*Note: This piece originally appeared in the Vanderbilt Hustler on April 15, 2015. It has been republished here so that all my work can be found in one place.
I was thrilled to see The Hustler put the spotlight on our student musicians in its feature “Making it in Music City.” As the former head of RVU Records and a WRVU DJ who has interviewed Vanderbilt’s musicians for the past three years, I know most of the people they highlighted and can’t think of any more deserving stories to be shared with the student body. From Two Friends’ meteoric rise in the EDM world to Nate Banks’ promising solo career and everyone in between, this campus is bursting with musical talent.
But you may not have known this if The Hustler hadn’t taken interest. Whether it’s our school’s self-centered culture of studying toward financial success, Blair’s focus on classical music or the presence of Belmont just down the street, some factor suppresses the vibrancy and visibility of a homegrown Vanderbilt popular music scene. And it’s a shame, because over my WRVU career I’ve met several talented artists whose musical aspirations have been limited by academic pressure and a lack of avenues to exposure.
To be fair, opportunities for aspiring musicians and music businesspeople have increased noticeably since I arrived here in 2011. The Business Careers in Entertainment Club provides wonderful connections and opportunities for interested students. Both RVU Records and Studio CRB allow musicians to record on the cheap, with the former offering audio engineering training as well. McGill Coffeehouse open mics are always jovial and at times feature spellbinding performances. Even VSG’s first-year CommonDores Leadership Council pleasantly surprised me by hosting an open mic in February, although in its naivete it alienated the performers from our campus culture by calling the event “Belmont.”
Nevertheless, despite these growing on-campus opportunities and mainstays such as Deanna Walker’s songwriting class, Vanderbilt students who hope to make it in the music industry must pursue their dreams on their own. The university’s alumni network and recruiting profile, so strong in areas like consulting and finance and engineering, are negligible in the business that gives this city its nickname. Many students drawn here by Nashville’s appeal find themselves trapped in the Vandy Bubble, unsupported by a campus culture that rewards individual drive and academic success above all. Even as the Melodores have become national darlings and a cappella as a whole has flourished here, that growth has yet to translate into real investment in a college music scene by the Vanderbilt administration or student body. Instead of fostering a robust pipeline into Music City that would differentiate us from other top-20 schools and beautify our campus culture, our general reaction to musical ambition ranges from lukewarm appreciation to total apathy.
I’m aware that my reaction to this issue is probably stronger than most other students’, that my disappointment is likely not shared by everyone reading this and that most of you probably don’t have the time or desire to rectify the situation. That’s why all I ask of you, the general student body, is to keep your ears open to the amazing musical talent we have here and try to attend at least one Vanderbilt student artist’s performance before you graduate. Unlike most of us, these classmates of ours will rely exclusively on peer support to make their living, so even liking their Facebook pages or sharing their songs online means more than you can imagine — and it takes almost no effort on your part.
To those of you who are moved by the paucity of a Vanderbilt music scene and want to do something about it, I have a couple of suggestions that would immediately increase visibility of and institutional support for popular musicians on campus. The first of these is a campaign to build resources at the Career Center or Blair for those students who want to make or deal in music for a living. I’ve met Vanderbilt alumni in the industry, and I am astounded that the university hasn’t built them into a network to help its aspiring songwriters, artists and music business people. In a world where interpersonal connections dwarf academic success in importance, such a network would be a tremendous boon in helping students land that coveted internship at Sony Music or meet the producer who will turn their rough demo into a smash hit.
The second is to increase the number of musical opportunities on campus. Putting a few drum kits on Commons would be a great way to encourage first-years to form bands. In terms of performances, I don’t think it’s out of the question for VPB, Music Group and the BCEC to pool their resources to found a monthly Songwriters’ Night on campus, featuring some combination of professional and amateur musicians. Certainly within the realm of possibility would be a weekly open mic at the Pub. A veteran Vanderbilt audio engineer once told me that John Mayer played there in the early 2000s (sadly I could not confirm it). Even if that isn’t true, how cool would it be if something like it happened in the future?
We can build a thriving music scene on this campus. The interest is there, as is the talent. All that’s missing is the cultural and institutional shift. If effective steps are taken to make it happen, Vanderbilt will have made it in Music City.