There have been a few skips and pops since last spring in Terry College’s Music Business Program, which had run smoothly since its inception in January 2006.
Now, just a few weeks into the semester, the new management is getting the program back into the groove.
Officially announced Aug. 2, David Barbe — nationally-renowned music producer and Athens local — has taken over the Music Business Program with fellow Athens producer Tom Lewis.
The official announcement came a month after Terry announced that original director Bruce Burch and several other faculty members would be leaving to start a similar program at Kennesaw State.
Barbe was approached by Burch in June, after he had already made his plans known to Terry.
As a man who worked for close to 30 years as an independent businessman in the music world, Barbe was initially a little surprised by the suggestion.
“I thought their idea that I should be the new director of the Music Business Program was crazy,” Barbe said.
Despite his initial reaction, the Music Business Program was founded by instructors with real-world experience, and Barbe has that dating back to the womb.
“I was in the recording studio from the time I was a baby,” said Barbe, both of whose parents were professional musicians in Atlanta. “I really can’t remember not knowing what a recording studio was or not knowing how you’re supposed to act in a recording studio.”
Barbe started recording his own bands by the time he was 11, and when he moved to Athens in 1981 he found himself at the center of the musical mecca that produced the biggest bands to ever come out of Athens.
After his own band, Mercyland, parted ways in the mid-’80s, Barbe got an offer to do an internship in a recording studio with John Keane, another legendary Athens producer.
“I felt like this is what I’m supposed to do, this is where I feel totally at home, the recording studio,” Barbe said. “To me it was the same thing as putting on a pair of comfortable shoes.”
After interning for Keane and attending a recording workshop in Ohio, a “crash course in signal flow,” as Barbe described it, he started recording indie bands in studios around Athens, utilizing Keane’s studio as a home base.
Barbe’s innate feel for music and experience as a musician gave him an edge from the start.
“It’s a real advantage to have music in your blood, so to speak, because you speak the language,” Barbe said.
After working in numerous studios — he estimates around 50 — in his early career, Barbe built Chase Park Transduction Studios with Andy LeMaster and Andy Baker in 1997.
“Most people, the way they get into recording is they build a studio,” Barbe said. “To me it was like, ‘I think I’m going to work at this for a while and learn how the system works and then build a studio.’”
Chase Park Transductions, which Barbe still co-owns with LeMaster, has since become one of Athens’s top studios, in which the likes of R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Chris Martin, Drive-by Truckers and Queens Of The Stone Age have made recordings.
Tom Lewis, Barbe’s associate director for the Music Business Program, also had a storied producing history pre-dating many University students’ births.
He started playing music in high school and first dipped into the waters of production in college at Florida State University.
“Somebody would ask the question, ‘Well we wanna make a recording, how are we gonna do that?’ And my answer was, ‘I’ll figure it out,’” Lewis said.
In 1986, Lewis made his first “legitimized” recording of a band that would leave a definite mark on music history: Sonic Youth.
His live recording, which he asked the band if he could make while they were touring through Florida, was distributed by New Music Express in the UK.
From there, Lewis says, he was hooked.
Lewis moved to Athens in 1990 and began working as front of house manager for then-prominent Athens country music artist John Berry.
“It was pretty quick moving up here that I didn’t have any interest in doing anything but making records,” Lewis said.
Lewis began working as producer in Athens and throughout the Southeast, working in the studio and doing live recordings.
“A couple of times those first big festival live things was a little hairy,” Lewis said. “You just look at everybody and smile and say, ‘I know what I’m doing, everything’s gonna be fine,’ and at the end of the day you know something more about what you’re doing and everything is fine.”
His career has brought him together with a variety of acts in a variety of scenarios, including the Allman Brothers Band, The Whigs, Love Tractor and the Vigilantes of Love.
His method to recording: “In and out of studios, as many different places as we need to go to get done what needs to be done,” Lewis said.
With a combined 50-plus years of experience between them, the main challenge of taking over at the Music Business Program was technicalities and scheduling.
“The trick was figuring out ‘Can I do this and still do that?’” Barbe said, referring to his new responsibilities at the University and his professional recording career. “Because I have to do that. It’s who I am, it’s what I do.”
But Barbe said his continuing professional career will help him teach.
“Fortunately for me, Terry College realized that my value to the program was greatly enhanced by the fact that I’m a working professional, not that I’m somebody that did something a long time ago,” Barbe said.
Although balancing his two careers is a challenge, Lewis said the positive elements of this new venture are twofold.
“I like to look at it as an opportunity, whereas I clearly can’t do as much work as I might, so my positive outlook on that is that I can say ‘no’ more often. When it is the bread and butter, that’s a hard thing to say, you can’t turn anything down,” Lewis said. “Now all I have to do is learn how to do that, I just haven’t learned that yet.
“I’m learning, this is hit the ground running. You’re coming from one world into the academic world, and it’s like bang, go. Fill out all this paperwork, here it all is, go get an ID and a parking sticker,” he said. “We’re still figuring it out.”
The feeling from the students, Lewis said, was uncertain at first, but has improved since he and Barbe classes started.
“Initially it was their gaining the confidence that everything was OK, and I think a lot of them feel that not only is it OK but it’s moving in a good direction and it’s a lot better, so suddenly there’s enthusiasm again,” Lewis said.
Barbe is instructing two classes this semester, and following the advice of the leaving administrators, is refining the program bit by bit. Lewis’s current focus is technical dealings with the University and helping students assess their credit standing.
Barbe and Lewis are helping students organize a set of concerts at local non-profit Nuçi’s Space for which the students will advertise, book bands, manage money and produce the sound. They will also host guest speakers from the industry, as has
been standard in the department.
“Nuçi’s is also a great proving ground laboratory for the students because it’s a manageable size, and if you run a show at Nuçi’s you can do the whole thing and you can be wildly successful or you can slip on a banana peel and blow it without somebody else’s business taking the hit for it,” Barbe said.
Events like this, says Lewis, help prepare students for the changing industry.
“The record industry has fallen apart and you can look at that in one of two ways,” Lewis said. “It’s either an enormous loss or an enormous opportunity, and people who look at it as the opportunity are the people who are gonna be doing it, and being a part of that is kind of a huge deal.”
Barbe said he agrees and is excited for his students presented with that opportunity.
“For the young, energetic and free-thinking, your imagination is the limit. It’s terrifying for the people at the top of major corporations, but it should be exciting even if uncertain for everybody else,” he said.
As they continue settling in, Barbe and Lewis agree that whatever minor headaches they have to suffer, the interest and ability of their students is constantly reassuring.
“The best thing about it is the students,” Barbe said. “They’re bright and are challenging — they’ve got a lot of ideas. It’s exciting, yeah, I love it.”