Small upstart labels offering Iowa musicians opportunities
Brandon Bergfeld made his way down the wooden staircase to his basement on Newton’s northwest side Wednesday. The 33-year-old opened a small entertainment center cabinet and pulled out folders filled with legal pads and notebooks, covered in lyrics scribed in black pen.
“This is my safe spot,” Bergfeld said of his basement hideaway.
Professionally, Bergfeld is a certified nurse’s assistant at Newton Health Care, but in his spare time the father of five is an aspiring hip-hop artist.
“My kids have heard my music. As a matter of fact, they heard it over the weekend for the first time,” he said. “And there was a lot of ‘Dad you said a bad word.’ But they essentially like to hear what Dad does.”
With consistent writing, periodic home recording and persistent networking within the Iowa City and Des Moines scenes, Bergfeld has been signed — joining the small upstart label Seven Leaf Entertainment, LLC out of Des Moines. Formed by Russ Blacksmith and Ian Walmsley of Des Moines, the hip-hop centered company just became incorporated at the beginning of January and joins a growing number of independent music labels and festivals that have been rising around the state in the last decade.
Small grassroots labels such as Daytrotter in the Quad Cities and the Iowa City-based Phat-Ass Records and Halo Red Inc. have begun showcasing local, Iowa and regional talent. Utilizing new media, these companies support records and tours for their artists with Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler and websites, posting mini concerts, audio demos and exclusive content allowing wider exposure to artists who in years past would have been isolated to the local pubs.
Newton native Tanner Illingworth is co-founder of Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival. The now 27-year-old learned to play instruments with friends while playing shows influenced by the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam at the now defunct Ace’s Teen Club.
He began attending the University of Iowa in 2003, and quickly became involved in the Iowa City scene where he and partner Andre Perry started piecing together ideas for Mission Creek.
“The first year we did it we brought in probably 3,000 people total,” Illingworth said. “That first one was kind of done on good luck and the reserve of our bank account. The reason we started the festival was for Iowa City and eastern Iowa. It was a celebration of music and art to showcase the city to national artists.”
The festival debuted in 2005 with 80 bands in a four-day event. The second year they grew to 100 bands, and Illingworth said they quickly realized they were growing too rapidly and began to “focus on quality, not volume.”
“Everyone involved in the festival is into a very wide range of genres. It was important that we diversify the event as much as possible and for us to get every genre involved,” he said. “The idea is to never let anyone feel left out because their genre is not represented.”
During the festival’s first two years, funding and marketing were its two primary hurdles. The Mission Creek duo started a grassroots marketing campaign complete with handbills, word-of-mouth exposure and stapling small posters to the black public message boards that are scatted throughout downtown Iowa City’s pedestrian mall.
“Getting people to believe in your message is difficult, so is convincing web developers to sign on pro bono,” he said. “It took two years of trying for people to realize we were for real; that this wasn’t just two college guys trying to hack a festival at the last minute. You have to prove that what you’re doing is real.”
Mission Creek now has a full web presence at www.missionfreak.com and has become a prominent fixture in Iowa’s growing number of festivals and labels.
“All of us involved are fairly tech savvy,” Illingworth said. “It’s been nice to have the development of social networks along with our festival.”
For small upstart labels like Seven Leaf Entertainment, Illingworth said there are many correlations to a burgeoning music festival. The financial risk is the most immediate, but he cautions new producers not to let personal relationships get in the way of making strict analyses of the product.
“With our label we’re definitely involved with our artists as friends,” he said. “So it’s definitely hard on a personal level. These are your friends and you want your projects to succeed, but you want to be careful not to be overly ambitious and have to be prepared to take the financial hit and move on to the next project.”
The festival coordinator also believes it’s important to network within and understand the scene.
After moving to Newton from Iowa City in 2003, Bergfeld tried to spark a hip-hop scene that was, and still is, in its infancy. Collaborating with the Newton act True Dimensions, the aspiring rapper was part of the city’s first hip-hop show at the American Legion Hall. He remembers the 2004 show bringing nearly 250 hip-hop fans in from around the county — a trend that he wants to continue as he begins to branch out to bigger markets.
“My personal goal is to make a name for Iowa. It’s been done in the acting scene, it’s been done in the heavy metal scene and now it’s just time for the hip-hop scene to make its name in Iowa too,” Bergfeld said. “There’s a lot of people in Iowa that appreciate hip-hop, and I’m just trying to give my music to all of them and to anybody else that wants to hear it.”
As he’s in the midst of recording material for Seven Leaf, Bergfeld is trying to add his own signature to the label currently hosting seven Iowa artists. At the beginning of this decade, the Newton Hip-Hopper’s themes of life came from a darker place. Heavily involved in drug dealing while living in Iowa City, he was convicted on two counts of controlled substance violations in Washington County and relapsed, resulting in probation violations from 1999 to 2004.
Serving time in state prison, Bergfeld used the experience to work on his craft.
“My freestyle vocabulary grew quite a bit. We did a lot of freestyling together while we were all in there,” he said. “Bang on the tables, make a beat and go at it. I’m not going to say it was a great place to be, but there was some good people in there — some good people that were in there for stupid things, such as myself.”
He was married in 2004, and credits his wife, kids and temporary loss of freedom for bringing him back from a destructive lifestyle.
“I rap about real life,” he said as he pulled out a black leather journal in his basement.
He opened to a page with a completed song he penned with True Dimensions entitled “Children of the Corn,” and started to demonstrate, rhyming in time.
“Left foot, right foot then I move out. As I’m stompin’ through the storm I’m steppin’ on a new route,” he rapped. “Gotta keep movin’, keep your head up, keep your chest out. Gotta keep it real, keep your mind right or you’ll get stressed out. Stretched out, life’s test and with all your best out. We’re the children of the corn, so thanks, it brings the best out.”
He closed the book as he finished and said, “I’m kind of counting on luck and my lucky leather book.”
Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at 792-3121 ext. 422 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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