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THRIVING MUSIC SCENE

by Britt Chester

editor@yesweekly.com | @awfullybrittish

If being apart of the music industry right now isn’t as exciting as it was when the compact disc changed the music industry, then it certainly comes close. For those audiophiles that relentlessly consume live music; the ones that actually thumb through records in vinyl shops; the ones who hang out after a band’s set to get the new album signed; the ones who buy t-shirts directly from the lead singer after the show because they know the money from merchandise goes straight into the gas tank to push them to the next gig; the ones who don’t look at ticket prices because the experience always trumps the fee; they know that the music scene in the Triad is very much alive. But what they may not know is the innerworking support system needed to keep music thriving, to keep artists growing, and to keep their own thirst quenched by way of live music entertainment.

There are a lot of factors that go into music production and live shows these days, and although a lot of people just want the donuts, it’s necessary to understand how those donuts are made and the people who work behind the scenes to make all the magic happen. And it’s even more important to understand the different tiers that all provide the core of a music scene, which extends far beyond the concert headliners and deep into the community.

Because we, the people who drool over concert bills, the people who devour music with our eyes and not with our phones, are so bombarded with multimedia, the world of music has become a collaborative effort structured to engage multiple senses in order to maintain the shrinking attention span of a collective generation.

The Triad music scene is hot right now. There is so much talent to ruminate over coming from so many different walks of life, telling varied stories from polarized perspectives, that you’d be hard-pressed to not learn a thing or two about this region were it not for the music and the wizards behind the curtains. Whether you’re sitting in New York Pizza listening to a hardcore act while sloshing a Bud Light, or even throwing back a bucket of spirits while Texas two-stepping to country music at Ziggy’s, it’s important to recognize that without a solid foundation of local producers, players, and musicians, this scene would wither and die in a fraction of the time it took to get where it is today.

For many of the local musicians, those ones that have forged independent paths through grassroots campaigns and have built followings by engaging fans on a personal level, the momentum can pick up with only a slight nudge from a rather unsuspecting place.

Aquatic Ceremony, a four-piece indie rock band based out of Winston-Salem, embodies the importance of working within the community and utilizing its resources in order to gain traction in a world that sits on a slippery slope. The band is comprised of Amy Fitzgerald on vocals, Eric Glenn on bass, Matt Cooley on guitar and Chad McHenry on drums.

Fitzgerald is also a creative writing and English teacher at RJ Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. In March of this year, she decided to give her students a glimpse into her life by playing some of her music for them.

“I wanted to talk to them about my process,” Fitzger ald admits, “because [the students] open up in that class and I wanted to return the favor.”

One of her students, Brittany Ward, took to the music immediately and began searching for more Aquatic Ceremony tracks through the act’s Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is a popular outlet for independent artists to release music either for free or for a set rate. Aquatic Ceremony offers a “Name Your Price” option through the page to allow for fans to pay whatever they can for the music.

Ward was also taking a graphics animation class as a second year student under Phil Benenati, a teacher in the Visual Arts Department at Reynolds.

Going into the semester, the final stretch before some of his students would graduate, Benenati did not have “make a music video” on his curriculum, but as luck would have it, that’s precisely what would become the final project for the students. Real world experience in a classroom setting.

“I approached Mr. B with a song suggestion that I thought would work,” Ward said. The song was “Spiders,” the first single to be released by Aquatic Ceremony this past January.

Ward brought the song to the class and after listening to it a few times started brainstorming ideas for an animated music video.

Letting go of creative control for artists is often a difficult task because there are so many different views and perspectives and experiences that play into that process. However, the band only had one request, and that was to incorporate bright colors.

Roughly one week following the initial brainstorming process, Benenati, Ward, Michael Turner (a former student) and Aquatic Ceremony trekked around downtown Winston-Salem with gear in-tow and cameras in hand. The filming lasted an afternoon with each member getting various solo sessions in front of the lens, as well as full band shots.

Ward brought the footage to Dolores Jimenez Cruz, a fellow student at Reynolds, who began working up the edits.

“At first, we were producing it and we thought ‘this, this, and this’ and not everyone was contributing,” Cruz said. “I have a lot of respect for video editors because, to be honest, I thought it would take only 30 minutes.”

After setting a story-line and arranging the video clips, Benenati and the class began the arduous process of delegating animation sections to the students. With 14 students in the class, each one was instructed to animate 572 frames each, accounting for approximately 19 seconds of the video per student.

Ward recalled that in the beginning the enthusiasm was incredible, but as the students trudged through the first hundred frames, it slowly dwindled.

However, the result was something that Aquatic Ceremony couldn’t have imagined, and were quite pleased with in pushing their music out into the world.

One of the foundational elements of a music scene is community support. That community happens to be everywhere, and in this case, was a certain student who connected with her teacher’s music and challenged an entire class to express their selves (albeit for a passing grade) through visual creativity.

With several upcoming shows at New York Pizza, The Garage and Ziggy’s down in Wilmington, Aquatic Ceremony has been able to add another important element to its press kit, all thanks to one artist, Amy Fitzgerald, opening up about her life with her students.

Photo by Rebecca Harrelson

Tapping into the visual senses through live music has become a new standard, although psychedelic visuals, lights, and other visual elements have been incorporated at shows for many years. But in the last ten years with the rise of millionaire DJs and producers being backed by massive lighting rigs, lasers powerful enough to pinpoint a paint chip on the International Space Station, and LED screens displaying imagery that invokes a range of emotions, it has become a staple even in the underground.

Adam Graetz is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied international politics, but some know him as the visual artist controlling the images displayed during performances at Dance From Above, an event still in its infancy but maturing exponentially with each successful turnout.

Graetz, 27, is the marketing director for the Arts Center, an organization in Carrboro designed to “educate and inspire artistic creativity and to enrich the lives of people of all ages.” The irony is not lost, then, that Graetz carries this mantra with him into his other projects. Aside from his work with DFA, which is predominantly a labor of love for nearly all parties involved except for the musical talent, Graetz also throws shows in the Triangle region, primarily centered in the electronic music scene.

Graetz met Danny Olson, aka Jazzy Joel, one of the founding members of the DFA team, last year following his performance at Moogfest with his band, Body Games. Prior to the start of DFA, Olson pitched Graetz on the idea of being the resident artist, an offer he gladly accepted.

But the strange thing about what Graetz does is that the element he’s providing is almost a thankless job, primarily because so many people employ the “buy the ticket, take the ride” mentality when attending shows. It’s often misunderstood in this industry, even when Graetz’ name is listed on the flyer, that his work is just as important as the audio coming out of the speakers.

“(Visuals) set the tone, set the mood, the scene,” Graetz said. “It’s that synchronicity, that synesthesia, that people lock onto.”

DFA isn’t a national headlining event, though. Sure, in this area it is producing ripples-turned-waves by way of booking acts like Sinkane, but in the aggregate scene it’s simply another show on another night with another artist. But the service it is providing is priceless, that service being a product unlike anything else in the area relying on so many variables to come together to produce the whole.

And outside of DFA, Graetz freelances his visual artistry to a multitude of genres and acts. He coordinates and plans a monthly event at Nightlight Bar & Club in Chapel Hill, which he refers to as an underground party. In that, he sets up transparent screens with which to hold his visuals and a trick that actually alters the depth perception of the show.

In recalling his work, Graetz acknowledges many of the frontrunners that he looks to, namely artists like Flying Lotus, an electronic music producer and rapper who found recognition at none other than the Low End Theory club in Los Angeles, which has been a catalytic venue for many artists in the electronic realm, perhaps something that DFA is striving to create by using so many artists.

For the visuals, Graetz tries to use all original renders and video to project onto the screens. Although he does find imagery through Creative Commons, an outlet where artists can use copyright-free works, a majority of his visual presentations come from his own mind. Using midi-controllers and audio-reactive plug-ins, he takes otherwise still images and video and vibrates, pulsates, and distorts to match the mood.

Graetz’ visual work is but one arrow in his creative quiver, and his band, Body Games, is set to headline the upcoming DFA at the end of June. It’s precisely this type of diversification that allows for music scenes to thrive. Culling the region for talented individuals who share the ideals of supporting from within where there is no corporate backing and dollars (DFA does receive sponsorship and in-kind trade) is not easy.

This collaboration relies on a number of factors, one being Graetz’ work, the others being the team at Crown Room in the Carolina Theater to provide the space, photographers bouncing around the room to document the night, and sound technicians engineering the audio for an optimal listening experience. And the musicians, of course.

Caffeine, a monthly dance party started this year in the back of the Green Bean, had the potential of becoming an artery in Triad’s musical body. Headed up by Patika Starr and Atiba Berkley, the event was organized to showcase multiple art forms in one place. Relying heavily on the electronic music world, much like what DFA is doing, Caffeine was also open to b-boys and b-girls (breakdancers) to come in and show off their moves.

Berkley, a Greensboro resident off and on prior to 1999 when he moved here indefinitely, has been one of those wizards behind the curtain. His experience stems from his time at Guilford Technical Community College where he earned a degree in sound engineering. His work in that field took him all over the world, including two Olympics and two Super Bowls.

But major sporting events aside, he’s also helped to push the amorphous experience through sound engineering and event planning with his company Higher Underground Productions right here in the Triad.

Back in 2011 and 2012, he was hired to handle some booking duties at the now closed Brewskis Tavern.

He used this platform to showcase all sorts of music in his H.U.G.E. (HigherUnderGroundEvents) Showcase. He developed a web series, and with the help of UStream, a free service where members can livestream anything in front of a camera, was able to document and capture a wide variety of acts.

“The way it would work is because people would have the best time, and crowds that might not see each other might think ‘wow, this music is great’ and the people are great,” Berkley recalls. “You might hear acoustic and metal in the same night.”

Berkley moved around a lot in his younger years, attending three different schools in middle and high school.

He learned about people, and held onto that curiosity as he moved forward in life.

One of the biggest issues in music scenes anywhere is attracting new fans through social osmosis. Fans of hardcore and metal music don’t necessarily flock to the latest EDM headliner at a club because it’s not their scene, even though a lot of those EDM artists came from a punk and metal background. The core of each scene is actually quite similar in that they don’t bow to conformity, the DJs taking it one step further and not bowing to the full band mentality. But then you can look at Bassnectar, arguably one of the largest names in dance music having sold-out multiple arenas, whose passion lies in death metal. It’s obvious in his music, which is so loud in the live setting that his team provides earplugs free of charge at the shows for the safety of the fans.

Cross-pollinating genres is not a new thing, but the characteristics are there and ever changing: Hip-hop beats pull strings from country influences; EDM producers sample any amount of sound they can to fine-tune a track; and if you took the double-bass from Metallica’s “One” and inserted it into any drum-and-bass track, you’d be stumped as to who actually created it.

It’s no wonder then, that Berkley’s events would do so well, even if Brewskis didn’t last. If you invite 50 country fans to a metal show, you’ll probably see an empty room, and the same if you invite 50 metal fans to a country show. But if you book the two together, then you open each demographic up to a new sound, and whether or not they latch onto it, you’ve exposed them to more culture.

This type of support system is vital in any community of music. Berkley understands that, which is part of the reason he jumped at the opportunity to book a relatively foreign format for the Green Bean with the Caffeine event. Unfortunately, it just didn’t stick. The Green Bean decided that Caffeine wasn’t the right fit for the venue and it won’t be continuing at that location. Berkley said that he’ll keep the event live, though, and move it elsewhere to a location not yet determined.

“Art doesn’t die like that,” he said. He added that people are looking for events to go to that won’t cost them $20, but to produce that level of entertainment it often costs promoters too much money for the talent, who also needs to be paid, making the event not sustainable. But there are solutions.

“I’ve been scheduling shows earlier than I ever thought I would,” he said. “Greensboro is infamous for the 10 p.m. live show that doesn’t start ’til 11.”

In working around this, he’s decided that booking shows earlier may draw a crowd out that “will be able to make it home in time to catch Jimmy Fallon.” It’s just hard to finagle a percentage of the crowd that does go out and engage in the nightlife, and to tap into the fraction of that crowd that goes out with the sole intention of seeing live music.

One of the ways he’s working toward gaining respect for artists and venues is implementing a $5 minimum for shows. This places a value on the event – on the experience – a value that Berkley believes will help propel the entertainment sect to higher levels.

And although he’s working in sound engineering, booking shows for various venues and handling event management, he’s also just finished up his second year on the board for the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society. He gleams with pride knowing that his experience led him to this point, and that his ideas helped the most recent edition of the Carolina Blues Festival. He is also on the programming committee for the National Folk Festival, so you can expect to see his handiwork in play when that monumental event hits Greensboro in September.

“I’m only in it for the Holy Moment,” he concludes. The Holy Moment, he describes, is that moment in a high school choir rehearsal where a student has a solo and breaks on to the other side. “Or it could be if you’re walking down the street and you can’t help but stop because the busker on the corner just hit you with something real heavy and all it took was an acoustic guitar and his voice.”

Those moments are few and far between, but it could also be described as living in the moment to the truest definition. It’s realizing that the $5, $10, $15 or whatever price you paid is completely worth it because you had a life-changing experience based on the artistry performed before your eyes.

Holy Moments occur rarely, although everyone is different, but they are worth seeking out as often as possible.

For some, it’s standing in front of your idol with your best friends and realizing that there is no place you’d rather be than right there, right then.

But for others, it could be while performing. The world of promoters and event producers is riddled with shady business people and under-the-table cash transactions. There is a pride that a promoter takes in his shows and the performance level is the summation of all the hard work that goes into the brief moment, in the grand scheme, where the artist lays it all on the line on stage.

Ed E. Ruger knows this to be true. Since 2005, he has been promoting, hosting, street-teaming, email blasting, hustling and progressing in the scene. He’s logged thousands upon thousands of miles using cash earned from selling his CDs and mixtapes outside of shows. As the artist behind Gue- rilla Grind, his latest album titled perfectly for his personification of the idea, Ruger knows that it takes a lot stay independent if that’s the path you choose.

Ruger thinks back to two years ago when he was throwing shows very similar to what he’s still doing – the DSB Producer Battles, Iconoclast Crew events, et al – and he was only drawing 100 people. Now his events and those put on by members of his crew, draw upwards of 250 or 300.

“The people I work with don’t pay to play,” he said proudly. His mindset is that putting in hard work pays off, and following the trajectory of his career it proves successful.

Ruger also is quick to point out what a successful show is in Greensboro and the area. He acknowledges that headliners can pull more people in places like New York, but seeing 250 people through the door in this region is a successful show.

“When people say ‘you don’t support,’ that’s bullshit,” he said. “That’s a huge show for Greensboro, North Carolina. For all artists to pull that kind of crowd, that’s huge. I don’t know what else they want us to do.”

Ruger’s success is attributed largely to the legwork he puts into each and every event. He requires that artists billed on his shows hand out fliers, tape up posters, and utilize all aspects of social media for promotional purposes. In a perfect world, this would be handled and funded by the venues booking, but because Ruger is the backer on his events, this often comes out of pocket. This also means that he’s invested that much more time and money into the event than a third-party promoter who is simply putting up the money for the headliner and letting the venues handle the marketing.

Although there are mixed schools of thought on this matter, suffice it to say that if you are staying in the independent world, you have to do that job yourself. And you can’t ask someone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself, which is why Ruger, after becoming a father, after reaching his mid-30s, and after playing before tens, hundreds, or thousands of people, is still engaging people on the street through grassroots promoting and networking. He’s the guy outside the venue reminding you of the upcoming show. He’s on the stage emceeing the night for a crew of artists who might be in the spotlight for the first time. He’s the guy paying the artists at the end of the night.

And most recently, he was the guy welcoming the crowd at the Fillmore in Charlotte when Iconoclast Crew (which featured Ruger and Phillie Phresh) was personally picked by Tech N9ne as support for a show that otherwise didn’t have an opener.

Hard work pays off. Putting in legwork pays off. And staying true to your city pays off.

But some acts don’t settle for the same levels of success in their respective towns, or perhaps have set goals higher that it’s only feasible to move onto larger markets.

Eyes Eat Suns, a pop-punk outfit that was primarily based out of Winston-Salem (and who this publication recently featured on the heels of a debut album release of POW!) has recently relocated to Durham, North Carolina, where lead singer Ayisa Adderley lives.

Photo by Roger Gupta

After a year-long string a successful shows in the region, EES took to the southeast by way of Florida. But why the relocation?

“This commitment in moving away really made us want to expand,” says Caige Crampshee, guitarist for the group.

“It does suck to move away from all your friends, but it does force you to practice a lot more,” added drummer Matthew Fariss, “but the main goal is that you work, you go practice, and you wake up and do it again.”

Adderlay said that EES had pretty much conquered Winston-Salem, Crampshee, Fariss and bassist Evan Bryant’s hometown, and that Raleigh/Durham was a bigger market and her hometown.

“I know that Winston-Salem has a market, but I don’t know about Raleigh/Durham, and I think it would be cool to find that,” she said.

Since leaving, EES has been signed to 307 Management, a Raleigh-based artist management group that helps develop bands.

In February, EES was invited by Revival Recordings to play a show. It was there they were introduced to Giacomo Crismale. Crismale found out about EES through various networks and was actually responsible for booking them for the show.

It is a major milestone for any act to seek out management and actually find it. It signals a shift in the value of one’s career, or in this case, four people’s careers, because they are trusting someone else in handling press, developing the brand, and at times, acting as a mediator in the inner working arbitration that is best left to a third party.

Moving out of the market, though, is risky business.

Taking your music to another city and starting fresh (although EES had a prior relationship with some of the players in the Triangle) is a risky venture. Therein lies the possibility of total failure. However, with great risk comes great reward, and in the way EES was able to build a network of fans rather quickly – the band has only been around for roughly two years – if they stay on the same path with the same determination and fervent energy, there is no doubt that a homecoming show will be in order following a national tour.

Some acts pound pavement until they absolutely can’t do it anymore and require the implementation of a manager. Although EES is young, their management can play a major role in the development of the brand, but some acts have already established themselves in markets across the country and could, by all accounts, continue to do so with outside help.

For Greensboro jamband outfit The Mantras, bringing a manager on board didn’t happen until nearly 11 years into its career.

The Mantras have been a “local jam band” ever since 2003 when the first iteration, Marcus and the Mantras (which had founding member Marcus Horth on guitar and vocals, but who is no longer with the act), hit the local scene.

In 12 years, the Mantras have developed. Building a core group of fans locally before branching out into other markets and seeing a change in members, the outfit has essentially maintained a steady touring career since 2010.

In 2007, The Mantras held the very first Mantrabash, which was primarily a congregation of bands, friends and family. The group decided it would hold off on making it an annual event at that time, but has since revived the festival and will celebrating it’s sixth, now annual, festival at High Country Motorcycle Camp in Ferguson, North Carolina come September.

Zach McNabb used to be a talent buyer at both the Neighborhood Theatre and Chop Shop in Charlotte, which is where he became acquainted professionally with The Mantras. That acquaintance turned into a friendship, and the band ended up asking him to take on the managerial role for the band.

For a band that has managed to stay afloat and relevant for 10 years, the decision to bring on a manager has a very distinct reason.

Photo by Roger Gupta

“I take on the day to day tasks,” McNabb said. “And then I work on marketing aspects and development aspects of the band. I also work on Mantrabash with weekly calls. It’s how we stay on top of things.”

For The Mantras, this takes a mighty load off the band. This means that the musicians can turn their focus entirely onto their studio recordings and live show. McNabb coming onboard also brings a lot of experience and sources, which helps in booking national tours (The Mantras just celebrated their first appearance at Wakarusa Music Festival in Arkansas) and planning when to hit the “hot markets.”

Explained McNabb, “A lot of times bands ask why they need managers, and I’ve been a manager long enough and I’ve managed people for 15-20 years so I understand the need for that little bit of touch, sometimes, when you can help to do some bigger scope planning and just kind of touch along the way to get where you want to go.”

He said that because The Mantras have been around for so long that it’s difficult to bring on new fans, and it’s difficult to grow without getting new fans. But that is why he works with the band in both the development aspect and in the planning for long term goals. There’s also the dynamic of six people in the band, which makes it challenging to always agree.

“Musicians are unique breeds, which is why they can do what they do,” McNabb said.

Julian Sizemore, the latest addition to The Mantras on keyboards, admits that they needed a bit more help because they are always on the road. Sizemore reiterated the point that McNabb is someone they trust, which is important when putting your career into the hands of someone, and that part of the reason they waited so long was because they wanted the right person, and wanted to be in the position to pay that person.

Aside from what seems like the incessant tour schedule, The Mantras have also recently built a recording studio in Greensboro. Vocalist and guitarist Kenn Mogul headed up that operation.

But Mantrabash seems to be the big decision maker.

McNabb said that with the festival rolling into its fifth year (Sizemore admitted that there was a festival hiatus between the first and second installments of the event) it’s really important to use this as a benchmark. True, the lineup this year brags some of the biggest names on a Mantrabash bill, namely EOTO (the side-project of Jason Hann and Michael Travis of String Cheese Incident), and a special Mantras set that will include Bernie Worrell joining the band on keys. Worrell is one of the founding members of Parliament-Funkadelic and worked extensively with Talking Heads. For this special show, the act has decided to do “Talking Dead,” which is a set comprised entirely of mashed-up Grateful Dead and Talking Heads songs. Sizemore said that it’s almost unfathomable that he’ll be playing keys next to Bernie Worrell.

The momentum and trajectory of bands in the Triad is entirely traceable, but there is no way to figure out the formula that will land you a top billing at Coachella, or a headlining spot at Madison Square Garden, or even a sellout crowd in this area, but there are acts and people in the industry who wholly devote themselves to bettering the music scene and elevating others to that status, including the fans.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year act trying to break out of the local gigs. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been touring nonstop for five years. It doesn’t matter if you are the guy behind the soundboard. It doesn’t matter if you’re artwork is displayed on projector screens during the concert. What matters is that supporting the scene helps everyone, from the artists, to the promoters, to the managers, to the musicians, to the photographers, and to the bartenders serving you drinks.

The Triad’s music scene is thriving. Go out and find your Holy Moment. !

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