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Legendary Fanzine Prepares Series Of Benefit Shows
Jersey Beat
You not only get paid a fair share of the door, but when you play Maxwell's, you get fed. That's common in other parts of the country, mandatory in Europe, and all but unheard of in New York City or New Jersey. - Jim Testa
by Josh Davidson
 [Chorus and Verse] Jersey Beat
The Wrens headline a benefit show for legendary New Jersey-based Fanzine Jersey Beat at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ on July 21
The Wrens headline a benefit show for legendary New Jersey-based Fanzine Jersey Beat at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ on July 21

Major label representation in 1982, the year that Jim Testa began to publish Jersey Beat magazine, meant something much different than it does today. Those were times when a band would ink its major label deal, which would afford it the chance to develop itself and establish a fan base.

The scenario is different today, as bands are many times either forced to conform to a style of music or dress rather than face the consequences of being dropped by a label prior to their next album. A band that doesn’t move its musical product in a timely manner today most likely won’t be around tomorrow. For that reason, alternative outlets " the Internet, local clubs and Jersey Beat " tend to be the sole supporters some of today’s truest bands.

For more than 20 years, Testa and his crew of writers have told the truth about the music scene of New Jersey and beyond. Each issue of the magazine features dozens of reviews, which are unbiased, along with in-depth profiles of the scene’s revolving door of bands. Testa has reached legendary status in the north Jersey scene and has gained the respect of many magazine editors throughout the music industry.

As some local magazines have made selling ads their focus, Testa has always made drawing fans to the music, which has moved him, a priority. And he’s shown that there is a story behind each band that has created it.

Jersey Beat is seeking the support of the local scene, which it hopes will come out to some upcoming benefits it will host. Proceeds will go towards defraying the magazine’s expenses.

The first of those shows will feature The Wrens, The Milwaukees and The Amber Jets and will be held at Maxwell’s, 1039 Washington Street in Hoboken, NJ, July 21 at 8:30 p.m. The all-ages show will cost fans $10 to attend. The club can be reached (201) 653-1703.

Chorus and Verse recently asked Testa about the history of the magazine he founded and what has kept him involved with the local music scene.

Do you think music fans are beginning to realize that major labels are starting to suffer financially? What other avenues are bands taking as far as getting their music heard?

I don't think fans really care what label a record is on. A major label used to guarantee good distribution and the chance of the record being on sale. Today, with outlets like Amazon.com, anybody can find any record anytime they want, and usually at a discounted price. So the whole major label distribution model has become obsolete and that doesn't even include the whole issue of digital downloads.

But bands, I think, are waking up. The only advantage a major label offers today is a quick payday - you get that first advance and you get, maybe, a year to spend it and be a full-time band without having to work day jobs. Locally, we've seen so many great bands get gobbled up and spit out, sometimes destroyed, by the major label system - Little T & One Track Mike, Instruction, Rye Coalition. Only a tiny percentage of major label releases make a profit anymore. You can count the number of bands who get launched by a major and become "stars" with sustainable careers on one hand. So, yes, bands are definitely exploring lots of different alternatives, the mad rush to "get signed" is over.

Why is it important for a publication like Jersey Beat to continue covering some of the bands it started writing about when it began in 1982?

Well, it's not the same bands; it's the same kind of bands. Bands with talent and potential who need to find a wider audience. In 1982, I was writing about Adrenalin OD and the Bongos. In 2000, we were writing about Ben Kweller, Interpol, and the Strokes before they were known nationally. Hopefully, you'll be able to add names like Val Emmich and the Milwaukees to that list soon. Someone has to be there when a band is just starting out, with the good taste and common sense to recognize talent, and spread the word. Every band has a story; Jersey Beat is there to tell it.

How do you go about finding new bands for your publication to cover? What new bands in the tri-state area have caught your attention?

Whew, that's tough. It used to be easier when NJ had a ton of other fanzines. Nowadays there are precious few left. But there are Web sites, like Chorus & Verse.com, and blogs that I check regularly. And [there are] publications like The Aquarian, although they seem less interested in exposing new bands than they used to be. Mostly, it's just about listening to what comes in the mail and going to a lot of shows, and to a lesser extent, word of mouth from other bands, club bookers, radio people, etc.

There's a band from Asbury Park called Lunch Money Criminals - three young brothers, piano, bass & drums - who are amazing. They're as talented as Hanson. I found them by being a judge at a Battle of the Bands. There's a pop-punk band from Hoboken called Mr. Impatient that features the 16-year old son of an old friend of mine; the kid's mom was in bands that I reviewed 20 years ago. Jersey Beat: The Next Generation!

Jersey Beat issue #77
Cover of Jersey Beat issue #77, featuring interviews with Mike Bullshit, Sam McPheeters (Born Against), Charles Maggio (Gern Blandsten Records), The Shemps (ex-Bugout Society, Huasipungo, etc.).

What personally has kept you involved in running Jersey Beat for such a long period of time? Why do you think the magazine's fans have remained loyal?

I've always said the secret of my longevity is that I've always kept it a hobby. I've never depended on the ‘zine for my paycheck, so I've always been able to step away from it for a bit if I start feeling burnt out. Besides that, I just love doing it - I love writing, I love meeting new people, especially musicians, I still love going to shows. When it stops being fun, I'll stop doing it.

I'd like to think our readers remain loyal because they can count on us to be there and they know we tell the truth. It's tough to give a band a bad review, but I always tell them the same thing: If I give your next record a good review, you'll know I really mean it. I think the heart of our success is honesty and humility; we never try to act like we're bigger stars than the bands we're covering.

How does the New Jersey music scene of 2005 compare to that of the mid-1980s?

First and foremost, there are just a lot more bands now. There was almost no all-ages scene in NJ in the eighties; no place to play if you weren't 21 except high school dances. Now there is a huge all-ages scene here in NJ; in fact, we're known nationally for it.

When I started Jersey Beat, there was Maxwell's in Hoboken and The Dirt Club in Bloomfield, and that was about it. The Stone Pony was there but nobody thought of Asbury Park as any kind of "scene" in 1982. Everything else happened in NYC or Philly and, if you were from New Jersey, you usually lied and said you were from one of those two cities just to get a gig. Now you have bona fide scenes in Hoboken/Jersey City, New Brunswick, and Asbury Park that each has its own subset of bands, venues, press, radio... and, of course, all of that intermingles, Asbury bands play Maxwell’s and Jersey City bands play The Saint.

Can you tell me a little bit about the next benefit (following the July 21 Maxwell’s show) that you are planning in the Asbury Park area on Sept. 10? Are there any other benefits in the works?

[ Editor’s note: Testa is putting together a line-up to play another benefit on Sept. 10 at the Saint, in Asbury Park. ]

Right now, we have Kevin Devine & The Goddman Band, Readymade Breakup, and Aviso'Hara. I'm hoping to add one more local (i.e. shore) band. I really respect [Saint co-owner] Scott Stamper and what he does with The Saint and the Asbury Music Awards. Asbury Park is on the rise, for sure, but it's still tough getting people there, especially in the winter. So the fact that he's kept the Saint going when so many other live music venues in Asbury Park have failed is really an achievement. And I love the idea of the Asbury Music Awards; local musicians work really hard for very little money or recognition. That slap on the back they get at the Awards really means a lot, and I wish there was something like it here in north Jersey. Finally, I don't want people to think of Jersey Beat as a "North Jersey 'zine," so I do whatever I can do participate in the live music scene at The Saint and the shore communities, and doing a benefit there seemed like a good piece of karma. I booked my first Jersey Beat Night at The Saint back in 1997, for the 'zine's 15th Anniversary. That's what got me into promoting shows.

Why do you consider Maxwell's to be the best club in the country?

In a nutshell, respect. Maxwell's respects its fans. The club only books two or three bands a night, unlike the unseemly seven band bills you find at clubs in NYC like CBGB, Continental, etc.

Shows are put together so that if you like any of the bands on the bill, you'll most likely like all of them. I am really sick of shows where the booker throws a metal band, a folk act, a funk/jam band, and a punk band on the same bill, figuring the crowd will turn over for each act. At Maxwell's, you come for the show - the whole night. And you always get your money's worth.

The club also respects the bands. You not only get paid a fair share of the door, but when you play Maxwell's, you get fed. That's common in other parts of the country, mandatory in Europe, and all but unheard of in New York City or New Jersey. The soundman is always courteous and competent; you get a sound check and good sound. So because bands are treated well, they want to come back - even after they've "graduated" to playing bigger venues. That makes Maxwell's bookings, historically and currently, among the best in the country.

But, although national acts play there frequently, owner/booker Todd Abramson also gives local bands a fair shake. New Jersey acts like Val Emmich, the Milwaukees, the Wrens, Ted Leo, and others have used Maxwell's as a springboard to establish a good draw and move on to bigger venues and national tours.

[ Website: www.jerseybeat.com ]

Josh Davidson
Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.
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