Virtually everyone even peripherally involved in the Bay area's homegrown local-music scene knows Joran Oppelt. They know him as the former frontman for popular Pinellas groove-pop outfit The Gita. Or they know him as a former principal contributor to local music 'zine Focus. Or maybe they know him as the guy who instituted and hosted the inspiringly communal In The Raw acoustic-show series that took over the State Theatre's balcony for many Wednesday nights a year or so back. Or perhaps as the head of independent label Mekka Records.But even those who've never met the 27-year-old personally know him as a dogged scene supporter and mouthpiece for area original-music promotional co-op The Southeast Music Alliance. Over the past couple of years, the SMA has recruited dozens of unsigned bands of every genre into its Internet link ring, amassed a monster list of regularly informed e-mail subscribers, staged numerous well-publicized showcase concerts, and released an eclectic, all-original compilation CD, the 21-track Volume One: Tampa Bay.
Not too shabby for a loose-knit organization that originally sprang from little more than an incensed reaction to a 2001 98Rock publicity stunt that had local bands literally fighting one another over a slot on the station's annual LiveStock festival.
"[The stunt] seemed to enrage a lot of people. We viewed it as disrespectful," says Oppelt. "To those of us that hold our music as an art form or a livelihood, it seemed like a fucked-up thing to even suggest. That was when we said, 'we have to do something; let's pull together, put out a press release, boycott,' but you can't realistically boycott a Clear Channel station.
"We decided to go after the actual artists that respect themselves instead. And from there, it went on to meeting and talking with other bands, finding out when they were playing, trading shows and merchandise."
By and large, the SMA has received, and given, a refreshing amount of support. While most scene-unity initiatives peter out after a couple of meetings at the local wing joint, the Alliance is still gaining momentum. A second compilation is in the works. In The Raw is scheduled to start up again around Thanksgiving. And next month will see the organization's most ambitious undertaking by far to date. The Southeast Music Conference, a showcase-style festival, will take over downtown St. Petersburg venues on Oct. 17 and 18, putting 40 local and national acts on numerous stages for the edification of not only diehard pundits and pedestrian live-music fans, but also music-industry representatives from across the country.
"Everybody and their cousin knows [somebody working in the industry]. Everybody's got these ties, people they grew up with or met through playing, who are all climbing their separate ladders," Oppelt says. "It's been said more than one time that if one band makes it to a larger level, regardless of who or what they are, it can only benefit the rest of us playing in town. That's how it works."
Oppelt and company have been laying the groundwork for the conference for well over a year, and there's still plenty of work left to do. And while the success of it in particular, and the SMA in general, certainly holds the potential for Oppelt's own musical endeavors to profit, it would undoubtedly be easier for him to focus on promoting himself, rather than the scene (or part of it) as a whole.
So why bother?
"Now is a funny time, actually, because I'm between bands. In essence, I have no product to push, so it makes me even more vulnerable — I have to figure out what it is that matters," muses Oppelt. "And it's music that matters, it's the fact that there are tons of us out there, friends who live and breathe our original forms of music, sleep with it, shower with it, day in and day out.
"Here's the thing: The SMA starts off, and everybody says this is a great idea ... a lot of musicians who have good intentions lack the organizational skills or motivation. They don't pick up the phone or type out a press release. An organization that might be able to do those things for them seemed like a good idea. I figured if I was sending out e-mails every week anyway, it might as well for everybody, because it couldn't hurt. And there's the small glimmer of hope that leading by example might inspire somebody else to do it for themselves, or show them a better way to do it. But that's all you can do, provide an example."