As a working musician in Orange County, Mike Barnet travels anywhere the people—and occasional dollar—congregate. Tonight, it's a performance in front of the World of Disney store at Downtown Disney: beneath the grotesquely leering faces of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Barnet plays before strolling passersby, most of whom are far more interested in browsing the latest Disney paraphernalia than listening to an unfamiliar singer play his guitar.
Which may have something to do with why Barnet—one of the most gifted independent musicians in a county with a lot of gifted independent musicians—is now launching his own record label, Nu Americas. The label will release records by local independent artists as well as produce Open Mic TV, a showcase of Orange County musicians that premiered in November on Time Warner Cable.
It's an ambitious plan but it also might just be the only way Barnet can maintain his sanity. In a music scene that rewards mediocrity and image over talent and message, it's difficult not to be frustrated with just about everything—especially fellow musicians who compromise their talent, art and principles in hopes of attracting industry attention.
"I see people all the time who play or sing well, but they just don't know how to write a song," Barnet says. "And it's because all they're concerned about is getting signed and becoming famous.
"Let's face it, we're not all going to get famous, and have some huge record contract," he continues. "Not even close. So independent artists who genuinely care about making a connection with their music need some other forum that can expose them to people who wouldn't otherwise hear them."
Barnet hopes that forum will be Open Mic TV, which last season was filmed at Plush Caf in Fullerton and broadcast into more than 200,000 homes each of its 10 weeks. Featuring 28 unsigned artists (from bands like Deccatree to solo artists like Chris Paul Overall), every half-hour episode sounds and looks like something filmed at a far larger venue on a far bigger budget. Currently, Barnet is working with potential sponsors to attract a local network like KTLA or KDOC to air the program.
More striking than Open Mic's technical value (Barnet majored in film and TV production at Biola, so he knows how to mic a room and work a camera) is the show's undeniable heart. While performance-oriented, each show allows artists a few moments to talk about their songs or songwriting process. It makes for interesting revelations, like Deccatree bandmember Chris Karn's trickle-down theory of downloading songs for free: it prevents labels from investing in local bands, thereby ensuring that only "rich kids" will be able to afford being in bands.
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The show reaches a level of intimacy long ditched by cable music networks, and it's clear that if Barnet entices a non-cable network to air his Open Mic, the potential for viewers—and record sales of artists on his label—will increase exponentially. And while not every artist on Open Mike TV will be affiliated with the label (Barnet begins scouting for next season's artists in two months) those that are on Nu Americas will have one thing in common: "The music has to mean something," he says. "And the artists have to care about connecting."
Which sounds an awful lot like a thumbnail description of the record label owner's music. It's not a coincidence.
"I'll be honest: I'm not just doing this to get other people to make records and be heard. I want to be heard, too," Barnet says. "I don't want to be 40 handing out fliers trying to get kids to come see me play. I have 10 years before I'm at that point."