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Stairway to 30

Skip Maggiora makes people feel like rock stars. Sometimes, it’s just for a day. Sometimes, it lasts for a long, lustrous career. And on Aug. 15, the owner of Skip’s Music gave 94 teenagers the full rock star treatment — and maybe the launch pad to a life in the spotlight.

Held at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento, Calif., this year’s Stairway to Stardom concert celebrated the program’s 30th anniversary. Parents, music industry heads and fellow teens swarmed the venue to check out 22 bands, all of which had honed their craft during the eight-week rock camp at Skip’s Music. For bashful performers, it was a baptism by fire: The event drew a capacity crowd of roughly 1,200 showgoers.

“This is the first time we’ve charged to come to the final concert — $10 to get in — and it was sold out,” said Maggiora, who created Stairway to Stardom. He also incorporated a live Web broadcast, so non-attendees could watch the five-hour event at home.

“What Skip is doing is amazing,” said Bob Yerby, Remo vice president of sales and marketing and one of many industry VIPs on hand at the event. “He’s building a clientele that’s going to last as long as the kids want to play music, and that will hopefully be for the rest of their lives. And they’ll continue to come to Skip’s Music for everything they need. It’s an unbelievable thing.”

Total Rock Immersion
Stairway to Stardom works in large part because of its full music immersion experience. Participants have to audition to join the program, as they would for a professional band. (Those who don’t make the cut get a couple of free lessons.) They spend eight weeks rehearsing and learning everything from songwriting techniques to booking gigs. Many also rehearse outside of the program, at their parents’ homes. The hard work culminates with the final concert, which puts them through a day in the life of a gigging rock star.

This year, Stairway participants each performed a three-song set amid a generous backline of gear. Afterwards, they got whisked off to a green room to be interviewed for a cable access TV special, then signed autographs in the lobby for friends, family and fans.

“They get the whole nine yards,” Maggiora said. “They’ve gone through clinics about promoting themselves. We’ve already had talks with them about how to book yourself and how to try out new players if one isn’t working out.”

A week after the concert, each band headed into a professional recording studio to cut a one-song demo. This year’s first-place Stairway winner, Back In Your System, got to record a three-song EP that will receive airplay on a local Sacramento radio station.

“They’ll get 1,000 copies, all packaged with bar codes, and they go on sale at the record stores around town,” Maggiora said. “They’ll also open up for a major act at a concert.”

Outside Help
If it sounds like a mammoth undertaking, that’s because it is. Skip’s Music recruits more than 20 outside coaches that work with each individual band throughout the program. The company also involves other industry pros who present clinics on such topics as song composition, lyric writing, stage presence and music business. None of the outside coaches make a fortune with Stairway, but Maggiora said that’s deliberate. “They need to do it for the right reasons.”

Maggiora also gets more than a little help from his industry friends. Several suppliers co-sponsored the final Aug. 15 showcase with funding and gear. Remo even created a special bass drum head with the Stairway logo for the kit onstage.

“I felt very honored by the show of support that was given [to] Stairway by the presence of so many,” Maggiora said.

For these suppliers, it’s an act of giving back to Sacramento’s music community, but it’s also good PR. Reps from Ibanez and Fender manned booths in the Crest Theatre’s lobby where attendees could try out their wares. The Fender booth featured a sneak peek at Blacktop Strats, Teles and Jaguars a week before their release date.

“Usually, we do an event like this at trade shows that’s only for dealers,” said Emery Fry, Fender’s product education manager. “This gives a chance for 10-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 70-year-olds to see our product and find something that’s going to touch them.”

The Career Launcher
The first band to hit the stage, Morsen, took first place at Stairway last year. It combined Ozzy-esque vocals with modern metal aesthetics and sounded surprisingly tight for a bunch of folks who looked no older than 17. (The average age of a Stairway participant is 13.) As with many other Stairway alumni, Morsen stayed together after it finished the program. Maggiora explained that the band has since opened for major acts in the area.

“We’ve had many successful artists who credit Stairway to Stardom for launching their musical careers,” he said. “Some are just local stars, but many have found their way into the national scene. One of ours is in Demi Lovato’s band on tour with the Jonas Brothers right now.”

Maggiora smiled proudly as he spoke of these success stories. He said he’s gratified that more females are getting involved in Stairway each year. Still, he’s not satisfied. He wants even more future stars to arise from Skip’s Music, and he’ll die trying to cultivate them.

“We haven’t had a Michael Jackson out of this yet, but there’s one in here someplace,” he said. “We’ll find him.” MI