The New England Music Awards began with a phone call — two friends commiserating about their favorite bands. Joe Graham hosted the weekly show A Local Anesthetic on Cambridge radio station WMBR, and Dennis Hennessey ran Boston label Sugarpop Records.
“We were discussing the idea of a showcase event to spotlight the bands that we thought were just a bit better than the rest of what was out there,” Graham said.
It moved from just another late night phone call to a plan of action pretty fast, recalled Graham.
“I bought the nemusicwards.com domain name the next morning, called Dennis and said, ‘Now what?’”
They organized a nominating committee made up of radio people, club owners, booking agents, journalists and the like. Then, they commenced spreading the word about NEMA to the music community.
Seven hundred submissions came the first year. For the ceremony, they hooked on to a Hard Rock Café show put on by promoter friend John Fleming, who suggested a presentation prior to the concert.
“Then, we realized that two of the three bands on the bill were already nominees,” Graham said. “We said, let’s have them perform as part of the awards. Then we pulled in a few more bands.”
The show sold out — 200 tickets.
The following year, 1,100 performers sent music for award consideration. For the third annual awards show, happening Feb. 22 at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, the number mushroomed to over 4,500. The event is firmly ensconced in the regional music scene, with a crowd of 2,000 expected and over 25,000 individual votes cast in balloting that closed Jan. 31.
For Manchester rockers A Simple Complex, the awards are a big motivator. The group is hoping to win after making the final five in the Best Hard Rock/Metal category for a third time.
“Getting nominated by NEMA is one of the best recognitions a local band in the area could ask for,” said singer/guitarist Mark Ingoldsby. “It says that venue owners, radio personalities, music writers and local record labels not only know who you are but think you are one of the best bands in the region. It is a huge honor for us.”
Winning translates to opportunity, Graham said.
“For many acts, it opened the door for them all year long,” he said.
The 2013 Best In State bands from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island performed at a downtown Boston festival as part of their prize. Many other winners opened for big names during last year’s Lowell Summer Music Series.
The awards ceremony, hosted by comedian Steve Sweeny, will feature last year’s live act of the year, Sarah Borello, along with several currently nominated perfomers. There is a pre-party showcase at Gemstones/Blue Shamrock with three NEMA recipients from last year, led by Adam Ezra Group (Best Band).
There are a handful of tickets available for the public to attend the NEMA VIP Kickoff party on Friday, Feb. 21, at UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. It includes a special awards ceremony and performances by youthful RADAR nominees Chris Ross, Francesca Blanchard, Amy Allen and Sarah Barrios, along with a set from Jazz Act of the Year nominees President Soup.
Friday’s event concludes with three special acknowledgements. The Grassroots Award for dedication to humanitarian causes will go to Louis Gendron, founder of the Acoustic For Autism project. The Scene Award, given for “dedication, involvement and contribution to the New England music scene,” goes to arts & culture organization Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Finally, musician Ernie Boch, founder of the not-for-profit Music Drives Us, will receive the Decade Award for distinguished service.
As seen in the February 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.