Industry Free Georgia? A Quietly Thriving Underground

Post Author: Andy Barton
Kristine Leschper from Mothers

For years, public discourse has maintained that Georgia’s place in the national music landscape has been carved out by a few distinct scenes and styles: blues and soul singers from various corners of the state (James Brown and Little Richard); Athens’ college rock boom in the late 1970s and early-1980s; and Atlanta’s consistent flow of power-house hip-hop performers. The state certainly doesn’t lack major names, but very few artists have emerged from the rock-oriented underground in recent years to the acclaim of yesteryear’s Athenian exports. Granted, the last two decades have brought to light bands Deerhunter and the Black Lips in Atlanta; The Whigs in Athens; and a handful of great metal acts from Savannah. But what chance do independent artists have of receiving such a mention today, when the state’s reputation still precedes them? Furthermore, is it possible for the state to adequately spotlight and keep that attention on its underground artists with what industry resources are available?

For Georgians, deviating from the South’s majority-held socio-political confines isn’t unheard of; but much like those tying ideologies, evading outsiders’ preconceived notions of what Georgia music is—based on what Georgia music has been—still proves difficult.

“Atlanta is where the best bands play; Athens is responsible for R.E.M., the B-52’s and Widespread Panic; and Macon hasn’t had anything happen since the Allman Brothers,” says former Maconite Sean Pritchard, who has worked hard to make sure that something happens musically in the heart of Georgia, just an hour-and-a-half south of Atlanta. “All of these things are far from being the factors I would champion about Georgia’s music scene, but they’re unfortunately things I’ve often encountered over the years.”

The story of Pritchard’s initial involvement in his local music scene is a familiar DIY narrative: his community lacked a particular resource (in this case, an all-ages venue), so with the help of like-minded individuals he raised funds to provide that resource. “Like many smaller cities, places to play to all-ages audiences were limited,” Pritchard says. “So we started a collective that would ultimately be called Macon Venue Project,” which “was created with the intention of, in some way, stabilizing or improving upon the music scene that already existed in Middle Georgia.”

Pritchard’s efforts have extended outside of his hometown, too. He teamed with Savannah-based band Triathalon, serving as the band’s de facto manager, booking shows and reaching out to labels on their behalf. Triathalon’s singer, Adam Intrator, acknowledges the huge influence Pritchard has had on the band, but he also hints at a deeper level of community—one that indeed extends across the state in much the same way. “If you’re a young musician and you’re in Georgia, you’re the luckiest person because you’re going to have a very fortunate time working up to something,” Intrator says. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but you’re going to have a more positive experience because people are willing to take you in and help you rather than try to put you down and ignore you.”

While this network of independent artists and their supporters, unified by similar passions and an idiosyncratic Southern hospitality, works to bolster scenes across Georgia, retaining artists in smaller, sleepier municipalities can be difficult. Even with a few select studios and labels boasting bigger name connections capable of lifting underground artists out of complete obscurity—like Chase Park Transduction in Athens or Graveface Records in Savannah—the allure of potential opportunity and a busier lifestyle draws many away.

“For so long, people have felt that they had to move away to a major U.S. city to be successful, so a lot of the talented people leave before even giving it a shot,” says Athens resident and music publicist Alyssa DeHayes. “You always have a ton of really good college-aged folks, and then right after college the bulk of them leave and don’t even give it a chance. Maybe they’ll come back when they’re a little older, but there aren’t a ton of job openings for people here that are super established,” says DeHayes, who also teaches promotion and publicity techniques for the music business at The University of Georgia’s School of Music Business. “I think it is the same way with a lot of ambitious young musicians. They move away to make it instead of giving it much of a chance, or when they stay to give it a chance, it was in more of a passive way.”

Musicians and professionals shirking the mainstream have found that the Peach State still has much to offer, though. “When you look at the Southeast, you primarily think of country/Americana, and there’s great resources for that in Nashville. But there is so much cool music happening in the Southeast and so, to me, it’s more interesting to be one of the only national publicists here [in Georgia] than be in a place where there are tons of industry people,” says DeHayes, who handles national publicity campaigns for bands at Riot Act Media. Riot Act’s publicists work remotely from all over the country: San Francisco, Portland, New York City. DeHayes is the company’s sole Southern publicist, and her decision to stay in Athens has been met with incredulity from other industry professionals during the course of her nearly seven-year PR career. “There’s so much exciting music happening and really thriving scenes, but there’s not as much music infrastructure, especially…for things that fall in the sort of indie-rock realm,” she says. And yet, by working where the number of musicians in need of her service outnumbers those able to provide it—she’s found success.

While some individuals set their sights on busier states, many musicians and professionals claim that the state’s pace of life is in fact an upside. “There’s something really magical about Georgia, in that it’s so slow of a lifestyle that you can really hone in and really focus on being a musician because the state allows you to,” says Intrator. Further, the state’s relatively low cost of living allows musicians to worry less about whether or not they might be able to make rent and pay bills on time. Less time devoted to an employer translates to more free time spent on writing and playing music. As Pritchard puts it, “For the most part, everywhere you go in Georgia outside of Atlanta is relatively inexpensive and even many parts of Atlanta have cheap rent. Whether it be rent on a practice space or a band house or money saved towards equipment or touring, it’s pretty easy for a band to operate in Georgia.”

Of course, arguing whether or not artists within the state can match or eclipse the stature of artists who’ve preceded them requires confronting the industry’s fundamental rearrangement.

While the concentration of industry resources in Georgia may not be as high as a major hub in the northeast or out west, it’s clear that individual music scenes across the state, at the very least, possess an atmosphere and means to get musicians started. The rest is up to the artist. And for D.I.Y. musicians, regardless of geography, determining one’s own direction is imperative. That resonates as much now as it did nearly twenty years ago for Elephant 6 mainstay John Fernandes. While major labels were scooping up grunge bands in the ’90s, Olivia Tremor Control managed to find success by staying true to itself. “We were more into 60’s psychedelic music and home-recording on a 4-track,” the Athenian says. “The fact that we were doing something unique at the time really helped us grow and forge our own path.” Playing what comes naturally and doing what you can on your own is essential, Fernandes inists. “Just keep working at it, and don’t get discouraged if you’re still working a day job. Just do music because you love it, and if people pay attention, that’s great. If not, don’t get too crushed by it.”

A current wave of bands from across the state—Mothers in Athens; Warehouse and Red Sea in Atlanta; and Arbor Labor Union, split between the two—are forging paths of their own, building identities and audiences by means available to them, and then utilizing outside resources, such as prominent indies Sub Pop and Bayonet, to spread their art even further. But only groups talented and fortunate enough to utilize both instate and national resources, it seems, reach audiences of the greatest potential size.

Of course, arguing whether or not artists within the state can match or eclipse the stature of artists who’ve preceded them requires confronting the industry’s fundamental rearrangement. “The over-saturation of music worldwide in 2015 is a very large and real problem, one that I have no advice on how to combat,” says Savannah’s Ryan Graveface, label head and store proprietor of aforementioned Savannah metal platform. For Graveface, he adds, “I’m not even sure what a larger scale is at this point.”