Destination: Atlanta's Music Scene

Lesley Mahoney
August 12, 2011
Alumnus Miles Walker gives students a tour of his Atlanta studio.
Singer-songwriter Kayla Shelton, left, talks with student Alyce Logan during a break in a recording session at Walker's studio.
Producer Kennard Garrett talks with Berklee students Khandeya Sheppard, center, and Naiquisia Hensey.
A panel discussion featuring performing rights organizations at SESAC Atlanta. Representatives from the Atlanta chapter of NARAS, SESAC, and ASCAP took part in the discussion, along with Berklee President Roger H. Brown and Bruce Burch, second from left, a songwriter and publisher who grew up with Brown and now directs Kennesaw State University's certificate program in the music and entertainment business.
Students get ready to board the plane for Atlanta.
Photo by Prince Charles Alexander
Photo by Prince Charles Alexander
Photo by Prince Charles Alexander
Photo by Prince Charles Alexander
Photo by Prince Charles Alexander

The producer laid down a track on a keyboard, hoping to spark a lyrical idea for the songwriter, who danced to the groove in her seat for a minute, then left the room with her iPad. In short time, she was back with a melody and in the recording booth. The engineer added his touch—bridging the producer's and songwriter's work—and they were off. At one point, all three were in different rooms, honing their pieces of the song. In the space of just a few collaborative hours, they had the makings of a dance record commissioned by a Canadian pop artist.

A group of Berklee students listened with rapt attention, watching in real time the creation of a song from start to (almost) finish. The mix and recording engineer was alumnus and Grammy winner Miles Walker '03, whose musical pedigree includes Beyoncé, Usher, Rihanna, and Wiz Khalifa. He opened his Parhelion Recording Studios to the group for the last stop on Berklee's inaugural spring break trip last semester to Atlanta. He was joined by producer Kennard Garrett and songwriter Kayla Shelton, penning a dance track for Kreesha Turner.

There was a palpable energy in the studio as they worked out the song. "It's all software based," explained Garrett, who said he usually begins a song in Logic and finishes on Pro Tools. "But you can't let software be your crutch. We try to let software be our friend."

It was a rare opportunity for the students to witness the creation and production of music, rather than read about it or hear about it in a class. The novelty was not lost on the group.

"Normally you don't get this exposure to the industry," said Nicole Olver, a performance major from Melbourne, Australia. "You're in the environment where it's happening. Before, you were just standing at the door looking in, but now it's like I know what's going on behind those doors."

"I'm looking at the interaction between the engineer, producer, and artist/writer, which is something we don't get to see going on unless we're part of it, and not on a professional level," said MP&E major Cesar Gonzalez. "They're building the track from the ground up. . . . And we get to see how they all come up with this product from nothing. All they have is an idea, and they have to synthesize this idea into a consumable product for the marketplace."

"It's really cool to see them go from figuring out what sounds they want to use, to creating a whole track, to putting the vocals over it—her melody first and then filling in the words," said vocalist Naiquisia Hensey, a music business/management and professional music major. "I've done some studio work, but not my own originals. The process of writing a song to a track, I've never done that before."

The trip—organized by president Roger H. Brown; Brown's chief of staff and former music production and engineering professor Carl Beatty; chief alumni officer Karen Bell; MP&E professor Prince Charles Alexander; ensembles instructor Brian "Raydar" Ellis; alumnus Michael Trammel '95; director of auxiliary services Chris Swezey; and Atlanta music professional Bruce Burch—offered students an inside look at the burgeoning Atlanta music market. It was a packed itinerary, including studio tours; panels stacked with musicians, engineers, and industry experts, many of them alumni; a taping of The Monique Show, whose band features alumnus Lil' John Roberts '92; and an alumni event attended by President Brown at a brewery owned by a different John Roberts '89—providing ample networking and information-gathering opportunities for the ambitious group. They even got a chance to perform: several of the students stepped up to the open mic and proved their mettle at Atlanta's Club Apache one night. In between the stops, the group had the chance to enjoy some Southern food and heat.

A Burgeoning Industry

Atlanta's thriving music scene is often associated with such hip-hop artists as Ludacris, T.I., and Outkast. It's true the city has a pulse on up-and-coming rap and hip-hop, but the industry here spans all genres: from folk to rock to pop. While it's always been a breeding ground for industry professionals, these days it's a destination.

"The industry has blown up," says Burch, a songwriter and publisher who founded the music business program at the University of Georgia and now directs Kennesaw State University's certificate program in music and entertainment business. "It's a real diverse scene. We're excited about the future here."

Musicians, producers, and engineers who have set up shop in Atlanta tout the collaborative atmosphere, entrepreneurial spirit, and more laid-back lifestyle than music destinations New York or L.A., without the steep rents.

"Atlanta has really become a music city," said Andrew Robertson, a music business/management and MP&E major who grew up in Atlanta and remembers when hip-hop put the city on the map and studios began popping up.

The trip's success sets a precedent for a return visit, providing another spring break musical destination alongside the popular Nashville trip.

Prince Charles Alexander was already sold on Atlanta as an incubator for music, but last semester's trip underscored the city's value for Berklee students. "Atlanta seems even more vital to me now, since I've seen that students actually did make an emotional connection with the city," he said. "Many students, not just those on the trip, but many who know I have Atlanta on my radar, have expressed that Atlanta is where they want to begin their post-college career. . . . I feel like I have opened a door that was not even visible before the trip."

This first trip was just the beginning, with a host of other Atlanta opportunities on the horizon. Said Bell, "There is a still a great deal of potential to tap into, such as our connections with the film industry, sound stages, gospel music artists and musicians, as well as the possibility of an exchange program between Berklee students and students attending Kennesaw State."

A Lasting Impression

For a few students, the visit reinforced their plans to move to the city after graduation.

"I knew things were going on down here, but this sealed the deal for me," said professional music major Ronnie Jones. "I'm excited for my future. I want to do management, and also songwriting, get hands-on experience."

Jasmine McCray, an MB/M major who graduated in May, planned to move to Atlanta this fall. "This trip has been an excellent eye-opening experience," she said. "It was really great to see and meet people who are actually out in the industry doing what we want to do in the near future. I got a lot of great contacts, did some amazing networking, and I just think that I'm very inspired and motivated more than ever now."

For students earlier on in their Berklee journey, the trip also provided some lessons they could take back to Boston.

"It made me feel like we were learning both sides of the glass: what they learn on the studio side and what we learn on the recording side," said Shilpa Ananth, a professional music major from India who was raised in Dubai. "I hope we can go back to Berklee and not let go of these connections."

To Olver, the experience emphasized the need to have a keen business sense, no matter your focus or major. "I was going into the performance major thinking, 'I want to get my chops down, I need to practice,'" she said. "But I need to get my business up. I need to make sure I'm aware of the legalities. I need to make sure I know how to promote myself, the marketing aspects. . . . I want to get in the business mode, because that's what everyone's been saying here the whole time. You are the CEO of your business. I think you can get taught that in school and still not believe it."

Alumnus Walker knows the Atlanta experience—including the recording session at his studio—gave the Berklee students a real taste of the industry. "It's pretty typical of writing sessions I work on for major label artists. I think if they were excited by the aspects of the producing, songwriting, engineering, or management that went on in there, then they have made the right choice in their careers. I hope to make a record with them one day!"