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AthFest Lineup Reflects Growing Influence of UGA Music Business Program

Among the names on the lineup for this year’s AthFest Music and Arts Festival—which raises funds for arts-education nonprofit AthFest Educates—are several from a relatively young but increasingly visible segment of the local scene. The musicians in this group come from different backgrounds and play different genres, but they have one thing in common: their involvement in UGA’s Music Business Certificate Program.

The Music Business Certificate Program (MBUS) has been directed by longtime local recording engineer and musician David Barbe since 2010. In the past few years, the program has grown exponentially, with students now running an in-house record label and public relations agency, managing bands, organizing a yearly festival and playing music in one of the many groups that have emerged from the program. Some of these have already made their mark on Athens, like established local acts Futurebirds and New Madrid, both of which feature MBUS alums.

Other bands involved with the program have seen success more recently, including AFTM, all of whose members are either currently part of or recently graduated from MBUS. The group, which has made a name for itself on the regional jam-band circuit, began by playing UGA fraternity events and parties, gaining word-of-mouth popularity within the Greek scene before moving to venues such as the 40 Watt Club and Georgia Theatre.

Along with selecting AFTM as this year’s Saturday headliner, AthFest chose Walden, another regionally successful band that gained a foothold thanks to its proximity to the MBUS program, to headline Friday night.

Despite skepticism from scene diehards, Barbe says these musicians’ method of building a fan base is more common than the average Athens music lover may think.

“What AFTM has done… through the base of the frat scene is a little different from a lot of bands, but what is exactly the same is what they have done in building an audience,” Barbe says. “I think finding the right audience is what every artist needs to do, and that’s what they’ve done.”

Even so, some see MBUS bands’ built-in support structure as an unfair advantage that affords mostly white, well-off college students opportunities not given to homegrown local acts.

“There’s a lot of great bands in Athens that aren’t affiliated with the Music Business Program, and they probably do get the short end of the stick sometimes, not having this same network of support,” says AFTM frontman Forrest Whitlark, who acknowledges that the program has helped the band tremendously. Still, he adds, “I think it’s good and healthy that everyone is helping each other.”

Whitlark says having a support base that includes both other students and professors has given the group the encouragement and advice it needed to grow since it started two years ago.

He also says that if someone is making good music, it ultimately doesn’t matter what circles they are or aren’t a part of. “A lot of times, people are getting gigs based on the talent they have,” Whitlark says. “There is so much talent in Athens.”

Scene politics aside, Barbe says there’s no denying the impact these bands have had on Athens. He says one of the program’s largest contributions has been the business it gives to local venues, as MBUS artists fill holes in schedules that may have otherwise been left empty.

“A lot of times when students book shows, they’re giving exposure [for] the venues to an audience that might not have gone to those venues before,” Barbe says. “They’re bridging a gap that’s enhancing the business of the venues.”

Troy Aubrey, the president of Foundry Entertainment and chair of AthFest’s booking committee, says this has been true at The Foundry, especially for the venue’s Two for Tuesday series, which features local, up-and-coming bands.

“We’ve seen a lot of younger artists within Music Business play that series, and a lot of those shows have been super successful,” Aubrey says. “I think a lot of the venues are getting a lot more shows earlier in the week with the amount of new bands that are coming up.”

Several other bands on this year’s AthFest lineup are affiliated with the program, including country singer Ashley Walls, folk artists Aspen Anonda and Daniel Hardin, singer-songwriter Sam Burchfield and alternative rock band Jester.

Aubrey says the inclusion of so many MBUS bands on the festival’s lineup was intentional, as one of AthFest’s goals this year was to draw a younger crowd. The event has long been known as a townie showcase, but the festival’s booking committee felt featuring younger bands would draw more UGA students back to town over the slow summer.

Overall, Aubrey says, the program is a boon to the Athens scene. “I definitely think that the program is instrumental in helping bands do better than they would have,” Aubrey says. “Most of the younger bands that we see doing well have something to do with the program, and the ones that aren’t normally don’t.”

After nearly a decade as the program’s director, Barbe says he couldn’t be happier for his students and former students who are playing AthFest.

“I’m totally proud of those guys, and everyone else who’s playing the fest, too,” Barbe says. “It’s cool to see the program really starting to have an impact. I’m proud of them.”

For the full AthFest schedule, see The Calendar.