Beyond These Borders

What Does it Take for Bands to Make It Out of South Carolina?
By Jordan Lawrence
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
south carolina broadcasters
The South Carolina Broadcasters | courtesy photo

South Carolina Broadcasters
Conundrum Music Hall: Saturday, Feb. 15 ( 8 p.m.)
Red Bank United Methodist: Sunday, Feb. 16 (6:30 p.m.)

Though their name indicates otherwise, The South Carolina Broadcasters are no longer South Carolina musicians. The trio, among the hardest working and most charming old-time folk outfits making music today, formed in Charleston about five years ago when North Carolina natives Ivy and David Sheppard began playing gigs around town and honing a breezy but seasoned touch for driving acoustics and sawdust harmony.

Caught on the phone as she dug herself out from the snowstorm that covered Southern towns two weeks ago, Ivy spoke fondly of their old Monday gigs at Charleston’s Yo Burrito and the enthusiasm of their local fans. The Sheppards loved their time in the Palmetto State, but they returned to Tar Heel country in 2012, settling in Mount Airy, N.C., after they met their current third member, Sarah Osborne, who lives in nearby Kernersville. Charleston was great, Ivy Sheppard explains, but their new home puts them in a better position to pursue their chosen style.

“As we’d been playing more and more, Charleston’s five hours from everywhere,” she says. “We were virtually never going South. I mean, we’d occasionally go down to Georgia or over to Alabama and that way, but mostly we were going north and northwest. Just driving regularly a thousand miles a weekend. My family’s up here, and I’ve got grandparents getting older that it would be nice to get to spend some time with before they’re gone. And the cost of living is a ton cheaper. It just puts us in a lot better position to be able to travel more.”

Add to these personal and economic concerns the relative bustle of old-time and bluegrass activity in Western North Carolina, and Mount Airy becomes a pretty obvious hideaway for the Sheppards to return to between their increasingly frequent tours. They still play regularly in South Carolina, and they’ll return to the Columbia area this week for gigs at the Conundrum Music Hall on Saturday and at the Red Bank United Methodist Church on Sunday.

But their new home simply offers advantages that their old one could not. This state may have given the Broadcasters their name, but it didn’t give them the best chance to succeed. Their experience raises a question: Is there something about South Carolina that makes it hard for bands to grow beyond its borders?

There are a lot of factors that affect whether artists can parlay their skills into a fulfilling career: local and regional performance opportunities; access to professional booking agents and managers; access to record labels and PR specialists. And the list goes on. How do you make these connections? Do you have to move to a bigger city? Are there other ways to make it work? Free Times reached out to musicians and scene leaders in an effort to answer these daunting questions.

A Persistent Problem

For the Broadcasters, as with any band, part of their decision was unique to their circumstances — the location of family members, for instance. But other elements of their story resonate far beyond their own band — the distance between South Carolina and the key cities they need to play to expand their audience, for example.

The Broadcasters are far from the only local artists to make such an exodus. Not long ago, the multi-talented Chaz Bundick, mastermind of Toro Y Moi’s sleek and seductive bedroom funk, relocated from Columbia to Berkeley, Calif. While it’s true that Bundick moved in part to be closer to his girlfriend, the Bay Area also lays claim to one of the nation’s best and busiest music scenes, providing a wealth of connections that Bundick couldn’t have accessed had he remained in South Carolina.

“The environment definitely affects the music,” Bundick told Free Times last fall. “It’s definitely easier to go up to a club and hear some house music or something or go to a house show and see some band in Oakland. There’s just more shows and music in general.”

Consider “Come Alive,” his recently released collaboration with the super-smooth ‘80s resurrectionists in Chromeo. The song surfaced with a hilarious and highly professional video in which Chromeo’s David Macklovitch (aka Dave 1) and Bundick — in the guise of a bewildered janitor — are seduced by department-store mannequins who come to life when everyone goes home for the night. The clip grabbed headlines all around the web — in one week, it had 221,000 YouTube views — with mainstay tastemakers such as Pitchfork and Spin chuckling at its glib cultural references and gleeful embrace of its ridiculous premise.

Would such an opportunity have been available to Bundick had he stayed put here in town? It’s possible, but being in California puts him closer to the kind of industry movers and shakers who make such pairings happen.

“It’s like minor league baseball,” postulates David Stringer, editor of the popular local music blog SceneSC. “[When you’re at] the top in Double-A baseball, which we’re basically Double-A in Columbia, you’re going to go to the next level. You’re going to keep rising. And you can always call Columbia home, but you’re going to have to take a chance and get out to make it anywhere, whether that means touring or — like, I don’t think you have to leave Columbia, especially in this day and age. But you have to branch out your connections to get to the next level.”

It Can Be Done

Even those vaguely familiar with the state’s musical history should know that achieving regional and national renown isn’t impossible for area artists. Dizzy Gillespie, Angie Stone, the Marshall Tucker Band, Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses) and Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) were all from South Carolina.

Most of those artists had to leave the state to become successful, though.

In terms of making it from South Carolina, the biggest success story by far is Hootie & the Blowfish, a band that rose from Columbia roots to help define the sound of mainstream rock during the ’90s. The band laid the groundwork through regional touring for eight years — packing clubs throughout the Southeast — before it finally broke big.

“For a short time, Hootie & the Blowfish was the most popular band in America,” proclaims the first line of the outfit’s biography on the online artist encyclopedia AllMusic. The band’s 1994 major label debut, Cracked Rear View, has moved more than 12 million copies to date. Few artists from any state can claim that combination of success and influence.

While no other musician from South Carolina has reached such world-beating heights, there are others who have made their mark. Take Crossfade, a local hard-rock outfit that found its way onto Columbia Records and landed one monstrously popular song, the accessibly plodding “Cold,” which cracked the top five of Billboard’s Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts back in 2004. Crossfade has yet to reach that pinnacle again, but the group is still signed to a major label — these days releasing records via Universal subsidiary Eleven Seven Music — soldiering on even though its chosen brand of post-grunge melodrama doesn’t dominate rock airwaves the way it used to.

“It was a very smart plan of focusing on your craft, focusing on your songs, focusing on getting them to somebody that can help and doing gigs sporadically,” offers Marty Fort, commenting on the route Crossfade took to success. Fort has been a fixture in the Columbia music scene for at least two decades, playing with a litany of different outfits. These days, he books bands for Art Bar and runs music schools in Columbia and Lexington. He posits that Crossfade’s accomplishments came because it didn’t oversaturate the local market. The group played sporadic hometown shows, making its appearances feel like events and focusing on honing songs and recording quality demos. This drew the attention of leading artists and repertoire company TAXI, a connection that was crucial in Crossfade’s bid to reach a mainstream audience.

“They gigged, but it just wasn’t a ton, and they did some regional stuff,” Fort continues. “But as a promoter, I think it was very smart because as you get older, not all of your friends are going to keep coming to your shows.”

shovels & rope

Shovels & Rope | photo by Sean Rayford

In recent years, Charleston folk-rock duo Shovels & Rope has leveraged fiery live shows and the powerhouse belting of Cary Ann Hearst to make their own push. The band headlines gigs at large rock clubs and plays opening slots supporting artists like The Avett Brothers, rising to this level largely on the strength of non-stop touring and an indomitable work ethic, initially releasing their own records and those of their friends on their own Shrimp Records imprint. It hasn’t been easy, but Shovels & Rope offer proof that national renown is still attainable for groups that reside in this state.

Getting Out There

Crossfade and Shovels & Rope, like every other South Carolina success story, had to overcome an array of obstacles. Unlike its North Carolina and Georgia neighbors, the state finds itself removed from the typically beaten pathways of popular music.

When it comes to touring, the great majority of national acts land in one of North Carolina’s larger markets — Asheville, Charlotte or the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — and/or somewhere amid Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan expanse. Columbia (131,686) and Charleston (125,583) are decent-sized cities, but they can’t match the potential audiences in places like Charlotte (775,202) and Atlanta (443,775). And while Asheville might be small, it boasts the 1,100-capacity Orange Peel and the smaller Grey Eagle, boxing above its weight and drawing listeners from places like Greenville, Spartanburg, Hendersonville and even Charlotte.

Surrounded by larger and more attractive markets, South Carolina gets skipped over more often than not.

But why does that matter for local bands?

For one thing, when national bands don’t play Columbia, it means a local band might be missing an opportunity to open for them. That’s an opportunity that not only means playing one night in front of a large crowd; it can also lead to a valuable relationship. If the national act likes the local opener enough, it might take them out on the road for a few dates, or maybe pass along a demo to a manager or label.

It’s all about making connections. Just as large airports instigate the opening of hotels and rental car dealers, major touring hubs are usually the homes for booking agents, record labels, PR professionals, and all of the other various support staff that can help a band reach listeners beyond its local market. For musicians in South Carolina, hooking up with these people typically means looking elsewhere.

“People go to Nashville, and they just have all these connections because there’s just industry people there,” Stringer says, bringing up the example of Heyrocco, a feisty pop-rock trio that recently bolted from Charleston to Nashville in hopes of building a team that could help the group get its name out. “Same with New York.”

Heyrocco is just one of many South Carolina acts that has headed to Nashville; others include Haley Dreis, Hannah Miller, Patrick Davis, CherryCase and, in an earlier generation, country singer Rob Crosby.

But looking elsewhere doesn’t always mean leaving. Brave Baby, a sleek and propulsive pop act from Charleston boasting a populist swell that could easily ensnare fans of popular indie acts such as Passion Pit, has made promising inroads simply by networking while out on the road. Meeting with a photographer from South Carolina during a recent trip to Nashville, the group was then referred to a manager in town who has worked with such high-profile clients as Alison Krauss. He took a liking to Brave Baby and began working with the outfit, helping the group grab a spot on a showcase tour sponsored by Communion Music, the label led by Mumford & Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett. It’s not an instant ticket to celebrity, but it’s definitely the kind of stepping stone that can put you on your way.

Brave baby

Brave Baby | photo by Apartment A

“It’s a lot about being in the right place at the right time,” offers Brave Baby’s singer and guitarist Keon Masters, taking a minute for a quick phone call between tour stops. “And a lot of it is just putting it on the table and showing that you’re committed to it and that it’s not just something you’re going to do on the weekends for the rest of your life, which is totally fine. But I’m looking for something a little different.”

Another group showing that it’s committed is Columbia’s Death of Paris. Specializing in synth-driven pop, the group has gone out of town — Los Angeles and Atlanta — to record both of its records. For last year’s impressive Gossip EP, the band recorded with Zack Odom and Kenneth Mount, a duo that has worked with Outkast, Usher and Jimmy Eat World, among others. The outfit thinks that the best way to show prospective labels and other industry players that it’s professional is by showing up with a professional product.

“We want to do this full-time, and it’s not just like a hobby,” explains singer Jayna Doyle. “We love playing music, and we want to quit the jobs that we have to be able to put more of ourselves into this, so we wanted to [make] something that sounded as professional as we were trying to be ... the producers that we worked with, we really liked the stuff that they’ve put out before and contacted them on a whim and didn’t expect them to get back to us. And then they liked us, so it just fell into place.”

death of paris

Death of Paris | courtesy photo

Where to Play?

If Brave Baby and Death of Paris keep growing, they might soon encounter a different problem. The rock club landscape in South Carolina is not a robust one, an issue that’s particularly glaring in Columbia. The only traditional bar in town that markets itself exclusively as a live music venue is West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern, a room that can only hold about 350 people. Jillian’s and the Tin Roof occasionally host large outdoor shows, but there are otherwise few options for groups that can draw 500 to 1,000 people. When Toro Y Moi returned to town last fall, the group had to play a special gig at the Columbia Museum of Art to make it work.

The Music Farm in Charleston can fit a crowd of 800, and while a joint venture between that club and Columbia’s Tin Roof could soon bring a room with an estimated capacity of between 1,200 and 1,500 to town, the reality right now is that there’s still a void that needs to be filled — and even when the new space opens, a mid-sized hole will remain.

Chris McClane, former singer of the punk outfit Stretch Arm Strong and currently a talent buyer for the promotion company AEG Live, says that this lack of a large room can be crippling, removing opportunities for up-and-comers to open for larger acts and limiting the places that successful locals can play.

“That’s why we put a lot of shows in Charlotte or Charleston or Greensboro or Raleigh or these other markets,” he explains. “In Columbia, I’ve got New Brookland Tavern, and then the next step is [Township Auditorium] at 3,000 seats: There’s no club in that mid-size range. I keep hearing about one that’s supposed to be coming to town. We’ll see. I’ve been hearing that forever. But it makes it difficult if a group has outgrown New Brookland Tavern. There’s no other option.”

Some dedicated musicians use this disadvantage as motivation.

Brave Baby hears the chatter about it being difficult to make it from South Carolina, how there aren’t enough rooms and how nobody plays down here.

“People talk about, like, ‘You’re from Charleston. You should move to Nashville or New York,’ and I think maybe it’s like a chip that we’ve grown on our shoulders,” Masters says. “I don’t know if it’s real or not, but I feel like the five of us kind of want to prove that you can be cool, and you don’t have to be from New York or San Francisco or Nashville.”

The Sea Wolf Mutiny, a Columbia band breeding art-rock atmosphere with piano-pop bombast, is already at the point that it can pack out New Brookland Tavern. But it’s using that fact as inspiration to get out on the road, planning a spring tour down to DemonFest in Louisiana, where it will play on a bill that also includes Of Montreal. It’s one of the outfit’s most extensive treks to date, and it comes the year after two-fifths of the ensemble became fathers for the first time. There might be limits to where the group can play in Columbia, but those constraints haven’t diminished its determination.

Sea Wolf Mutiny

Sea Wolf Mutiny | photo by Sean Rayford

“We’re at the point where it’s time for us to step up, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” offers guitarist Danny Oakes. “We can keep playing in Columbia forever, keep having fun and keep writing the music. But if we want to go forward with it, we have to take that step. And that’s really what we’re trying to push right now.”

Another Way

But not every artist is following these traditional pathways. Just ask Mat Cothran. When Free Times showed up at his apartment late on a Thursday afternoon, he was pouring himself some Jameson whiskey. Turns out the man behind the combustible bedroom recording projects Coma Cinema and Elvis Depressedly had ample reason to celebrate: Coma Cinema’s 2011 effort Blue Suicide had just sold out on vinyl.

Cothran makes all of his music at home with second-hand equipment he’s owned for as long as eight years. For the past half-decade, he’s released all of his albums as pay-what-you-will downloads, offering some of them on physical formats and also selling some T-shirts. He doesn’t play live with any frequency and rarely makes any appearances in town. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s working. Last year, his music brought in about $8,000, almost as much as he makes at his day job slinging tea. It’s no fortune, but it’s enough to keep him comfortable and producing music on the cheap, a relative definition of “making it” that others could emulate.

“It took so long to get to this point,” he says. “Last year was the only year that I made any kind of profit, and that’s like four or five years in the making. It’s something you just have to stick with constantly, and I know lot of bands around here will give up and quit after a year or so, but you can’t do that.”

But dedication and hard work don’t guarantee a lucrative music career. Heck, it’s not even a sure bet that these attributes will buy you the kind of hardscrabble sustainability that Cothran currently enjoys. By the same token, leaving South Carolina might put artists in a better position, but it’s no magic bullet. The deeper network of connections in places like Nashville or New York, for example, might not make up for the cheaper rent in Columbia.

Back in Mount Airy, the Broadcasters are hustling hard. Ivy Sheppard spends hours each day on her computer, emailing various venues to find new and better places for the band to play. She also works at WPAQ, one of the few radio stations left in this country that specializes in bluegrass and old-time music. It’s been a big advantage for the Broadcasters, giving them an inside look at how this music is marketed and what strategies might work for them going forward. Despite this upper hand, Ivy is adamant that they could be doing just as well if they’d stayed put in Charleston. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, she reasons. It only matters how much effort you put in and what breaks you catch along the way.

“If there’s something that you really want to do, you just have to be persistent and keep doing it and doing it and doing it,” she says. “You just have to keep being there, so people start recognizing your name and start coming to your shows and buying your records and listening, and then your profile increases. And I don’t think that it’s any different here than it was in Charleston.”

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