By Lyndsey Havens
Short, concise and memorable — that’s how Alex Chanay describes the name of the band he is part of. Chanay, a junior from Topeka, plays guitar and sings in the band Maybe Not. In addition to Chanay, the trio includes Sam Goodrich (drums) and Gus Cobb (bass), both seniors from Topeka.
“We would go back and forth on what we should call ourselves,” he says. “Most suggestions would get met with a ‘maybe not,’ so basically our band name was chosen from our indecisiveness.”
On the contrary, the audience at Farmers’ Ball—a music competition held by the University of Kansas’ student-run radio station, KJHK—voted a decisive yes when it awarded third place to the band on April 25.
Farmers’ Ball grew out of a KJHK program featuring local music called Plow the Fields in 1994. Tom Johnson, general manager at KJHK, says the event began “as a way to recognize the best in local Lawrence musical talent.”
For Mitchell Raznick, a senior from Omaha, Neb., the competition has evolved to more than just that. Raznick, the live event director at KJHK and one of the emcees at the event this year, says Farmers’ Ball is one of the defining events for local music. He says, “It creates an opportunity for the local musicians to get their work out there, and it helps KU students and Lawrence residents interact with the local music scene through tradition.”
That tradition started on the hill in 1994 when SUA still held Day on the Hill, a daylong music festival on Campanile Hill that featured national acts like Pearl Jam. Farmers’ Ball was conducted in partnership with this event. The local band that won Farmers’ Ball was awarded “the epic prize” of serving as the opening act, Johnson says.
Damage to the hill from concertgoers brought Day on the Hill to an end, but KJHK, unwilling to surrender, carried on with Farmers’ Ball. The competition offered substantial, though somewhat less “epic” prizes, such as studio time and t-shirt printing. The competition is now held at the Bottleneck and the prize is straight cash. Johnson says offering a cash prize “makes the most sense to support local bands, giving them the ability to invest in what they see fit to grow their act.”
Fresh Crop of Talent
This year, there were 85 submissions to Farmers’ Ball. Johnson says each year the competition averages anywhere from 50 to 80 entries.
“I can tell you that every single band that made the top eight semifinal spots deserved to be there,” Johnson says. “I think that’s the first time I can honestly say that about all of the bands since I began at KJHK, so that indicates to me that the local music environment is as robust as ever.”
This was Maybe Not’s first time participating in the competition; the band officially formed in August 2014. Its music teeters between upbeat and emo-esque, finding a balance that’s pleasing to the ear.
Chanay says the group was having a tough time reaching a fan base beyond their immediate friend group and felt that Farmers’ Ball was the best way to gain exposure in Lawrence. Travis Diesing, a junior from Papillion, Neb., says the Bottleneck was at least three-fourths packed for the semifinals.
Will the band perform next year and try to move up in the rankings? Chanay, true to form, says, “probably not.” He says Farmers’ Ball achieved what they wanted it to this year—build its audience in Lawrence and form friendships with other bands. “We’d rather leave the slot open next year for another young band trying to do the same,” he says. When the next competition comes around, Chanay says the band hopes to be on tour.
The most challenging part of competing, Chaney says, was “having extremely disparate sounds go up against each other to be judged.” He says the band didn’t expect to make it to the finals and that they felt extremely lucky to share the stage with equally deserving groups.
“The stakes are high when you’re dealing with a concentrated event that can literally launch a band’s career,” Johnson says. “We respect how much care we have to pay to the process throughout.”
Margaret Hair, a graduate student from Greensboro, North Carolina, is a full time staff member and program coordinator for the SUA-KJHK Live Music Committee. In simple terms, she explains there are five steps to the process, which begins with bands submitting their music to KJHK.org. She says about 40 students spent a Saturday listening to all of the submissions and voting on every band.
From there, online voting begins. People are able to listen to music from the top 16 bands and vote for their favorites. The top eight bands then move on to perform in the semifinals — which took place on Saturday, April 18. Each of the eight bands plays a 20-minute set and the audience votes for their favorite at the end of the night. The four bands with the most votes advance to the finals show.
For the finals, each band plays a 30-minute set and audience members again vote for their favorites at the end of the night. No Cave, a hard-hitting fusion of a rock and jam band, won the first place prize of $2,000. Via Luna, an instrumental group with electric-indie flair, won the second most votes and prize of $1,000. Toughies came in fourth, winning the prize of $250.
Maybe Not says it plans to use its cash prize of $500 for promotional t-shirts and making CDS of its two EPs. Aside from the participating bands’ increased publicity, KJHK largely benefits from this event as well.
“Having the event every year means we can try to catch bands as they form and grow,” Hair says. “It’s also a big boost to the station, in that it gives us access to a huge set of local music every year, and establishes connections with dozens of local acts.”
Farmers’ Ball is a collaboration of every area, not only within the station, but also including the live music partners at SUA. Hair says while it’s rewarding to see the various areas work together to produce the event, it takes a lot of work to get to the finish line.
“There are challenges to navigating the year-long campaign of encouraging bands to submit music and then working through all the voting rounds,” she says. “But the end result — a big, buoyant local music extravaganza — is easily worth the work.”
Hear more of Maybe Not on Bandcamp.