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Interview with JASON MOON WILKINS, president and co-founder of Next BIG Nashville - Oct 5, 2009

“In our first year we had like 16 out of 33 that ended up signing something. That was a pretty good record.”

picture The location may be Nashville but if you turn up to this week’s ‘Next BIG Nashville’ in your glittering nudie suit and ten-gallon hat expecting some down-home heartbreak you’ll likely feel mighty out of place. Now in its 4th year, the four days of music, parties and panels happening between 7-11 October celebrate and showcase the city’s vibrant and varied music scenery that stretches way beyond the country music horizon.

We continue our ongoing look at Music City USA by speaking to NBN president and co-founder Jason Moon Wilkins where we tackle topics like Nashville’s image problem, why it’s now a mecca for musicians of all genres and how the festival is a great platform getting your music noticed.

Despite having the nickname ‘Music City USA’, for most music fans Nashville is known for country music and not much else – did you and Ethan Opelt therefore create ‘Next Big Nashville’ (NBN) as a showcase for the wide range of music actually on offer?

Nashville - the first thing you think is country music, but here we have some of the most successful, non-country albums of the last two years originating here. Jack White with The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and The White Stripes, as well as Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, Kings of Leon - a lot of really incredible stuff.

Now our event has become an opportunity to talk about that as well as show it in real time - people can go out and just see what Nashville is really all about.

We originally just threw it as a party to celebrate a moment in time in Nashville. Although there have been different international non-country scenes, nothing reached the apex of what was starting to appear in 2006. And a lot of it culminated over in the UK and Europe with interest in Kings of Leon, Paramore, Be Your Own Pet … bands like that.

There was enough interest in such an event and so the party just grew into an event and a conference, where now we do have a little more of a vision for it.

That vision is similar to the way SXSW (read our interview with South by Southwest manager Una Johnson here) started, where they were all about not only showcasing what was going on in Austin at the time but also bringing people into their city. It’s to talk about and show the different kinds of music that is created and performed here, the different kinds of business that goes on here, and as well as just bringing people in and let them have that experience.

What other music does Nashville have to offer?

Well, everything – it’s the third coast. New York and L.A. are obviously the leaders, but Nashville is the third largest voting block in the Grammys, and that represents everything from gospel music to soul music to electronic.

We’re not only a big studio town, we’re a huge publishing and management town. The guys who manage everyone from Kid Rock to Queen Latifah are based here.

As far as what’s actually going on here, it’s everything from the pop punk of Paramore to the more mainstream rock of Kings of Leon to some DIY stuff like this band JEFF the Brotherhood to the more artful stuff of Silver Jews and Lambchop.

What areas of music enjoy a particularly strong local scene?

What’s interesting about what’s happened here in the past ten years is that you went from having what you would call ‘a scene’, with ten or twelve leading artists, to multiple scenes now.

You have one scene of what I would consider pop rock singer/songwriters, which is extremely strong right now. A number of either a major label or major indie signed artists out of that group, including Mat Kearney, who’s on Columbia here in the US, Jeremy Lister (Warners), Erin McCarley (Universal) and Landon Pigg (RCA). A lot of these guys share members, they work with some of the same producers, they write together, and that’s very much a scene.

The people who’ve really captured that scene are Kristen and Trent Dabbs, who do a thing called Ten Out of Tenn. If you look that up - they do a tour and a compilation CD.

Indie scene-wise, it’s very strong right now too. You got a lot of the bands that are breaking out like Turbo Fruits or JEFF the Brotherhood, and you’ve got a lot of other ones bubbling under like How I Became the Bomb and The Young Republic.

Has there always been a healthy music scene in Nashville that has been overshadowed by the dominance of country?

Nashville has an incredible history that goes back even to the late 1800s of being a music centre, back to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and we had an incredible soul scene in the 50s and 60s.

What you face now is a big machine that’s made a whole lot of money and that’s done a very good job of branding an entire city as one genre of music.

We’re no different than Seattle or Portland or some of these other cities - we get still kids here, and kids for the most part don’t listen to Tim McGraw, they’re listening to Ludacris or Dead Cab For Cutie or whatever.

Now because of it being a more affordable place to live, a more central place to live, more bands have come here, set up shop here, and done good business here in the last ten years. That has proven that not only can you be based here and not be a country music artist, but be successful too.

Has it been easy for young bands to get gigs and find their audience in Nashville? Are there a lot of non-country music venues for instance?

Sure, yeah. We’ve got a lot of very successful venues here and people grow to a certain point. Nashville is an interesting city in the sense that like unlike other cities where you could be a big hometown hero - Hootie and The Blowfish in South Carolina or something like that - Nashville is not like that. The people who’ve had the most success from here actually find more success locally by getting out and proving it on the road elsewhere.

Kings of Leon weren’t a big success locally here first. They played a few shows and then they got out there and went touring the world. With Paramore it’s the same thing. There’s a band called SafetySuit from here who’ve done very well in the past year.

Nashville is such a critical town that in a way we validate it by everybody else before we say yeah [laughs].

Is it hard to convince the country music gatekeepers, because they only want to break records in the mid-west and not break ground when it comes to artistic creativity?

It’s funny because we don’t have to. It’s two worlds. I always describe it as concentric circles, because there are artists and there are people who cross over.

They’re not dependent on Music Row. There they do early evening showcases, so they don’t go out at night. Their artists are in a bubble. Everyone is one of the people who knew a Jamey Johnson or Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris.

With Jack White famously moving to Nashville and recording with Loretta Lynn, is there any kind of crossover between country and the city’s alternative music?

There is a difference between what is manufactured here and what naturally happens. For instance, an artist like Jamey Johnson, who’s been very successful this year - a real raw country guy - he was playing clubs and huffin’ it and trying to make it. Whereas some of these artists are truly manufactured, much like the top 40.

Where there is crossover is in people like Ashley Monroe, Jack White, or Ricky Skaggs, a great bluegrass guy.

It’s known as the songwriter capitol of the world, and I would argue that it’s also a musician’s town. We have twice as many people per capita as many other places in the United States working in the music or creative music industry. And that means that people from all walks of life crossover all the time.

There are people who play in a country music band but then go off into an indie experimental electronic record because that’s what they like to do. So, those lines are more defined by major labels and other people, and less what actually goes on, musician to musician, in Nashville.

Kings of Leon have said that they’re hated in Nashville and that local papers often question whether they’re really from the city at all. Have you encountered any resistance to non-country music in Nashville, particularly in setting up the festival?

No, certainly not within the city. Where we face the biggest hurdle are two places – number one is with media, because frankly a lot of media are very lazy and I know because I used to be one. You’ve got a deadline to reach and you don’t have a lot of research to do, and so you write the same article over and over again.

But the other part is from a festival organisation or just from a business standpoint, you need people to invest in what you’re doing, and most of the time the phone call starts off, “Hi, I’m Jason from Next BIG Nashville,” and they go, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to get into country music …” - just because you say the word ‘Nashville’.

There are conferences that take place in St. Louis and other places and I’m sure they don’t have to answer that question, even though their scenes are not a tenth of what we have here.

One thing that Nashville is internationally recognized for and is not exclusive to country music is songwriting – does the art of songwriting play a suitably strong role in NBN?

Absolutely. Just by the nature of where we live. I travelled a lot and I’ve been a part of a lot of different places, and what’s different about Nashville across the board, regardless of genre, this is definitely a very song-centric place.

Therefore our indie bands are a little more focused on song maybe even style, our rock bands their stuff is going to be a little more honed craft wise. And that’s just that natural competition that comes from when you go out any day of the week and you see people perform around here - the song is the king.

And so when it comes to what we book, there are a lot more singer/songwriters than you might expect from something that leans a little bit indie and rock, but that’s just the nature of the people who gravitate towards Nashville.

You had a very varied background in the music industry – musician, journalist, DJ, management consultant – have any of your experiences in the industry, both good and bad, informed your ideas behind NBN?

Well, certainly my bad experiences with events led me to not want to do one for about seven years [laughs]. So I waited a long time and hoped that maybe somebody else would do this, but I was passionate about the city and about the scene, and that’s what inevitably pushed me back into doing it. It certainly wasn’t business - especially considering there’s not a whole lot of money to be made doing something like this.

NBN has expanded significantly in its four years existence into an internationally recognized festival. Has it grown beyond your expectations?

I think so, yeah. I did reach a point where I thought, I’ve been going through events like this for years - CMG, SXSW, NXNE - and I’ve seen the good and bad of those things.

The one that is inspiring for what it has done for Austin as a city and that community is SXSW. It helped create an additional idea of what Austin is and is capable of.

When that event started, if you’d asked people about Austin musically they would have said two names - Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson. Now that assumption is very different, maybe not for everybody, but it changed the perception of a lot of young people, tech people, and a lot of folks who ended up moving there and helped make it an even better and more interesting place to live.

If there’s a grand ambition beyond just having this be a fun and interesting event, it would be to be able to do something like that for Nashville. It would be able to add an additional impression of what people think of Nashville and what they think Nashville is capable of.

Have you tried to increase the festival’s reach by including more high-profile acts and out-of-towners?

Absolutely. That was necessary. The thing we ran up against both in the media and in sponsorship is that if it’s meant as a local event, national and international press for the most part will not pick up on it. Sponsors wouldn’t sponsor it.

And so not only does it not help you as an event, but it doesn’t help all of the artists who are involved either because they don’t have as big of an exposure opportunity.

So, including more people from out of town is very mutually beneficial move. We’ve got more press, we’ve got more attention, and more people are coming in.

At the same time that you’re broadening your artist scope, you’re also streamlining the slots available – there are 140-170 slots this year compared to 237 slots in '08 – how’s that all gone down locally?

This year it will be very interesting because there are definitely some people who were a part of it before who are not this year because there’s more people from out of town. So there may be some backlash there.

Did you have to scale it back to survive after a tough year economically?

Absolutely. Popkomm going out of business was a shock, as well as Atlanta and Langerado down in Florida. A lot of places who are much larger than us and more successful than us have gone by the wayside this year.

We didn’t scale it back by a lot - we scaled it back by about fifty or so bands, and we actually expanded the conference department a little bit. We just pulled back in different areas in the budget just to make sure that we live to fight another day.

Everybody who I’ve talked to who does events say it’s not about success this year but surviving.

You mention SXSW as an inspiration and the two festivals clearly have a lot in common. However, NBN seems to play a greater role as a showcase for new artists …

Originally SXSW was more of a showcase for unsigned talent that has become more of a PR launching place. We have an opportunity of being a little bit more of what they were eighteen years ago, of being a showcase thing.

Although, as you say, SXSW has done a lot for the image of Austin, it also doesn’t have that strong focus on local music that NBN does …

We were pushed very hard by third part people to drop the name ‘Nashville’ from our event because they felt it limited us in what we were doing. And while I agree with that, I did a lot of soul searching, and concluded that we have a different mission than some of the other events.

It’s important that we don’t just have a generic event that happens to take place in Nashville, but a Nashville event in Nashville.

Is it hard to get the local people out there to the shows, fostering that sense of community?

The part that surprised everybody - because we can have a very jaded community here sometimes, they’re very critical because they see a lot – was how supportive everybody was, how many folks came out.

I’ve been talking to other people who’ve done events like this and they have their own growth model. They say, “Oh you’re in your fourth year! This is what will happen …”

In relationships there is a seven year itch, in doing a music event there is a fourth year hump, and that’s where we’re at right now. We are at an interesting little growth part. The question is, are people from outside of Nashville interested enough in an event like this to come out and attend? And we’ll see. I hope they are.

Do you think it’s important for artists that in their town or city there is a communal vibe and focus?

It helps. The difference here than say Memphis or Birmingham, is that we have a musical working class. In a lot of other places people are doing bands on the weekends and they’re doing it for fun or whatever. We’ve got a lot of people for whom this is their living. They play for other people or they play downtown for tips or whatever. So there’s a natural sense of community that’s there that sometimes can be helpful along with a band of ours.

As far as a sense and a focus, and from a media standpoint, it helps if you have a particular sound. That’s probably where we may never become the next Seattle. What we’re most likely to be is the next junior L.A. or junior New York in that it’s too diverse and too big and too broad to ever say “oh, you’re like Athens” or “you’re like Toronto” or whatever, where you’ve got a bit of a defined aesthetic. Our aesthetic is pretty diverse.

What percentage of artists playing at this year’s festival are local?

I haven’t done the math on it, but I would say it’s between 70 and 80%.

Are the artists mainly Nashville-raised or is it a city that attracts immigrant artists from all over?

I would say probably only 15-20% of the Nashville bands are originally from here. This is very much a melting pot city. I’m not from here and I don’t know many who are involved that are from here.

What is it about the city that attracts artists?

Well, there’s an interesting article written earlier this year by Richard Florida - the famous author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ and ‘Who’s Your City’ - called ‘The Nashville Effect’. And I would encourage you to go and look at that. He says it more eloquently than I can.

A lot of it is that we have a few things going for us that nobody else does.

Number one there’s a working industry here that involves studios, publishing companies, agents, managers etc. It’s a lower cost of living than New York or L.A., so you do your music and not work three jobs. And then third, there’s the proximity of being a touring artist based here - Atlanta is four hours drive away, Chicago is eight hours drive away …

Using political terms, Nashville is a very blue city in a very red state. Nashville is a very progressive - both politically and creatively - city in a place that is traditionally pretty conservative and rural.

We had a huge wave of people move here from L.A. after the earthquakes. They were going to clear the room in the music business out in L.A. A lot of them moved to Nashville. And we’ve had a lot of people from the East Coast who moved here in the last ten years because of financial reasons. And then you have a lot of people regionally.

Is NBN intended as a stage to break artists, a platform to launch new careers?

Absolutely. I’m very happy to say that we had a small part in helping Cage the Elephant - they had a very important showcase that had a positive impact for them here. Erin McCarley - her first significant showcase was here.

Being a musician myself and someone who has spent literally all of my adult life working in music, to feel like that what you’ve done has helped someone move along creatively in their careers is incredibly satisfying and probably the main reason that I keep doing it.

So you’ve found that a lot of record labels and management use the festival as a way of finding local talent?

Absolutely. As much as anything, there’ll be people there that they’ve heard of, or that they’re been trying to see, and now they can use our event as an excuse to come down and see three or four of them at the time instead of one.

That’s certainly what benefits some of these other bands. For instance, in the bands I was in back in the 90s, we got discovered because someone came to see someone else, didn’t like them, and ended up liking us, and we got a deal out of it. That happens a lot. That’s the kind of opportunity you want to provide.

We bring in music supervisors from TV and film. There’s agents, managers, and publishers. So hopefully all these people have an opportunity - whether it’s a big opportunity like getting a record deal or a smaller opportunity, like getting a song in a television show or getting a mention in a magazine.

Is that right that after one festival, almost half of the unsigned performing acts were subsequently signed?

Yeah, in our first year we had like 16 out of 33 that ended up signing something.

Someone said the other day, “What’s your biggest success?” It’s different now to define what that success is than it used to be. It’s not like we’ve had a Nirvana or White Stripes break out of this thing yet, but name a Nirvana or White Stripes who has broken in the past couple of years [laughs]. It’s a different time.

But we have had some great artists who were unsigned at the time and who have gotten deals, and opportunities, and their careers have moved along significantly à la Cage the Elephant, Erin McCarley or Justin Earle. These kinds of people started off as unknowns with us.

Does the festival provide a meeting place for the other music figures beside the artists, such as A&R, managers, agents etc to get together themselves and network?

Yeah. And that’s the biggest reason for me. I would end up personally seeing a lot of my friends - who are either in management or agents - in Austin or New York or London, as much as I would see them in Nashville, because there wasn’t as much of a communal reason to get together. So that was a big effort for us to provide an opportunity for all those folks to get together and hang out. There’s also an opportunity for people from outside to come and mix and mingle with that community as well.

Are there label nights? Do labels have their own slots?

Some. Infinity Cat Recordings is very much a family owned DIY label - they do a night. Chicken Ranch Records out of Austin, Texas are doing a night. The PROs (Performing Rights Organisations) - BMI, ASCAP and SESAC - have nights. But for the most part this year there’s not a lot of label nights. It’s primarily multi-artist showcases in various genres.

While NBN celebrates the creativity of Nashville, the entry process is open to artists worldwide. How can artists get involved with NBN?

This year we did the submission process through American SongSpace. We’ll be doing something similar next year, around the time of SXSW in March. The thing I would say is, if artists are wanting to know what we’re up to then sign up for the email list, and we’ll blast out how this submission process works, what the dates are, all that stuff.

Would you recommend agencies to go through the process?

Yeah, that would be the way to do it.

What would it cost me to apply and perform there?

This year $10 - we’re very cheap [laughs].

Who chooses the artists that play at the event and what’s their criteria?

It’s a programming committee comprised of everyone from bloggers to local big time music folks. We go through all of the applicants using multiple criteria, trying to number one, find the best stuff, and then find the way that a band fits in a festival atmosphere.

When you put it together it’s not just, let’s put the best guys out there. While that works in a utopian mind frame, it doesn’t work in real life, because you have the factor in things like draws, industry interest, and genre. One of the things that we learned early on was that certain genres don’t mix together publicly.

I remember early on there was a thing where we had a very indie band right up next to a pop song writer and you could literally see it was oil and water - one part of the crowd was close to the stage, the other part of the crowd was far in the back. You could walk in between the two crowds [laughs].

It’s an inexact science to be sure, but we do a pretty good job of presenting the majority of the best we have to offer.

What do you think is important for a band to have if they apply for NBN?

The number one thing is a very realistic sense of self - are there people coming to see you play? You can’t lie about that - it’s a small town, everybody knows. My office is two floors above one of the better clubs in town called The Basement - I can just walk downstairs and say, “Hey, did anybody come see these guys the last time they played?” That matters although it’s not the deciding factor.

It’s on us to try to do our best to present what’s happening at the time. And ‘what’s happening’ means there are certain people who the industry is very interested in, certain people happening on the live front, and certain people who get a lot of support from their fellow musicians. You try to gather all that together.

Do you have any advice for artists interested in taking part?

My thing would be it’s not about putting your best foot forward - we don’t need fifteen songs, we need two really good ones. If you’ve got press, if you’ve got objective outside voices who’ve been supportive of you then those are really important things.

A huge bio is not impressive, bullet ones are more impressive. We played this and that festival and so and so wrote about it - those things show you are a working artist, and that you are actively involved in your own career, and you’re not looking for Next BIG Nashville or any event like this to be your ticket to fame. What you’re looking for is for us to be just one small step in what you’re doing.

The audience at festivals naturally has a mindset to see a bunch of different things, so how long do the acts get to play?

The newer acts at the earlier part of the evening are 30 minutes, and the later ones are 40 to 45. Some of the bigger acts like Lucero or The Black Angels play a full set.

Who’ll be in the audience at these shows?

Locally it’s comprised primarily of what marketers would call ‘early adopters’ and what I would just call ‘hardcore fans’. It’s the people who are supporting local music throughout the year - the ones showing up early to see who the opening band is. Maybe they’ve read about a band and this is their opportunity to go see them. Those are the music fans that are searching the blocks for new stuff, they’re the ones going to the indie record store, and hopefully they’re the ones coming out to our event.

This interview is part of an ongoing series looking at Music City USA, for the first part check out our interview with Nashville publisher and songwriter Roger Murrah.

Interview by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: Interview with former Atlantic Records A&R Mary Gormley

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