Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

Making It Here

*The following post is an article that I wrote for a local arts magazine (undefined) a few years ago.

Making It Here

For aspiring professional musicians, is living in Columbia a recipe for success or a dead end?

To the general public, considering music as a vocation is as preposterous as aspiring to be a professional fire-eater in a circus side show. The average person is stunned to learn that a musician cannot only survive but also thrive, deriving an income from the performance of music and other music-related occupations. But, just how feasible is it to be a professional musician in Columbia? What advantages and/or disadvantages does our city present to these artists?

I interviewed five individuals in the music industry who are from Columbia and either currently live here or decided to relocate in order to pursue their musical aspirations. These are not just any people; these are successful musicians who excel at what they do and are proud to say they’re from our city.

Les Hall moved to Los Angeles in 2001 and has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry. He’s currently back in town working with the band Crossfade. He was kind enough to share some thoughts about being a professional musician in Columbia.

One of the great things about Columbia is that it’s relatively inexpensive to live here, which means you can make a decent living playing gigs without having to find a day job. Also, it’s a lot easier to get your feet wet because there’s not much top-notch competition for the gigs that are available. You can be relatively inexperienced and get some experience while making some money to live on.

On the downside, there aren’t many people from whom to learn. If you want to make an impact in this business nationally, you’re not likely to find anyone around here who has done that already. So, you have to go somewhere else to learn from those people.

There’s not a lot to see on a nightly basis either, only local musicians. While a lot of them are great, you’re not able to see Chick Corea at the jazz club downtown. You can’t underestimate the effect of being able to see guys like that. Also, national acts usually skip over Columbia when planning their tours, maybe because it’s more of a sports town and people generally won’t pay to see shows…I’m not sure.

I would advise musicians to not sit around waiting until they feel they’re ready to make a move. Do it as soon as you can because you are only wasting your own time. The effect of being in a place that challenges you will force you to grow. Sell your equipment if you need to. Just do it already!

Endeavoring to be a musician is a course with few familiar landmarks. Unfamiliarity often leads to fear; in this case, the fear of the unknown means that specific advice regarding goals and expectations is not readily available. Although the age-old concept of working hard is a great beginning, the skill set required for success is much more nebulous.

Joal Rush was born and raised in Camden, but Columbia is where he developed his sense of what direction his career would take. He has been touring non-stop for over four years now, relocating first to Atlanta and then to Charleston in order to combat complacency. His thoughts:

People in Columbia, for the most part, don’t really seem to care about the music as much as they do going out and getting plastered at the bars…the most excitement about the music comes when some chuckle-head screams out, “FREEBIRD!!!”

As a singer/songwriter who does a lot of solo performance, it’s tough trying to do everything yourself, i.e. booking, writing music and self-management. So, I would prefer to surround myself with a team of hardworking, trustworthy individuals who can devote part of themselves to keeping things moving strong with my music…but that’s easier said than done.

My advice to local musicians is to work hard…it’s not ALL fun and games. Also, get as many people involved with your music as you can.

Kenny McWilliams is the guitarist for the locally born, nationally touring band Baumer. He’s been recording and touring with them since their inception in 2004. Kenny’s insight:

The biggest advantage of being a musician in Columbia would be the fact that it’s a small town. It’s cool because even though it’s a pretty small town, we really have a great music scene – plenty of great people to play with and plenty of great places to play. There really are lots of opportunities for a working musician here.

Of course, there are less industry people in small towns to take notice and send you to the next level. Packing out a club in Columbia means a lot less to the rest of the country than packing out a club in New York City or even Atlanta does.

I think the biggest shock to me has been that in order to be successful, you have to do so much more than just play music. I have had to become competent at marketing, finances, and networking. It’s not just art. The “art” part of it is the most important part, but be willing to work hard and try things that seem to have nothing to do with the music. It’s not “selling out,” it’s making a living!

I’m just doing what I love and working hard at it. I don’t think I would do anything differently. I love it here and have no plans to relocate.

The unique vibrancy that exists in cities such as New York, Nashville and Los Angeles is such that each opportunity to perform is an audition for the next one. The irresistible need to cut one’s teeth leads young lions to places where the talent pool is deep enough to challenge their development.

Kenneth Salters, a drummer born and bred in the Columbia area, made the move to New York City in 2006 to search for “more opportunities on a larger scale.” He took some time between gigs to share his experience:

If you’re a local musician in Columbia, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll stay a local musician in Columbia. Not a lot of great opportunities come to Columbia on a regular basis; however, there’s an abundance of playing and teaching opportunities available to the musicians there. There’s at least a small market for almost every style of music in Columbia, so almost any musician can make a living if they spread themselves to an adequate number of avenues of music and music education.

To pursue a career in music, you can never be too prepared, but it’s “what” you prepare that’s most important. I’m playing with more musicians and groups now than ever. The more groups I play with, the more I realize how important it is that I contribute an appropriate drum part that suits the emotion and vibe for that particular group…that’s production and orchestration, not technique. So, study and practice enough to be competent, but don’t neglect the compositional aspects of being a musician.

The harder you try and the more effort you put in, the greater the reward will be. In this age of the music industry, nothing comes easy. Everything must be worked for. Music is something that you have to want to do.

Fontaine is a singer/songwriter who relocated from Columbia to Los Angeles back in 2001. Her music has been featured in films and on the Showtime channel, all without the help of a corporate record label. Her words:

When I think of being a musician in Columbia, the first thing that comes to mind is the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. I loved the intimacy of the city. While I definitely miss that, the conservative nature of the town is such that musicians don’t usually allow themselves to “dream big.” I could be wrong. Dreaming big is a very important thing.

Music has to be something you love doing. Period. It can’t be about money or fame, because that’s so hard to come by these days, especially with what’s going on in the music industry. You just have to find a way to do it yourself. Buy the equipment you need, and find great musicians to work with.

The best advice I can give to aspiring musicians in Columbia is to not get discouraged, and of course, dream big!

My Two Cents

Making a living in Columbia playing music is certainly possible. There are enough opportunities available to sustain our best and brightest musicians. The predicament we face is more about whether those same musicians can find fulfillment living here or whether they are drawn to other places seemingly more suited to their professional goals and needs. I suggest that any musician would be wise to sit down and write out a list of goals for his or her career and judge whether those objectives can be realized here.

Staying here? Great! Let’s get to work. Remember: Being a musician is a word-of-mouth business, and in some ways it’s no different than being a plumber, as doing good work is your best marketing. Having a reputation of arriving on time, wearing the right clothes, being happy to be there and giving your best effort have more to do with success than both the level of your abilities and whatever delusions of grandeur you might foster do. While it’s not essential that your skills be world-class, the level and range of your competency increases your number of potential employers, so take the time to prepare yourself to be successful.

It’s up to each of us to determine not only how we become successful, but also ultimately how our burgeoning city nurtures its population of talented musicians. May your gig calendar be full and all your bills paid.

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