Music makes a scene in Athens economy

By Taylor West

The doors of the 40 Watt Club open at 9 p.m and people trickle into the dimly lit venue to buy their first drinks of the night. The opening band takes the stage, the audience grows and two acts later the headliner, Reptar, walks on stage and looks out over a screaming, intoxicated full house.

It’s a typical Saturday night in Athens.

Athens is home to many music venues from the Georgia Theatre to the Caledonia Lounge and the Melting Point to the dozens of bars and restaurants that play live music multiple nights a week, and has produced countless bands, ranging from unknown groups to R.E.M., the B-52s and Widespread Panic.

There is no question Athens has a deeply engrained and widely known music culture that is an important part of the town’s identity. The New York Times even said the Classic City “might as well be known as Live Music Central” because of the “waves of fresh local acts and a growing number of live music sites” since the 1980s.

But what may go unnoticed is the strong presence of the music industry in the economy.

There are 52 total establishments for arts, entertainment and recreation in the Athens-Clarke County metropolitan statistical area in 2011 with a reported annual payroll of $13,209,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Athens outnumbers other comparable towns with downtown music scenes. For example, Lawrence, Kan., in the same category, has four fewer establishments and takes in  $6,588,000 less annually.

David Barbe, director of the music business certificate program at the University of Georgia, said the music’s affect on the economy in Athens is bigger than most people realize.

“It is a huge part of Athens’ economy. A normal, Friday night, packed rock band show there will be 1,000 people drinking $5 Bud Lights at the Georgia Theatre… so you know that beer sales downtown, in my opinion, are quite healthy,” Barbe said. “You see what I’m getting at.”

Jeff Humphreys, the director of the Selig Center in the Terry College of Business, said there are two ways to monitor the economy of the music scene — production, or money made from music produced in Athens, and performance.

“A performance impact would consist of attracting visitors to Athens,” he said. “The big economic impacts from performance are either putting heads in beds… plus there may be some day trip visitors that don’t actually spend the night but they may drive over from Atlanta and go to a restaurant and the venue.”

Barbe said with a band like the Drive-By Truckers, who played a three-night stand at the 40 Watt a few weeks ago, it’s believed 50 percent of the attendees to the concerts are from out of town.

“It’s fair to say that these 300 people are going to spend, between a hotel room for three days and food and beer and records and gasoline, it’s fair to say that these people spend $700 while they are here,” he said.

Drive-By Truckers, though they have a larger following than many bands playing in Athens, is just one of many groups that comes to town every year. Additionally, outside of downtown groups such as the Cleveland Orchestra attract hundreds of a different crowd when they play venues Hugh Hodgson Hall.

Though Hannah Smith, director for marketing and communications for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she is “not aware of a specific study that has done an economic study that is tied back to the music scene,” the bureau does compile tourist information.

Smith in a subsequent email wrote that of people who signed in at the Athens Welcome Center and those who requested information online, 5 percent self-identified as having a primary interest in music.

“Destination marketers are most successful when they are able to promote what is most distinctive about their destination, experiences travelers can’t get closer to home,” Smith wrote despite the low percentage. “For Athens, that distinctive factor is the continuing vibrancy of our live music scene. Music is integral to our tourism product and definitely contributes to the local economy by bringing in tourists from around the globe.”

And Barbe said the music industry in Athens has been growing “exponentially” for the last 30 years.

“When I came here in 1981 there were about maybe 15 or 20 cool local original bands, now there are hundreds. There was no music business infrastructure at that time because for 15 or 20 local bands and a couple of bars you don’t need that,” he said. “[Now] with hundreds and hundreds of bands we’ve got record labels and artist managers and booking agents and concert promoters and t-shirt makers and all kinds of things.”

Click here for Barbe’s explanation of relationships between different facets of the music industry: Structure of the Music Industry

Athens is now home to the annual Athens Music and Arts Festival, which, for the last 15 years, AthFest has used to “showcase the best in regionally and nationally recognized Athens-based talent,” according to the Athens-Clarke County Economic Development Department website. This year, around 200 bands and artist will put on shows for the festival in local venues and on three outdoor stages.

Jeff Montgomery, an ACC public information officer and co-owner of, said the music scene’s influence has grown with its numbers and the government is taking notice.

“Certainly I would say that it does affect policy,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene. This office has always had a strong music tie. It’s not always official, but it’s a big interest we have, it’s a big tourist component to things, it’s a big economic boost for downtown.”

And the economic salience of the music industry in Athens, Montgomery said, is evidenced by the low closure rates of true music venues in Athens.

Montgomery said ACC pays attention to the arts in general as well — among other things, there is a public art component that is part of any capital program through our SPLOST program, which is the sales tax program, meaning a percentage of every project that’s done though SPLOST 2011, has to have a public art component to that.

“I would say there is a policy component to that,” he said. “In terms of when it comes down to laws or other things like that, sure that’s always considered when there are laws or ordinances that have the potential to affect the creative community; they tend to make their voices known. And then it is weighed against other factors, like public safety.”

Montgomery said on top of being a political consideration, the Athens government stands behind the music scene through little things.

“If you were to call City Hall, and you get put on hold, all our hold music is Athens bands. Also, the government access television that our office runs, Athens music is what plays in the background of that when we are on our bulletin board system,” he said. “We do things that support the Athens music scene.”

Non-profit advocate works to help Athens musicians

Lesley Cobbs works as a suicide awareness advocate for her community and fellow neighbors, inside the record adorned walls of Athens’ nonprofit music resource center, Nuci’s Space.

Cobbs pushes back her dreads contained by a bandanna as she starts up the espresso machine behind the coffee bar in Nuci’s Space. Her relaxed appearance matches her collected attitude as she simultaneously makes a coffee, answers the phone and replies to a colleague dressed down in casual clothes. Her British accent is evident when she says, “right on.”

Cobbs’ love of music fits perfectly in the eclectic college town of Athens. Her position as Volunteer Coordinator at Nuci’s Space aligns her with the musicians who live in Athens and struggle with depression. Her marketing experience in previous jobs allows her to plan fundraising for Nuci’s Space and establish ties in the community for volunteers. Cobbs works to recruit volunteers to provide the services Nuci’s offers to those who are in need of assistance.

“We’re like a complete package, if a musician needs therapy then we try to make that accessible, we try to remove all the boundaries,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs unlocks all of the practice rooms located in the hallway past the elevated stage, as the morning transitions into afternoon.

“When they’re not actually in therapy, they need a place to play music, they’re musicians,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs walks past the stage, which is covered with speakers and instruments. She points to the adjacent wall filled with records. Each record is labeled with the name of a donor that sponsors Nuci’s Space. Among business owners are several band names inscribed on records. Athens’ staples like Drive By Truckers, R.E.M and Widespread Panic all share space on this retro and symbolic décor.

Cobbs appreciates good local music and harnesses this passion to attract community involvement in events and fundraisers hosted by Nuci’s Space.

“Because of the events that we do, if you ask anyone in town, they know Nuci’s Space,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs puts the finishing touches on the annual fundraiser, Athens Business Rocks, every February. Businesses in Athens assemble a band with their staff team and compete in a battle of the bands style competition.

“We have people volunteer within the community that just want to give something back,” said Cobbs.

Drive By Truckers is an Athens band that echoes Cobbs’ appreciation for struggling artists by performing an annual benefit concert for Nuci’s Space. This year the Drive-By Truckers performed Jan. 17th-19th. On the last night of Drive-By Truckers’ homecoming show, Nuci’s Space hosted a pre DBT party, selling paraphernalia. All the proceeds went to their fundraising effort.

The fundraising provides the funds necessary to hold therapy and counseling. Musicians can come to Nuci’s for support and encouragement. Nuci’s reflects Cobbs inviting personality by creating a comfortable atmosphere and recluse for musicians.

“We decrease the stigma connected to depression by being completely transparent,” said Cobbs.

Cobbs walks into the room where counseling is conducted and switches on the lights. She names off the bands that make up the framed autographed posters lining the walls corner to corner ending on a bright poster signed by the B-52s.

In the past three years, Will Kiser, the counseling advocate, has seen an increase in the number of musicians seeking counsel, rental space and treatment. The ideal vision for Cobbs and Nuci’s is to expand their services to musicians nationwide. The initial step is to open a Nuci’s Space in Atlanta, according to Cobbs.

Cobbs is a visionary, but also sensitive to the depression some musicians face. Creative artists are listed fifth in the top 10 professions with high rates of depressive illness, according to The Guardian. The article suggests the possibility that a high proportion of people with depressive illnesses are drawn to working in the arts, but goes undiagnosed or untreated. It says some may go untreated because they “worry that getting medical treatment would stifle their creativity or make their output less interesting.”

“This is only my personal opinion, this isn’t anything to do with Nuci’s Space, I believe that people who are artistically creative, often can suffer from depression and mental illness and it’s a part of their artistic temperament,” said Cobbs.

Nuci’s Space specializes with the treatment of musicians, but anyone is welcome. Cobbs accommodates anyone who wants to help, or is seeking help.

“Anyone who comes in is treated exactly the same, whether you are an amazing musician, whether you’re a guy that’s coming in to play the guitar, or a guy coming for therapy, everyone is treated exactly the same,” said Cobbs.

The World Famous brings music, comedy to Hot Corner

Wilson’s Soul Food was David Parajon’s first meal when he moved to Athens.

The soul food place that had graced Hot Corner for over 30 years closed its doors in 2011. Months later the idea of The World Famous developed.

“We fell in love with 351 N. Hull Street,” Parajon said. “We decided there wasn’t another place in town, nearly as comfortable at this size.”

That location has been long important to the city and Hot Corner is an area with a strong history. With the intersection of Hull and Washington being so historic, Parajon and fellow owner Bain Mattox did not want to feel like the new place on the block.

“Basically we wanted this space to maybe feel like it’s been here forever,” Parajon said. “We don’t want to feel brand new.”

The building’s history remains. While most of the place was gutted to make changes, there are parts of the building that remain intact, a sign that some things are permanent.

A remaining legacy from former tenants of the Hull Street venue is some evidence of a fire that occurred in the 1920s. The legends of the place are still there, but now more stories will be told.

“We gutted the place completely, but at the same time our mantra was to use the whole buffalo,” Parajon said. So we really made sure that we would reuse anything that made sense. And [if] we could find something second hand we would. We hope the stuff here tells a little bit of a story.”

Instead of hearing the voices discuss today’s issues, the sound of local bands and vintage pinball machines take its place. The simple tables and chairs of the dining room are replaced with an open space with a stage and chandeliers made from recyclable materials.

“Basically, it has a Southern outsider, folk art feel to the space,” Parajon said. “We wanted it to be immediately comfortable and cozy.”

And while some of the soul food is gone, chicken and waffles remain, along with a plethora of hand-dining options.

“We have an opportunity to book world class entertainment in an extremely intimate environment, and enjoy incredible street food from around the world,” Parajon said. “Our chef Jarad Blanton comes from Farm 255 most recently, he has developed a ridiculous menu and we’ll be open until 2 a.m., so we’ll be serving food late.”

That menu offers customers various hand-held options such as corndogs, egg rolls, lettuce wraps and chicken wings.

“The whole idea was kind of like food-cart, street food style,” Mattox said. “No utensils needed type stuff. That was basically the one challenge we gave our chef.”

Alongside the dining, Mattox is bringing his bartending expertise from the other business he owns, Normal Bar. Drinks such as he Artimus Palmer, which mixes Kentucky bourbon and sweet tea, or the Clover Coffee, which mixes Jameson, Bailey and coffee, deliver the punches needed for a fun night downtown.

But it isn’t solely about the food, drink and art deco at The World Famous. Music and other forms of entertainment play a major role as well.

“When I met with David, we were talking about an almost underground concert type thing first and then it built into this idea,” Mattox said.

The idea became a physical venue booking national and local acts. As time progressed the tandem decided to do more than music.

“We’re letting it go as it is, and we’re not focusing on just music,” Mattox said. “We have comedy and a hypnotist coming. There’s nothing that we’re really banking on.”

Connecting the history of a place and catering that to the business is a hard goal to accomplish. Parajon, a white owner, for instance talked to the people who grace the block’s barber shops for a better understanding of the Hot Corner’s past.

“A lot of what I know about the place is passed on through oral history,” he said. “You’re not going to find a whole lot in textbooks about the Hot Corner. This block was the epicenter of African-American commerce at the turn of the century, probably one of the most vital spots in the country.”

The block was home to butcher shops, mortuaries and one of the first African-American owned car dealerships. Today, Hot Corner has shifted as an area for high end restaurants, bars and the new venue.

But through understanding the area’s history, it helps pave the way for keeping downtown thriving and local.

“We want to be good stewards of the community obviously and we want to be good to our neighbors,” Parajon said.

Being good neighbors paid off fast.  After a delay in opening, neighboring businesses allowed acts that were already booked for The World Famous to perform.

For example, Howie Day played at neighboring Little Kings and Mattox’s band performed at Highwire Lounge.

The venue opened on Feb. 21, and with that the vision the duo created is complete. Now the memories can be produced.

“That’s what it’s all for, I’m excited for people to see the finished product after talking about it for so many months,” Mattox said. “People are always asking me about it, so it’s going to be great to see it come to fruition and for people to enjoy it.”