Among other things, Charleston is a musical incubator. It hasn't yet achieved the same status as Austin, Texas, or Athens, Ga., or Seattle, Wash., but it has nourished numerous emerging bands over the years, and it provides a home base for a few notable musicians.
Three of those musicians - Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish fame, and Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope - took the stage at the College of Charleston's Emmett Robinson Theater on Monday to talk about the songwriter's craft and the nature of the music business.
The event, called "In the Mix," was organized and moderated by Bryan, who teaches a class at the college about the music industry.
It was an unusual hybrid presentation, part educational, part entertainment, part commercial, and it drew a sizable audience that included a number of students aspiring to jobs across the music industry and armed with ready questions.
The highlights of the evening were back-to-back performances by Hearst and Rucker that came at about the halfway point of the hour-long conversation.
Hearst presented a soulful and catchy new song in public for the first time, inspired by the Lowcountry terrain, called "Stono River Blues."
Rucker sang one of his latter-day hits, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," showing off his warm baritone voice and investing a bit of genuine heart in a performance that could easily have been merely perfunctory.
The performances were clear indications that these two musicians care a lot about their hometown, esteem their colleague and friend Mark Bryan and value the effort to expand the educational offerings of the college's arts management program.
Rucker came a little late, rushing to campus from the airport, having arrived straight from Los Angeles where he picked up a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance ("Wagon Wheel").
While spectators and students were waiting, Bryan introduced five fellows from Nashville who have been enjoying a songwriting retreat at a house on the Isle of Palms. Each offered a few words of advice.
"It's not easy. It's scary. You have to believe in yourselves," said Patrick Davis, who moved to Nashville 12 years ago. "You're going to hear 'no' a million times before you hear 'yes.' "
But then it might take only one good song to change everything, Davis added.
James Otto, 17 years in Nashville, said it's all about building relationships.
"Your friends are so important," he said.
Corey Crowder advised students to shed their egos.
"Do not be afraid to let somebody be the expert," he said. "Find someone who'll tell you the truth."
Nashville, the primary seat of country, Christian, bluegrass and Americana music production in the world, was much discussed.
The city has become Rucker's professional center, and its developed industry serves as a model, and an opportunity, for musicians all over the country who seek commercial success.
In an interview after the event, Bryan said he is trying to establish more comprehensive music production infrastructure here in Charleston, hoping that the Holy City can become a secondary music center in the South, similar to Austin or Athens.
Already there are a couple of good recording studios in town (Charleston Sound and Ocean Industries), along with a small label or two, a new mastering studio (Borboleta Audio, operated by Duda Luceda with help from his wife, Jessica Bluestein Luceda, co-sponsors of the "In the Mix" event), plenty of performing venues and lots of talent.
But Bryan is hoping that Charleston might do more than produce talent and send it forth into the world; he wants the city to lure musicians from elsewhere and provide them a home. That's why he has become a teacher, he said.
In 2009, Scott Shanklin-Peterson, director of the arts management program, wanted to develop a music industry concentration, so she called Bryan to ask for advice.
"He said what he really wants to do is teach," Shanklin-Peterson said.
So together they started a new course that leverages local talent and entrepreneurs and examines how to move music into the marketplace.
The arts management program has about 250 enrolled students, 30 of whom take Bryan's class each semester. Shanklin-Peterson hopes that the interest in learning about the music industry will soon reach a critical mass, justifying a formal concentration option, she said. Students might soon be able to earn a degree in arts management with a specialization in some aspect of the music industry.
These students will then pursue careers, based in Charleston, that further enhance the city's music offerings, Bryan said.
In his course, he scrutinizes various aspects of the music industry: songwriting, touring, licensing and publishing, the work of record labels, booking and presenting, and so on.
"Then, at the end of the semester, they could say, 'This is the (area of interest) for me,'" Bryan said. The second half of each Monday session is devoted to a special guest who shares real-world experiences.
They also enact a mock music deal, going through each step of the process, from negotiation to contract, he said.
"And we talk a lot about industry change," Bryan said. The biggest unknown is what the distribution channels will look like down the road. So he gets his students to think about that. Charleston also could use a booking agency, he said, a void that points to the city's music infrastructure limitations.
But these limitations already are fewer in recent years, and Bryan thinks the city is on the cusp of becoming a secondary industry hub, like Chapel Hill, N.C., especially because of the flexible and mobile nature of today's technology.
"This generation can make it happen," he said.
During the public discussion, Hearst joked about having to leave Nashville, where she grew up, in order to make it in the music business, even as most everyone else was pouring into the city with a dream and a prayer.
She said almost all her songwriting is a collaborative effort with her husband and Shovels & Rope partner, Michael Trent.
When writing, they are more interested in storytelling and observation than in delivering a message, she said.
Rucker, too, said writing was fundamentally collaborative. He often congregates with other songwriters to assemble his tunes, relying heavily on the talents of others, he said.
Though he is unafraid to reject any song idea that doesn't interest him or makes him feel uncomfortable.
When someone suggested writing about cocaine, Rucker nixed the idea, preferring to stick to subjects that matter to him, such as family or relationships.
"I write for me," he said, offering students the following advice: "Never put a song on the record you don't like because if you do, that'll be the hit and you'll have to sing it."
When he was part of Hootie and the Blowfish, the songwriting process was different.
"I always believed we had to be inspired to write," he said after the event. "But I realized in Nashville you can always write a song."
It is about the art of work, not so much the work of art; it is the result of hours spent inside one of Nashville's well-equipped music houses, the product one achieves through collaboration, concentration and flashes of creativity, he said.
"Both (approaches) are fun both can be tedious," Rucker said.
Students Page Fortuna and Bianca Gardner said they were most impressed by this idea.
"There is no such thing as writer's block," they said, echoing the claim Bryan made during the discussion. It's about finding a creative environment that fosters hard work, then setting off to find the tune or the lyric. It's about discipline and practice, they said.
Rucker said his best musical moment so far was winning the Grammy in 1995, against the odds, for "Let Her Cry," a Hootie tune.
Hearst said her most cherished moment was her first show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Her whole family was there, she said. Hearst and Trent were ushered into the famed dressing room with all the Johnny and June Cash memorabilia in it.
"It'll never be better than this," she said.
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