Cornerstone Festival - Band Selection

The Phantom Tollbooth's discussion with Henry Huang, executive director of Cornerstone Festival, continued. After getting past the pleasantries and general reminiscences, we addressed perhaps the most intriguing question:

Phantom - How can a band play at Cornerstone? What do they have to do?

Henry - I don't really know. It's a pretty mystical process.

Phantom - You seem like a nice, regular guy, not a king-maker.

Henry - The nice thing about us (Jesus People USA) is that we do everything in committees and groups. There are at least three or four of us that are involved in the band selection process. We bring all our ideas, put them on the table, and we fight it out. We book those that we can agree on, and those on which we can't agree, we shelve and talk some more. I have my favorites, and other people have their favorites; we'll pitch and we'll sell, and if we can sell it to everybody else, we figure that there is wisdom in consensus of the many.

Phantom - Does your community as a whole get some input?

Henry - Oh, yeah. Our kids, other people in the community. Our kids have a lot of influence, who they like and don't like. Since we're putting up the money to do the thing, we hope we'll create something we really like.

Trying to keep the program's appeal to a broad age group is sometimes difficult. I'd love to have Barry McGuire and Terry Talbot come together and do their little thing, and somebody else is thinking, "Who's Barry McGuire?"

Phantom - What is the best way for a band to be noticed?

Henry - It's hard with so many bands out there. How do you select between 300 new bands that are claiming to be great? Until you hear somebody saying, "I saw this band four times in this area, and they were really good." That has a lot more credibility than the band themselves calling us and saying, "We have three CD's out, and we've been touring with so-and-so." We spread our nets pretty wide in talking with people. If you're really good, we'll hear about you. 

Linda - What drives your decision in selecting well-known acts?

Henry - People are continually frustrated with us. They'll say, "We sold 100,000 units, why can't we play Cornerstone?" When we book bands, we hardly look at the label affiliation or the sales. We go to it trying to book bands we would enjoy listening to ourselves, that we feel have quality musicianship and a real serious heart for God. They don't necessarily have to say Jesus or evangelize at every concert, but the people need to have a serious heart for God. I've noticed a change in the bands that are up-and-coming. There are a lot of people who feel it's a career and say, "I'm going to get into this career by hook or crook." There's a much more hardened attitude about their career, rather than seeing if the Lord opens the door or not.

I don't think we can be the spiritual cop to the CCM world, but at the same time, we don't have to support or give our stamp of approval to people that just don't give a hoot about spiritual values.

Phantom - How do you figure that out?

Henry - I don't know if we specifically go ferreting for spiritual dirt on people (laughs) but we're involved in the Christian music world. You take everything you hear with a grain of salt, and you check your sources. You talk to the individuals that are involved in the issues. I think because we're out there (at the Festival) four or five days in a pretty intense environment you get to see the people at their best and at their worst. When the P.A. all of a sudden goes down, how do the manager and the band act? Do they curse around, or do they say, "Hey, let's try to figure something out." That tells a lot about the character and nature of the individual. 

It's always humorous when people call us and talk to us differently than they would to other people. They start using more evangelical words and more conservative Christian words or concepts, words they probably wouldn't use normally. I'm thinking, "I know that's not how you really are, and that's not really how we are. You don't have to put on this spiritual veneer with us. Let's just be real people."

Phantom - What about newly-recorded artists?

Henry - We're going to go back and re-institute the New Band Showcase for unsigned bands. We dropped it last year because it seems like anybody who wants to, has a label affiliation of one sort or another. With the growth in the whole Christian music world, the line between signed and unsigned is pretty hazy right now. Even the independent bands have national distribution on their own, so that designation becomes almost irrelevant. But we got so much flack from dropping the showcase.

For local area bands, I try to tell them it's important that they don't strive for national profile immediately. They should play around locally, play whatever gigs they can get, whether it's coffeehouses in front of ten people, jails, churches, parks. If you're really good, people will take notice of you, and the word will get around. There's something wrong with the idea you won't play a local coffeehouse because only twenty-five people showed up that night.

It's hard to deal with in my situation, how to tell people no. You would like to give everybody a chance to do something, but even with 150 bands, there are probably fifteen times, twenty times that number of bands that are more than adequately good to play. How do you select? I don't know.

We're flattered that people want to play Cornerstone. I imagine that Creation or just about any other event probably gets just as many requests as we do. It's not peculiar to us. 

I think sometimes people have the wrong perception that by playing Cornerstone, it's going to be the turning point for them and make their career. There are probably stories of bands that have done well playing Cornerstone and gone on to bigger, better things, but at the same time, there are probably many more bands who played Cornerstone and went nowhere. I don't think Cornerstone has the power to make or break anybody.

The other thing is, I had a really funny conversation last year with a band and the band's pastor about why I owed it to them to provide them with a place to play. Their feeling was, you're putting on a public event, and therefore, anybody that wants to play should be able to play. I don't know where in the scripture it says I have an obligation to give you the opportunity to showcase what you think is God-given talent. If it is indeed God-given talent, God's the one that owes you the opportunity. Without overly spiritualizing it, hopefully, we're all in it because we feel this is where the Lord's led us. Hopefully, we're all doing our jobs whether we're garbagemen or art directors, because that's where we feel God has led us. If you feel God's leading you to be a musician, even without the ministry element of it, even if it's just a vocational calling, then God will make the way for you.

By Linda Stonehocker

Pictures courtesy of Cornerstone Festival

Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth