Invited or not, performers get in on the act at Sundance

What if they threw a party and everybody came — whether or not they had an official invitation?

The Sundance Film Festival is an especially welcoming environment for musicians; the Sundance Institute launched its composers lab in 1998 and made a commitment to nurturing the relationship between music and film.

But as ever more promoters and performers with ever more tenuous connections to the festival seize upon Sundance’s promotional potential, some may wonder whether that welcome mat has been stretched too wide.

Every year, festgoers are treated to live concerts by independent film supporters like Patti Smith and Lyle Lovett at the annual Celebration of Music in Film. Lou Reed will perform at this year’s iteration on Jan. 23, and the following evening he’ll make his Sundance directorial debut with documentary short, “Red Shirley.”

While this annual concert, as well as the afternoon showcases at the Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe, are “official” Festival events, open to credential holders only, many performers in Park City are brought in by independent producers working within what veteran independent event producer Ryan Heil calls the “shadow economy” of film festivals — which picks up where the red carpet leaves off and trades mostly in access and buzz.

“My business is oriented 100% to providing the services that are demanded by the filmmakers,” says Heil, a partner in the House of Hype LIVEstyle Lounge at Cicero’s, Park City’s second-largest venue, which will be hosting a series of high-profile — though unofficial — corporate-sponsored events.

Some of the acts at those events, like Carole King, who stars in Morgan Neville’s “Troubadours” doc and will perform at the premiere party, and the Roots, who are coming out to support Michael Rappaport’s “Beats, Rhymes, Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” are directly linked to films. Others, like pop stars OneRepublic, have no greater claim to screen fame than the use of their song “Secrets” in an ad for Ralph Lauren fragrances — the brand hosting the dinner their performance will follow.

In the weeks leading up to the festival, rumors of splashy performances at official and unofficial venues bubble up every day. Harry-O’s, the largest venue in town, confirmed that Snoop Dogg will play on opening night, as he did last year, and Lauryn Hill is scheduled for Jan. 26. Both are ticketed events, not invite-only parties.

Meanwhile, 50 Cent is hosting a party at the House of Hype to promote his company, Cheetah Vision Films, although he doesn’t have a pic in the festival and isn’t planning to perform. Such a soiree is obviously a plus for the venue — and its sponsors are surely pleased to pick up the tab — but it’s hard to make an argument that 50 Cent’s presence amounts to anything more than his Cheetah Vision Films getting Sundance-driven exposure from the media and the film community.

Heil, who acknowledges that about half his clients are “what some of the festivals would consider ambush — or non-official — sponsors,” says it’s a priority to maintain a good rapport with Sundance and the other festivals he works with worldwide.

“I understand their concerns about the official sponsors being overshadowed by the guerilla marketing and high-profile spending that all the nonofficial sponsors do to hook in to those events. It’s a challenge; there hasn’t been a magic bullet solution.”

Katie Kennedy, the Sundance Institute’s associate director of corporate development, concedes that these types of events do “bring some layer of entertainment to the festival for all the constituents that are there.” The drawback, she says, is what can happen when these unofficial venues represent themselves to sponsors as being aligned with Sundance. “In some instances things are overpromised and underdelivered, and that corporation then associates that with the Festival.”

Ironically, some of the bigger artists who bring so much buzz to the festival can find themselves performing for less-than-attentive audiences at such venues. “Many times with the pop-up venues or even the parties attached to premieres, they’re not really there to listen to the artist,” says ASCAP assistant veep Loretta Munoz (who produces the ASCAP Music Cafe). “Everyone wants to get in to that party or that venue or that event … but once they get there they’re talking to each other.”

The most contentious addition to the 2011 mix appears to be the House of Blues Foundation Room, which will take over the Star Bar on Main Street, one-time home to the ASCAP Music Cafe. The pop-up space isn’t hosting any events directly related to the festival. Instead, Park City local Toby Martin, who is a partner in the venture, insists they are serving the needs of the community.

“Locals often complain that they don’t get to be part of anything at Sundance — they can’t go to the parties — so we did a special sale of tickets (to Foundation Room events) two weeks ago so locals could buy them,” he says. “We want to provide them with something really first class on the size that Sundance is doing.”

Scheduled acts include Third Eye Blind, the Pussycat Dolls, the Neon Trees, and a reportedly massive party for Slash’s new company, Slasher Films.

So just how big a promotional platform is Sundance for artists like this? “We think it’s important enough that we try to pay everybody half of what they would normally make,” says Martin with a chuckle, adding, “I was willing to make an argument to Taylor Swift that, ‘it seems to me you wanna be a movie star, so what better place to be seen than in Park City during Sundance?’?”

The “see and be seen” attitude is in many ways antithetical to the stated purpose of the Sundance Institute, and in fact the officially tied-in ASCAP Cafe is unconcerned about the competition from these venues. As Kennedy notes, “We are an independent-minded organization and we believe in bringing attention to (emerging) artists. We try to mirror that in the way that the ASCAP Music Cafe is programmed, so you would never really see a Snoop Dogg there.”

This year’s featured Cafe performers include St. Vincent, the Chapin Sisters, the Low Anthem, and actor Paul Reiser, a composer who is making his Sundance music debut with Julia Fordham — all of whom, incidentally, pay their own way to Park City.

“Our main focus is to present our songwriters and composers to filmmakers, the audience, the judges,” says Munoz. “It is truly set up as a listening room. … From the artists’ point of view it’s always a place they want to play because of that fact.”

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