5 things to know about Alabama city’s program that pays musicians to go on tour

Common Man is a talented young folk-pop duo who are still at their level touring in a Honda Civic.

The Huntsville band toured 18 shows this fall.

On stage, Common Man performed their songs, including their 2023 single ‘Vermont’, the studio version of which has been streamed more than 25,000 times on Spotify.

Common Man’s tour was partially funded by a grant from the City of Huntsville’s Music Ambassador Program, or MAP for short.

Launched in mid-October, the program provides qualified musicians living in Huntsville with $750 to $1,500 per tour. The annual cap for each act is $4,500. However, there is no limit to how many times an artist can be funded.

RISK MANAGEMENT

Meredith Johnson and Compton McMurray started Common Man in 2022, the same year they got married. This year they released the single “Threadbare” and are preparing a five-song EP for spring.

Their fall tour took them to places like Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Washington, Memphis and Nashville.

Common Man singer Johnson says, “Making the decision to go there and drive and haul all our stuff, the grant was really encouraging because it was a lot of gas and time.”

Some of these shows, Common Man played to 50 people. Another time they played for just five. Many groups, whether later successful or not, have experienced similar mathematics.

“The [Music Ambassador] the grant helps mitigate the risk,” Johnson says. “I feel like not every artist at our level thinks they have options. But a lot of it is strategy and planning, the part that artists don’t want to do.”

Singer/guitarist McMurray says that for Common Man, hitting the road is “an alternative to booking a bunch of local gigs playing in [local] bars. What we really want to do is be artists and make our original music and do it at a higher level.

BUILDING A FUTURE FANBASE

In addition to honing their stage skills, touring for Common Man is about introducing their music to new listeners. Slowly but surely converting new fans.

In the 2020s, social media and online hype can sometimes help accelerate an artist’s career. But, Johnson says, “touring is almost a more practical way for us to introduce ourselves to new people than social media. because [social media is] such a saturated platform that if you’re really not able to post every day and get to the top of people’s feeds, it’s going to pretty much just go to your followers.

A grant from MAP helped Common Man make their show in Nashville, the epicenter of the music business, even bigger.

Common Man plays most shows on the road as a duo. For the Nashville show, held at local venue The Basement, they used grants to bring in additional musicians from Huntsville, namely keyboardist Wesley Weirich, drummer John Green, and bassist Sam Carpenter, to back them up.

Johnson says, “Most of the other lineup had full bands and we played last. There was no way we could sonically handle these guys without ours [backing] the band is coming.”

Common Man also used grants to hire a photographer to shoot their Nashville show and someone to run their merch table. Tonight, Johnson and McMurray could just focus on impressing on stage.

The band from Huntsville Camping in Alaska is shown live. (Courtesy of Bobbi-Anne Oliver)

THE REQUIREMENTS

In addition to residing in Huntsville, to be eligible for a MAP grant, applicants must have five or more upcoming tour dates booked outside of Huntsville, with most outside a 100-mile radius of Huntsville. Musicians who live in Huntsville but tour with bands in other cities are also eligible.

And no, multiple members of the same act cannot be funded separately. In addition, tours must be confirmed through third parties such as venue websites, ticketing sites, etc. Normally, private events are not eligible dates for tours. However, home shows may be with written documentation from the promoters.

In addition to Common Man, grant recipients so far include, among others, alternative rock band Camping in Alaska, indie frontwoman Wanda Wesolowski, singer/songwriter Amy McCarley, rapper Dante Pride and guitarist Taylor Goodwin of The Talismens.

The demands of Music Ambassador grantees are fairly minimal and artistically non-invasive. They must create one consistently visible social media post about receiving MAP funding during this tour. Within 90 days of the last show on a funded tour, recipients must also submit a final report to the Huntsville Music Authority. According to the office’s website, “This report will provide recommendations and anecdotes that can be used for official City of Huntsville reports and as social media content.”

The grants are funded through the city of Huntsville’s music office, through economic development funds, said Matt Mandrella, Huntsville’s first music officer. Funds are issued by check or direct deposit and distributed within 30 days of acceptance, says Mandrella, who has previously worked with organizations such as Graceland and the Austin, Texas Fun Fun Fun Fest.

Music Ambassador artists are generally paid as city artists. Applicants are screened by the Huntsville Music Office. The program was approved by the City Council and enthusiastically supported by Huntsville Economic Development Director Shake Davis, Mandrella says.

THE COIN SIDE OF THE CITY

“On the tourism side,” says Mandrella, “our musicians are some of the coolest people we have in town. We’re sending the coolest people in our city to talk about Huntsville organically.”

The intent is also to help Huntsville artists sustain a career, of course. And keep them here once they’re up instead of moving to Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc.

“It invests directly in Huntsville artists,” says Mandrella. “Why would you leave a city that you get ancillary funding from just to do what you could do anywhere else?”

The spring 2022 opening of Huntsville’s Orion Amphitheater has put the city known for its aerospace engineering in the music industry and music media conversations far beyond Alabama. Orion brought stars here who would not otherwise have performed in Huntsville, such as Stevie Nicks, Jack White, Phish and Robert Plant.

In recent years, Huntsville’s city leaders, including Mayor Tommy Battle, have made growing the music scene here a priority. Ultimate goal: Make Huntsville more attractive to young professionals and the companies that hire them.

Over the decades, the city has produced many musicians and sidekicks who have helped create hits, toured extensively, recorded for major labels, and more. But Huntsville never produced a mainstream band or solo artist. Huntsville has no Alabama Shakes or Jason Isbell, to use as examples North Alabama’s most famous 21st-century exports, from Athens and Muscle Shoals/Green Hill, respectively.

And the fact is, even in the age of smartphones, a lot of music that finds longtime fans does so in person on stage — not on a phone screen.

A LIGHT BULB MOMENT

Mandrella got the idea for the Music Ambassador program from a music conference he attended in Tulsa last year. At that conference, he connected with Elizabeth Cowen, director of Music Export Memphis, a nonprofit program that provides Memphis musicians with similar touring support.

Mandrella was delighted with the concept. To bring it to Huntsville — he says MAP is the first municipally funded program of its kind in the U.S. — he brought in Cowen as a consultant. Cowen’s acumen and experience helped HSV’s own version, to use an old James Brown line, get off on a solid footing.

HUNTSVILLE HELL YEAH

Common Man was one of the first Huntsville artists to receive a Music Ambassador grant. Once word got out, other local acts “were really curious,” Johnson says.

She says Huntsville’s Music Ambassador program, which has accepted nine acts as of this story’s filing, spurs ambition: “The city helps, but they don’t plan the tour for you. They’re not covering all the money for the tour and they’re not like a record company or anything like that.”

On Common Man’s fall tour, they set out to call the program off the stage.

“Whenever we explained this to the audience,” Johnson says, “there were always gasps or cheers. People really responded amazingly to it. There was always at least one person after the show who came up and asked us about [the Musician Ambassador program].”

A native of Texas, Johnson adds, “I was in Huntsville for a while and it made me really proud of the city and go, ‘Yeah, I’m from Huntsville. Deal with it.

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