Spring Break in Atlanta: Jamming into the Future of Music
Standing in line waiting to board an early morning flight to Atlanta, this past March, a group of Berklee students is making small talk in an attempt to stay awake. “You hear the new Kendrick [Lamar] record, yet?” guitar principal Sheldon Ferguson asks. Two days from now, Ferguson will be talking shop with guitarist Tomi Martin, whose iconic riffs can be heard on recordings from artists such as Michael Jackson, TLC, and Justin Bieber.
“It’s alright,” music production and engineering major Matthew Hines says to Ferguson. “But there are no singles. How does he expect to sell any records?”
“Why does he need to make singles?” adds Tickwanya Jones, music business/management major and vocalist. “Can’t he just stay true to what he wants his art to be?” While she has high hopes for the trip, Jones is unaware that she’ll soon be chatting about internship opportunities with Chrissy Collins, a backing vocalist for Beyoncé. While each student’s goals range from engineer to performer, the question in the back of each of their minds is the same: What does a sustainable career in music look like today?
Over the course of the next four days, these 21 Berklee students will be given unique access to both new and veteran titans of the music industry, from producers such as Neal Pogue (OutKast, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne) and Jeffrey J-DUB Walker (Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah) and musicians such as Martin and Collins to copyright lawyers and entrepreneurs. And the advice from all facets seems to come to the same point: be relentless, yet open to new skills—know the work, and you’ll get work.
A Hunger for New Skills
On the first official day of events, the students cram into a radio studio packed with wires and consoles that acts like a museum of radio production technology from the last two decades. They listen to James Fairey, director of new media at CBS Radio, talk about his musician background and how his hunger for a career in a music setting drove him to learn new skills, even if it meant teaching himself. Throughout his talk, he points at various pieces of equipment—new technologies, old technologies still in use, outdated gear kept for nostalgia’s sake—and many of the students’ eyes widen as they realize just how often Fairey has to adapt his skill set in order to keep his job title. “How are you going about learning new skills?” Ferguson asks.
“It all comes down to passion,” Fairey says. “This is who I am. I’m always learning new software—my appetite can never fully be fed.”
The Future Is History
From the CBS studios, the students wend their way through the hallways and elevators of this downtown skyscraper to their next event, a presentation from entertainment and copyright lawyer George Brunt, who, like Fairey, got his start as a musician in a band.
And while the ins and outs of copyright law sound like a necessary but dry topic, Brunt’s talk begins with an engaging and relevant history of the topic. For instance, all the tension on the part of musicians regarding the advent of streaming services like Spotify is the same kind of fear that emerged out of the invention of the player-piano, where all of a sudden compositions could be played without the presence of a musician. At every turn, from vinyl to radio to Rdio, the same concerns arise. “My prediction,” Brunt says, “is that this is going to continue forever.” And while it’s a sobering truth, there is a confidence that emerges out of knowing music has weathered these storms before.
That afternoon, atop the Greenberg and Traurig building, overlooking the whole of downtown Atlanta, the students listen to Michelle Caplinger, senior executive director of Atlanta’s Grammy chapter, talk about how she got her foot in the music business door while playing in a band. While their paths are significantly different, you start wonder if Fairey, Brunt, and Caplinger—and so many other speakers to come as the week progresses—are all conspiring via walkie-talkie in order to communicate such a consistent message about how to break into the industry.
In the Studio
Over the course of the trip, the students seize every opportunity to jam, often with Thomas Davies pounding out a soulful piano progression, Macston Maccow or Tyrone Dunning laying down a beat for Zaid Tabani to rap over, and vocalists Jones, Briana Williams, or Langston Theard adding in lines of melody and harmony.
So, it’s fitting that on the last night of the trip, the students gather at Patchwerk Studios to record an original song written and recorded in six hours. As the students take their turns—Ferguson ripping through a guitar solo, Jones belting it out behind the mic—all uncertainties about “the future of music” are put to rest through the simple answer that music demands to be made, heard, and promoted. It all converges here in the moments where passion for music aligns with the desire to create.