Georgia’s Rhythm Section
Call it the “good ol’ boyz” network. Since the early 1990s, when Atlanta was heralded as “the new Motown,” the music scene has been dominated largely by a crew of enterprising prodigies who grew up together, supporting each other with a backbeat and a groove, in the grittier parts of the city. Now, as moguls in their 30s, producers like Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin still scout their home turf for the next videogenic rapper or swivel-hipped diva.
“L.A. Reid got the ball rolling, and then hip-hop just exploded here in an unbelievable, tremendous way,” says Butch Lowery, president of The Lowery Group, Atlanta’s oldest music company. “A lot of the artists went to school together, so the scene is a lot like a club.”
For a glimpse of this funky camaraderie, see Austin’s coming-of-age movie “ATL,” inspired by his teen experiences with Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins at a skating rink in the Greenbriar area. With a cast drawn mostly from local hip-hoperatti (the vocalist Monica plays a Waffle House waitress), the movie showcases a strain of music that has become known as “Southern rap,” an identifiably “Atlanta sound.”
Austin usually gets credit for launching the city’s first major act of this kind, a group named, ironically, “Another Bad Creation,” in 1991. The hits kept coming with LaFace Records where Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds introduced a constellation of stars including Toni Braxton, OutKast, and Usher, who lit up the switchboards here in the nation’s fourth-largest urban radio market. Celebrities have become easy to spot around town now that so many are home-grown.
“Atlanta is definitely considered the music capital of what they call the ‘Dirty South,'” says Frederick Taylor, an associate professor of music management at Georgia State University and a mentor to the rapper Ludacris. “But that doesn’t exclude other forms of music. Rock, country, gospel, and classical music also have seen a boost. What happens when one area of music thrives is that the support system for it grows and ends up strengthening the other forms. A lot of little cottage industries – video production, choreography, clothing designers – spring up around music, so everybody benefits.”
It’s all about the Benjamins – the money, as they say, but just how many is a matter of debate; numbers vary on the music industry’s impact on the state’s economy. The Georgia Department of Economic Development currently lists the figure as $1 billion, creating 11,000 jobs and generating $54.3 million in tax revenues.
“I’ve heard figures as high as $20 billion for the state, but it’s difficult to calculate a comprehensive picture because music touches on so many areas, including copyright and licensing issues, education, venues, entertainment law, the product sector of instruments and recording equipment,” says Robert S. Thompson, a composer and professor of music at Georgia State. “It’s a more complicated market than just totaling up the CDs sold at Best Buy.”
Georgia’s recording and entertainment industries – including bands, orchestras, and composers – produce an annual return of more than $385 million, according to another study funded by the Georgia Department of Economic Development, while equipment manufacturers, instrument retailers, and music schools generate another billion, with tax revenues estimated at $94.7 million.
Taylor’s research puts the total impact at $2 billion, and counting. He conducted a study of economic trends between 1995 and 2003 in the five domestic music industry capitals: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta. He found that in the commercial recording studio sector, Atlanta experienced the largest percentage of growth in number of businesses (143.51 percent) and total sales (139.29 percent) during this period.
“L.A. and New York are still the biggest markets, followed by Nashville, but Atlanta ranks just below Nashville now,” Taylor says.
Atlanta is home to a chapter of the Recording Academy of the GRAMMYs; regional bases for the “Big Four” record labels, Universal, Sony/BMG, Warner/Elektra/ Atlantic and British-based EMI; regional offices of two major performing and composition rights societies, the American Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).
“One indicator, a litmus test, of the vitality of an industry is how many small, independent labels and businesses are making a living,” Thomas says. “Look at not just the very big fish, but also the wellness and health of the small fish in the pond. Independent labels are more accepting of risk than major labels, who are expecting a solid return on their large investment in an artist.”
The city supports more than 300 studios, including Stankonia, where OutKast recorded its GRAMMY-winning album in 2002. A small but fervent label called Dust-to-Digital is compiling CD collections of old roots music, cradled in elaborate, antiquarian-looking boxes crammed with charms and clothbound books of notes. These little mojo boxes have become the must-have fetish in hardcore blues and folk circles. Susan Archie, an Atlanta graphic designer who works with the label, has won a GRAMMY for Best Box Set Packaging.
Atlanta also claims super-lawyer Joel Katz, chairman of the global entertainment practice in the international firm of Greenberg Traurig.
“I could live anywhere, but I choose to live in Atlanta for the same reasons that so many artists do,” says Katz, whose first client was James Brown, followed by a then-unknown Willie Nelson. “I can get anywhere nonstop from Hartsfield, and when I’m flying back here and looking out the plane window, I see the green of all of the trees – something I don’t see flying into L.A. In addition to its creative capital, the city has an interesting blend of cultures, and it’s a better place to raise a family than L.A.”
Todd “Speech” Thomas echoed his point.
“What I love about the South is the weather, the trees and the airport,” says the founder of Arrested Development. “The most beautiful place I have seen in my travels is my house and yard in the summertime.”
Of course, Georgia could carry a tune long before the advent of hip-hop.
When Rolling Stone named its top 50 “Immortals” last year, four of the artists – Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding and Ray Charles – were from this state. Others have homes here (Elton John and Moe Tucker, the drummer for The Velvet Underground), and some have spent valuable time in these parts. Jimi Hendrix, who at one point was a shy sideman for Little Richard, reportedly learned his acrobatic guitar style in Macon, from loose-limbed Johnny Jenkins.
It could be argued that three genres were conceived in Georgia: rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of the flamboyant Little Richard; funk, from James Brown; and Southern rock, a gift from the Allman Brothers Band. Redding certainly took soul music to stirring new levels of emotion. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon honors them along with about 450 other musicians in its exhibits, and the 10-year-old organization keeps files on more than 1,100 Georgia natives and residents.
“In one week this spring, Atlanta rapper T.I. had the No. 1 single on the Billboard hip-hop chart, Atlanta singer-songwriter Jennifer Nettles, of Sugarland, had the No. 1 country single with Bon Jovi, and Newnan’s Alan Jackson had the No. 1 gospel album,” says Lisa Love, who was named director of the hall of fame in May.
(Love, a founder of Georgia Music magazine, claims roots of her own in this field; her grandfather was country-western musician Peewee Mills.)
And, a boon for those less talented than the “Immortals”: The kazoo was invented in Georgia.
Several history-making “scenes” have coalesced from time to time around the state.
In the 1950s, insiders discouraged Bill Lowery from launching his business anywhere except the big, bicoastal cities or Nashville, but he defied them, formed the Lowery Music Company, and proceeded to produce a string of hits that would become classics of pop and country: “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden,” sung by Lynn Anderson; “Down in the Boondocks,” sung by Billy Joe Royal; and Joe South’s GRAMMY winner, “Games People Play,” among others.
When Lowery died a couple of years ago, his son, Butch, took over the company, which has evolved into a publishing arm called the Lowery Group, and Southern Tracks recording studio, which has racked up so many GRAMMYs and gold records by now that studio head Mike Clark says he has lost track of the numbers. A recent coup was Bruce Springsteen who recorded all of “The Rising” and part of “Devils & Dust” at the studio on Clairmont Road.
“I don’t normally get star-struck,” says Clark, who was a drummer for Tommy Roe. “But one morning when I was making coffee, I heard this guitar strumming going on, and I thought: Bruce Springsteen is writing a song on my couch!”
The Boss reportedly was lured by the Lowery reputation, the low-key hospitality of Atlanta, and the chance to work with producer Brenden O’Brien, one of the most respected sound wizards in the country.
“Bruce felt very comfortable here,” Clark says, grinning and pointing to a framed photograph of Springsteen horsing around with a basketball in the studio parking lot. “Musicians like to have a certain amount of privacy to concentrate on the creative process.”
Farther south, in 1950s-era Macon, Phil Walden pursued his dream of racial equality through music. He started managing Otis Redding when both were teenagers and was devastated when the singer’s plane crashed, just days after he recorded “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” Later, he launched the Allman Brothers, an integrated jam band that mixed black blues, white country, jazz riffs and touches of boogie-woogie to create Southern rock.
Walden, a larger-than-life impresario who described his career as “Southern Gothic as hell” shortly before he died earlier this year, co-founded Capricorn Records in 1969. A few of the acts that he managed or signed were Sam and Dave, Al Green, Marshall Tucker, Percy Sledge, The Dixie Dregs and the Charlie Daniels Band.
A musical Camelot of funk and twang, long-haired idealism in a downhome corporate culture, new interracial harmonies in a haze of sweet-smelling smoke, mellow folks making combustible music rewarded with the peachiest groupies – it was more than just a recording studio. It was a peculiarly Southern zeitgeist-within-a-zeitgeist that, today, still sends aging flower children reeling with nostalgia
In the 1980s, Athens asserted its hipness with R.E.M. and the B-52s, and the ’90s saw folk-rock acts like the Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins ascend from the Trackside Tavern, Eddie’s Attic, and other scruffy-but-sensitive bars in Decatur.
What, exactly, creates a music-industry hotspot?
“Word of mouth,” says Clark at Southern Tracks. “We’ve never gotten a single response to any advertising, in Billboard or anywhere else. It takes one or two hits to establish your reputation and then people hear about your past success and want to record with you. Look at Muscle Shoals – nothing but a teeny-tiny town with a water tower and a Holiday Inn, but the Rolling Stones ended up recording there.”
Others emphasize cultivating new talent to freshen the ranks.
“When you don’t have new blood coming in, the scene dies,” says Bruce Burch, who wrote two No. 1 hits for Reba McEntire. “That’s what happened in Memphis.”
This year, Bruce helped launch a music business program at the University of Georgia, where students are learning about copyrights, ring-tone licensing, movie soundtracks, publicity and promotion, production, and music fundamentals in an increasingly digitized world.
“At least 75 percent of the jobs in the industry are what we call ‘helpers,'” he said. “The managers, accountants, A&R [artists and repertoire development], the supporting roles. The business side is equally as important, if not more important, than the creative side.”
Adds Clark, “Unfortunately, our business attracts lazy people. They think, ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll!’ A week or two into it, they realize the long days of hard work involved, and most of them end up working at record stores.”
Ashley Kruyhoff, a student in the UGA program, is not the lazy type. At 20, she has completed two internships, one in publicity and one in an entertainment attorney’s office, and plans to “shadow” as many industry heavyweights as possible this summer to help her decide between a career in publicity or entertainment law.
“I need to learn more about booking and producing,” she says. Meanwhile, in a move reminiscent of Phil Walden, she is promoting a friend, singer Maggie Smith. “I got her photo placed in the Red and Black!”
Kruyhoff’s hustle would be better served with an industry infrastructure bolstered with tax incentives for music-oriented business and – a frequent refrain – more funding for education, agree the UGA and GSU instructors.
They look to the twangy music capital to our north as a role model.
“I went to a conference in Nashville,” Taylor recalls. “The banks took us out to lunch to ask, ‘How can we help bring more of the music industry here?’ That would never happen in Atlanta. In Nashville, they see music as way of making money. Some people see it here, just not the banks. It’s much easier to get a loan to finance a music project in Nashville because they recognize the potential.”
Adds Thompson, “Music is a secondary-type service industry. You don’t need music to live, but you need it for a rich and full life. Even though it’s a risk business, there ultimately is a return on the investment.”