second featured singer/songwriter Katy Vernon; and the third featured longtime Twin Cities fixture Dan Israel.  The episodes manage to communicate the intimate coffee shop atmosphere—including the little personal anecdotes and jokes usually only heard at live shows—but are accessible to a wider audience.

Future Naked Songwriter episodes will be released every Monday on DEMO’s YouTube channel through March and will feature musicians from Bomba de Luz, the Honeydogs, and the4onthefloor, as well as solo artists like Mayda and Chris Koza. “I wanted to present an eclectic cross-section of established artists whose songs and performance styles fit the intimate, coffeehouse vibe,” Dahlstrom said. “They also needed to be people that other musicians respect, and who have put in the time and effort to become local household names.”

The Naked Songwriter series is one of several upcoming DEMO projects. Others include a weekly podcast with Steve McClellan and guests, educational events at McNally Smith, and DEMO's ongoing showcase at the Schooner Tavern.

“My hope is that developing songwriters will watch these episodes and take away some tips, ideas, or inspiration for their own music,” Dahlstrom said. “They don’t need to go to MTV or the major labels to find captivating performers; we have plenty in the Twin Cities and I want to make them easily accessible to anyone.”

Luke Muyskens attends St. John’s University. He previously wrote for aboveGround Magazine and UGSMAG.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.