Competition celebrates smoke-free musicians

Finalists will compete at Jam Fest on April 22


Jason McKay says he began smoking when he was 15. But he quit about a year ago, when he was 23, and now he's putting his musical skills to the test in a contest designed to keep young people from lighting up.

He's a kind of one-man band in his recordings, playing drums, bass and guitar, and singing, under the name Version Zero. And he's one of 12 contestants from Baltimore County competing in the Free to Breathe Jam Fest 2006.

"You can," he said, "do fun things without having to smoke."

The Jam Fest is a battle of the bands for young musicians from Baltimore County, sponsored by the American Lung Association of Maryland. Online voting that ends today will decide which finalists will perform for the top prizes at a concert this month at Towson University.

Claire Mullins, vice president of communications for the ALA of Maryland says the competition is designed to counter tobacco company promotions that use music and musicians, such as print ads showing a singer smoking or free music downloads with the purchase of cigarettes.

To qualify for the contest, participants must be ages 14 to 24, write and perform their own music, and either work, go to school or live in Baltimore County. All performers entered in the contest must agree to sign a pledge to remain tobacco-free or to commit to quit.

"The stipulation is really just to bring a point that smoking really is bad, and it's something they need to think about. We want to give kids that moment of hesitation, whether they're smoking their first or millionth cigarette, to really consider what they're doing before they light up and make that lifestyle choice," said Mullins.

The contest got off the ground in February, when participants could enter by submitting a demo tape. Now, all contest entries are posted online, where listeners can vote for their favorites. The top four bands in both the high school-age category and college-age category will perform at the live Jam Fest April 22 at Towson University. They will compete for prizes, including a recording session on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus and a recording session with Sheffield Audio-Video Productions.

This year's competition, the second, includes 12 musical acts in two age categories. The high school-age category is made up of the bands lefthandout, RadioZ Dead, Injoy, Wishing We Were Irish, The Flying Eyes, Furion and Uptown Disaster. The five acts in the college-age category are Version Zero, The Furious Love Kids, Infinitum, Vienna and Percy Shaw.

The genres of music in the competition vary, and include indie rock, heavy metal and emo. "I just say that my music is a rock style and let other people come up with their own definition of that. Traditionally, I would say my music favors more of the '90s rock movement. But I don't limit myself so I can play whatever I'm feeling," said McKay.

McKay said smoking affected his music, but it was still tough to quit.

"I finally quit because of the way it was controlling me and consuming all of my time," he said. "It was affecting my vocals, and it just wasn't as fun as it used to be."

John Cotter, a member of Vienna, said he and his fellow band members hope to gain exposure through the contest. But he also considers cause worthwhile.

"I don't think anyone picks up a cigarette because they want to. They usually have a desire to be cool," said Cotter, 23, of Woodlawn.

"I personally hate it when I go to shows and come out smelling like smoke," Cotter added. Like other artists in the contest, he said he would probably attend more performances if there were no-smoking policies. Smoking will be banned at the Jam Fest.

The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, whose mission is to give young people hands-on experience with video and music projects, has sponsored the event both years. In addition to supplying the top prize for high school-age bands, it is also providing two judges for the battle.

"We like the alliance with the American Lung Association and the message of keeping lungs clean and healthy," said Brian Rothschild, executive director of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. "Last year the battle went tremendously well. We were very pleased with the turnout and the message and we wanted to do it again."

The top four high school-age and college-age bands will compete at the live Jam Fest on April 22 at Towson University's Stephens Hall. To listen to the bands and cast a vote, go to

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