It’s March, which means the Reindeer Rock-Off is under way once again, right?

Not exactly.

For 25 years, the annual battle of the bands chugged on, offering a proving ground and a showcase for high school musicians around the state.

And then, it almost didn’t.

See, 2009 was the last year for the Reindeer Rock-Off. Its founder, Louis Philippe, decided to move on. Which brings us to today and the newly rechristened Maine Academy of Modern Music Rock Off.

The academy and the crew at the Portland Music Foundation have teamed up to make sure the torch gets passed, and that, yes, the rock just won’t stop.

There’s still $1,000 in cash, radio play and studio time for the winning band, but the people behind the new rock-off say they want to give young bands all the help they need to be good musicians, and to make playing music a career.

What’s a big part of making it? Experience, says Jeff Shaw, executive director of the Maine Academy of Modern Music.

“Our goal is to put kids on a real stage and give them that real-life experience,” he said.

Makes sense, since the academy has made a quiet crusade out of its rock camp, hip-hop camp and studio recording camp. Just as in the camps, kids in the rock-off have to prove themselves through skill as well as savvy, Shaw said.

It’s not enough to just play well (although that’s definitely a good place to start). Bands have to develop a stage presence and think of how they’re going to grow a fan base, Shaw said.

With Philippe’s announcement that 2009’s rock-off would be his last, Shaw and members of the Portland Music Foundation saw a potential vacuum. And in they went.

But for Shaw and the fledgling academy, taking on the rock-off franchise is a big move. Shaw said they have to reach statewide, connecting with music teachers and guidance counselors at schools and gathering support from Maine’s music industry.

“It is a big endeavor,” Shaw said. “But we’re ready to make this step.”

The academy has the support of MaineToday.com, a longtime sponsor of the rock-off, as well as venues like Empire Dine and Dance in Portland and the 103 Ultra Lounge in Orono, both of which will host early rounds of the competition. The deadline to enter is March 17, with the preliminary rounds beginning in April.

Sam Pfeifle, a musician and board member of the Portland Music Foundation, said Maine’s music scene is more than eager to give a little help to the bands of tomorrow.

A new component in this year’s rock-off will be critique sessions for bands that make the finals, Pfeifle said. Musicians will break down the performances, talk about how bands market themselves and how they can improve. It’s a little “Project Runway” meets “American Idol,” but it’ll help.

“It helps the health of the scene,” said Pfeifle. “Being in a band, you have more responsibility than just playing a great show or putting out a great CD.”

Not that those things don’t help, but success demands more, Pfeifle said. There are plenty of kids playing in garages or in high school bands who may like music, maybe even love it. But if you want to make a career out of it, you have to work at it and start early.

Music can be a business, and some day when it comes time to book a club, get people to a show or record an album, they’ll be ready, Pfeifle said. Some kids have science fairs, others may job shadow. For musicians, there’s the rock-off, he said.

“What I think it does is create a pipeline of bands who have goals and are trying to accomplish something and have a career path,” he said.

A pipeline, a continuum, a legacy. The future, really. That’s part of the reason Philippe created the rock-off. He said he wanted a way for young musicians to get familiar with the musicians union and how it could help bands.

Over the years, the rock-off was in some ways a feeder system to Maine’s music scene as well as nationally. Artists like Jeremiah Freed and members of Rustic Overtones came through the rock-off.

“It was like a kid I brought up and the kid was off to college now, so it was time to move on,” Philippe said.

Though he is happy that the rock-off has new life, he won’t be away from assisting young bands for long. He is working on a new project to help emerging musicians.

But he’ll always remember the rock-off.

“Personally and professionally, it was rewarding to see young people step up to bat to do something productive with their gifts,” he said. “They just needed a platform to do it.”

 

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at:

[email protected]