Let’s get down to business

Athens is a living lab for students in UGA's Music Business Certificate Program

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Let’s get down to business

Widespread Panic guitarist and lead singer John Bell performs during a guest lecture for students in the Music Business Certificate Program.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

It is the first day of fall semester classes, and students in the Music Business Certificate Program are filing into the Chapel to hear a special guest. After a few perfunctory announcements and a brief introduction, Widespread Panic guitarist and lead singer John Bell walks onstage.

Dressed in a loose-fitting yellow shirt and jeans, a medallion around his neck, he sits in the straight back chair in front of a microphone, his guitar at his side.

He’s nervous—the Chapel is an intimate venue compared to the 20,000-seat arenas where the band has performed for the past decade. To the delight of the students, he picks up his guitar. The class starts with an acoustic version of “Already Fried.”

But for the next hour, Bell, a UGA student from 1981 to about 1986, mostly talks, telling the audience a little bit about the music business: how he got into it and how he made it work.

“I think one of the hippest things about the music business is there are systems and ways of doing things that are in place and avenues that are traveled—and systems that folks agree that ‘are the way to do things.’ It’s good to recognize that stuff,” he says. “But there’s also such an opportunity in the music world to step out of the box and create your own job… If you see something in your mind’s eye of how you can apply yourself and how you can fit it in the music world, that’s yours to do.”

 

Over the next few months, students will hear from R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs (JD ’81), Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene (BS ’94, MS ’00), producer John Keane and a host of other professionals in the music industry, who will share their experience and tips on how to break into and stay in the business.

For the students—who come from the Terry College, the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and other departments in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences—the program is an introduction to the music industry, beyond the people who write and perform the music.

“We’re presented with so many different opportunities we didn’t even know were jobs,” says Mary Ellen Klein, a Japanese language and literature major from Atlanta.

As part of the program, Klein, a singer/songwriter, works as an intern for John Keane, whose Athens studio has recorded R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic and Vic Chesnutt, to name but a few. She spends part of her time editing Keane’s instructional videos and learning about the technology behind music recording. It’s an exciting place, she says. “Who knows what band is recording downstairs?”

 

The idea for the Music Business Certificate Program began to take shape in 2002 when Bruce Burch (BSEd ’75), whose brother was a member of the Terry Alumni Board, approached then-Dean George Benson about starting the interdisciplinary program. A year later, Steve Dancz (BMus ’80), director of the jazz program at the Hodgson School of Music, brought a similar idea to Benson.

Both Burch and Dancz had struggled in the early days of their music careers and wanted to better prepare students for the road ahead. “It would have changed my life,” Dancz says of the program, had it been available to him.

“This is a very competitive industry,” he says. “Everybody in the world wants to be in the music business.”

Benson liked the idea, but had no money to fund it. If it were going to happen, it would have to be privately funded.

So, Dancz and Burch hit the streets to find potential funders.

“Bruce and I spent a year driving around Georgia talking to anyone who had 50 cents in their pocket,” Dancz recalls.

They hit pay dirt in 2005, when a friend of Burch’s from Nashville mentioned the idea of a music business program at UGA to George Fontaine (BBA ’76), co-owner of the Los Angeles-based record label New West.

The idea intrigued Fontaine, who as an undergraduate booked bands for his fraternity and had helped lease and renovate the Georgia Theatre as a music venue.

“I had a desire to do that, and I thought I’d see what this guy had to say,” Fontaine recalls. “It was definitely one of those meetings where I felt comfortable Bruce was the guy to start this program up.”

In the meantime, Burch says, he and Dancz had been building support for the program on campus and were ready for it to be funded. “Once we got to George it took two phone calls and one face-to-face meeting and he was in,” Burch recalls. “We’d had time to build consensus. We had a good plan in place.”

Fontaine’s initial gift of $750,000 got the program, a partnership between the Terry College and Hodgson School, off the ground. Twenty-seven students enrolled in the first music business class, offered in the spring 2006 semester. Another 50 enrolled the following fall. By May more than 150 students will have earned certificates through the rigorous program, which requires coursework in accounting and time-consuming externships in the music industry. Currently 189 students are enrolled in the program or are in the music business introductory class.

Earlier this year, Fontaine made another pledge to the program, this time $825,000 from his personal funds and $150,000 from his family foundation. “I think it’s been great. I’ve got a son that just went through the program,” Fontaine says. “There are a whole lot of kids getting jobs in the music business at a time when it’s hard to get jobs in the music business.” The program, one of a kind at a public flagship university, has garnered national attention for the Terry College.

“Every business school needs a way to distinguish itself,” says Terry College Dean Robert Sumichrast. “Our goal for the Terry College is national prominence and music business can be a part of that.”

 

Not much is happening at 3 p.m. on a Friday at the Rialto Room, one of Athens’ newest music venues in the basement of the Hotel Indigo. A few students are hanging out on the cushioned chairs in the bar area of the club. Inside, a crew is setting up for a sound check before the show, which will feature songwriters Greg Barnhill, Joanna Cotten, Mike Dekle and Will Robinson performing in the round. Dan Hesketh, a student from Kennesaw in the music business program, is part of that crew and is checking microphones as well as cameras set up to record the performance. Hesketh says he’s had experience working in a music studio and now is learning about live shows.

“That’s what’s good about this program,” he says. “Whatever you want to do, they’ll help you do.”

The students did much of the work in anticipation of the show, marketing it to the community, selling tickets and even setting up chairs. Part of the planning included determining who the audience for this particular show would be. “This group is popular with older adults,” explains Kendra Tanner, a marketing major from Pearson, Ga. “And it’s a fancy venue, so we were looking for fancy people.” A big part of the program is matching students with internships that will help them learn about an area they may be interested in. Students have worked locally at the Rialto and the Melting Point, for local producers and marketers and for bands.

“I don’t think a lot of people knew what they wanted to do,” says Tanner, who spent a summer working for a public relations firm. “I found out that’s not what I want to do.”

 

In addition to the internships, the program also offers a revolving door of guest speakers who can give students the inside scoop on the positions they may hope to one day hold.

Through Burch, Dancz and Music Business Program Coordinator Keith Perissi, students have access to a wealth of experience at all levels of the music business. Burch had a successful career as a singer-songwriter in Nashville before joining EMI Music Publishing as creative director. Dancz, who left the music business program last year, composes musical scores for television and film, including numerous original works for National Geographic productions. Perissi toured nationally and internationally for 15 years as bass player for the rock band Cigar Store Indians, which is how he met Burch.

The three offer their own experience as well as a vast network of contacts in Atlanta, Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. Guest lecturers have included singer Corey Smith, producer/songwriter Dallas Austin, Widespread Panic drummer Sunny Ortiz and Fontaine.

“You can’t teach this in a classroom,” Burch says. “It’s a learning lab.”

“What I tell them is you’ve got to know a little bit about everything … and you’ve got to sell yourself.”

About a quarter of the students in the program have gotten full-time jobs as a result of their internships, he says. Graduates are now working for such heavyweights as the Warner Music Group in New York, the William Morris Agency in Nashville, and Live Nation in Atlanta.

Stephanie Mundy Self (BBA/ BMus ’07) landed a job as an account executive with Flood, Bumstead, McCready & McCarthy, a business management firm in Nashville, after graduation. In that role, she helps manage insurance needs and tax matters for such high profile clients as Taylor Swift, Pearl Jam and Kelly Clarkson.

Mundy, a Greenville, S.C., native who came to UGA on a music scholarship, decided to pursue a business degree as a way to stay connected to the music industry.

“I love singing but I didn’t think I had what it took to be a professional musician,” she says. “I wanted to stay in music somehow.”

She was one of the students in the inaugural music business certificate program class in 2006. Her initial inclination was to pursue a career in entertainment insurance. But the bulk of those jobs are in Los Angeles or New York, cities that “were just too big for me,” Mundy says.

During a summer internship in Nashville at Sony/ATV Music Publishing she met another student who went to work for Flood, Bumstead, McCready & McCarthy. Her interest in business management already had been piqued by an Atlanta-based business manager who had spoken to one of her classes. She applied and was hired, starting work just two days after commencement.

Her days vary. In the summer and fall she’s busy lining up insurance protection for musicians while they are on the road. This time of year she’s gathering documents to help prepare their tax returns. Occasionally she’ll go on the road with a client to see a performance.

“I didn’t know if it was a good fit,” she says now. “Turns out it was.”

 

Athens is a “petri dish” of sorts for a program like this, with its reputation for producing great artists, the number of venues in town that promote live music and the array of businesses that support the music industry, Burch says. “We’ve pretty much got students involved with every venue in town,” he says.

The music and recording industry is changing fast, Burch says, and students here are on the ground level watching it happen. They see the bands working the small gigs to try and catch a break. And they’ve gotten to see acts like Corey Smith, who opted for a do-it-yourself breakthrough by producing his own CDs and distributing them for free to build a fan base.

“You couldn’t do the program like we do it here in a place like Idaho,” Burch says. “It’s a living laboratory.”

Get More

To learn more about the Music Business Certificate Program, go to http://www.terry.uga.edu/musicbusiness.

If you would like to make a gift to the program, please contact Heather Malcom, director of corporate and community relations, at (706) 542-7668 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).