Interview with Jerry Ryan at hard rock cafe spring 2011
Economic recessions inspire people in odd ways. While some frantically search for any job that will pay the bills and feed their families, others use their time to actualize dreams and visions they merely pondered while at their previous 9-to-5 job. The possibility of a monetary reward is hardly the sole inspiration for these undertakings. For Jerry Ryan, an unemployed 35-year old Smithville, NJ resident, the thought of enlivening his local music scene provides him with instant gratification.
Elephant Talk, named after a 1981 song by the progressive rock band King Crimson, was initially conceived of as a music magazine that would showcase rising local and country-wide indie (independent) rock bands. Ryan, jaded by current music trends, hoped to introduce new music to what he views as a culturally-deprived South Jersey. After evaluating the costs of printing a magazine and the difficulties of forming a reliable volunteer writing staff, he decided to shift his focus to concert and festival planning. He now lures young adults looking for alternative sources of entertainment to Elephant Talk’s indie rock events.
“I like these guys. They didn’t take themselves too seriously,” jokes Ryan, pointing to a TV in the Hard Rock Café that is playing a self-mocking 1980’s video by the hard rock band, The Scorpions. He takes a sip of the Purple Haze he ordered, a drink named after a song by one of his favorite guitarists, Jimi Hendrix, and continues, “Bands today are too afraid to show their vulnerability.”
Ryan is eager to express his opinions of artists and the music industry, although he admits that his music tastes have evolved since his upbringing in Brigantine, NJ, a small shore town that borders Atlantic City. His mother played guitar and sang country music, a genre which never captivated him. Instead he chose to listen to popular metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Motley Crue, and joined a band in 6th grade as a bass player. The enthusiasm he conveys for music suggests he may have been destined for a career in the industry, but his lack of dedication led him astray. He spent most of his 20’s working at Harrah’s Casino as a bartender. Oddly enough, the dedication that escaped him as a young adult would surface to bring his vision of an independent music festival to fruition.
In 2000, his discovery of Radiohead changed his perspective of music. He began to revisit the college rock bands of his generation that he ignored as a teenager, such as R.E.M. and Sonic Youth. These are bands which embody the anti-commercial attitude that he shares. He doesn’t pigeonhole the sound he wants for his shows, but he scorns anything that he considers mainstream. “No emo, ska, and metal at my shows,” he proclaims. This maverick searches for bands that are very much like him: They are not interested in money, and want people to hear good music.
Not surprising, finding bands that will perform for free has proved challenging. The agent contacts bands through their MySpace and Facebook pages, occasionally encountering managers and band members that demand compensation. “When people ask me about how much money I can guarantee for them, I ask, ‘How many people can you bring in?’ Ryan explains. “The truth is that these bands have followings in their hometowns, but elsewhere they are unknown. I want to give them the opportunity to play their music to a new audience.” He even offers to promote bands on Facebook and locally if they are leery about playing one of his shows.
His events are hosted at Le Grand Fromage and the Boneyard, both of which are bars and restaurants in Atlantic City. The first Elephant Talk indie rock music festival, held in August 2010, featured bands such as the Radiohead-inspired Bellflur from Washington D.C. and the electronica-tinged Attack Power from Austin, Texas. Over the course of the three-day festival, Ryan estimates that about 500 people were exposed to 100 bands and artists.
He has continued to organize events, usually bimonthly. While he often does not sell tickets for his shows, when he does he chooses to give bands the option to sell their own tickets and keep the proceeds. “I have no desire to make money though this,” he reveals. “I’m more concerned about the bands.” He later adds that he would consider advertising as a source of revenue if successfully builds a fan base for his events.
Ryan began planning the festival in January 2010. When he was laid off as a waiter at the Rainforest Café in May 2010, he was already deeply immersed in his vision for a music scene in South Jersey. In the months leading up to the festival, he spent an average of eight hours a day contacting bands and uploading videos he had filmed of some of these bands to YouTube and Elephant Talk’s Facebook page. Trying to schedule the time slots for each band proved even more daunting, and at times chaotic. Some bands would drop out, new ones would enter, and others would request new times. As he prepares for Elephant Talk’s festival this summer, the same hurdles emerge. Despite them, he adopts an optimistic outlook, “This never feels like work to me. I like feeling of starting out with something small like these festivals and actually making an impact on people.”
He chose Atlantic City for his events because he thinks it lacks a scene for original music. Visit any casino in Atlantic City or bar and you will likely hear live bands, but most play cover songs aimed at the baby boomer demographic. Concert choices at casino venues are limited to high-profile artists or artists from a past generation that should be considering retirement. For people that are Ryan’s age or younger, the only substitutes are clubs and DJs, something he disdains. While he is not interested in changing people’s tastes, he declares, “I just want to find patches of people that want different music. I think music listeners here are too interested in following what everyone else does and they are afraid to be individuals.”
Besides the positive reception from those who have attended his shows, the bands have also responded warmly. “A lot of people love music, but Jerry takes it to a new level,” gushed Bellflur’s bassist Tom Longobardi. “He’s single-handedly committed to bringing good live music back to South Jersey. If every town had a Jerry Ryan, world peace just may be possible.” Even a kinship seems to have formed among these bands. Many first met each other at one of Elephant Talk’s events, and then fused into local touring units. Ryan believes this is what occurs when bands toss aside their egos and play for the love of music.
When asked if he would support other people pursuing their dreams at his age, he answers, “People should put their families first. I would not encourage people to pursue their dreams unless they have stability.” His stability is provided by his girlfriend, Krissy Smith, who works in an Atlantic City casino. Although his events have not generated a significant amount of income, Smith spoke cheerfully about his endeavors, “Working on [Elephant Talk] has really brought out his best qualities. I think he is a better person because he is more fulfilled now.”
Another video popped up one of the Hard Rock Café TV screens, this one of Chris Daughtry, an American Idol vocalist. “American Idol is everything that is wrong with music today in one hour,” Ryan grumbled. I don’t know if he is capable of world peace as Longobardi says, but you have to admire his irreverence and passion to make a change, however small, in his local music scene.
1st interview-with Alex Durante spring 2011