Billstock, Local Music Scene Thrive Together
Billstock returns for its third year of showcasing local musicians. The two-day event is this weekend at Hops and Vines in Williamstown.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Like its namesake, the Village Beautiful's upcoming festival of local music aspires to have a lasting impact.
Unlike Woodstock, Billstock is going strong after three years.
Billstock, also known as Williamstown's Music Festival, returns Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, for two nights of local music at Hops and Vines Beer Garden & Brasserie on Water Street.
Organizer Mike Williams says Billstock's mission remains the same: to share live local music with the community. But the event has another purpose: building a community of local performers who can keep the music scene alive throughout the year.
And both goals have been achieved.
"That's certainly my intention, to create a brand that is recognized year-round," Williams said. "One of the great aspects of this experience is that sense of community people feel and other musicians feel when they come together. It's a networking event.
"Since we did it a couple of years ago, there have been other similarly-themed activities that have really taken hold as well. Now we have a local record label. We have a songwriting group, a group of writers who get together once a month and share material. We have the Billsville House concert series, which came about after Billstock.
"I wouldn't say Billstock started all this, but certainly it's all coming from the same place. It's all mutually reinforcing."
Karl Mullen is doing his part to reinforce the scene — both as a member of local band The Wandering Rocks and as the founder of Barntone Records, the label that Mullen started.
Barntone is partnering with Billstock for this year's festival and will be releasing a compilation CD featuring many Billstock performers at the event.
"We moved here two years ago, and we'd been involved in the music scene in other cities," Mullen said. "I wanted to act as a galvanizer and help develop the local music scene here."
Barntone's first release was a Wandering Rocks CD that came out in November. The label's name comes from the Rocks' unique sound.
"We rehearse and put on shows in a barn in Williamstown, and it sounds so wonderful that we recorded the record there, and the producer talked about how good the barn tone was," Mullen said.
Mullen said Barntone is a vehicle for local acts to dip their toe into the water of serious record-making and marketing. The technology is available to turn out small runs of professionally produced CDs with low overhead.
No one is getting rich on the deal, but no one is going broke either.
"We hope to break even," he said. "We broke even on the Wandering Rocks CD. We'll break even with 60 or 70 (CDs) sold, which is great.
"It's a stepping stone to get everyone in the studio, to get them writing songs and to get them out in the region more."
Mullen said that with a CD in hand, local acts can market themselves more effectively.
"If you go to (Becket's) Dream Away Lodge or anywhere of that ilk and ask for a gig, they're going to ask if you if you have anything recorded," Mullen said.
Of course, these days, local acts also can promote themselves with the imprimatur, "As heard at Billstock."
This year's festival features returning favorites like Good Good and Misty Blues as well as new additions like Williams College funk and rhythm band Homage and jazz vocalist Jen Crowell.
"There is such a wide range of music being created in this community," Williams said. "We wanted to come up with a bill that's representative of that. We have everything from a single performer with an acoustic guitar to a 10-piece, R&B jazz-influenced funk band. We have post-punk pop.
"There is a cover band playing, and I'm sure some of the original acts will be doing cover versions too, but the emphasis is on original music."
Local artists can help develop their musical voice thanks to the monthly writers sessions on the second Wednesday of the month at Water Street Grill. Mullen said those events bring anywhere from 10 to 15 songwriters on a regular basis.
"We've been doing it for five months," he said. "People are encouraged to bring new materials. Everyone comes usually with one or two songs per month."
The sessions, the record label and Billstock all go hand-in-hand, Mullen said.
"It's great that Michael does Billstock." he said. "He's one of the first people I met when I moved here. It's interesting that Billstock, The Wandering Rocks and the Billsville House concerts all started pretty much the same time."
Williams said Billstock usually attracts between 150 and 200 patrons over the course of two nights. He suspects that number could be higher if the venue was larger. He is thrilled with the partnership with Hops and Vines but longs for the day when a bigger hall might be available to accommodate Billstock and similar events.
"At the risk of sounding too grandiose, I think this community has the real potential to become a destination for a certain musical ethos — much like we're so well established as a theater destination or a museum destination," Williams said.
"I think the largeer goal of all these things (Billstock, Barntone Records and Billsville House) is to strengthen this music community in town and really make it self-sufficient.
Billstock begins at 7 p.m. both nights; tickets are available here.
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