Jason Wheeler balances careers in real estate and folk music

Jason Wheeler comes from a family that has made its mark in the West Michigan construction and real estate development industries over the past several decades.

As vice president of marketing and communications and partner at Grand Rapids-based Wheeler Development Group LLC, Wheeler has had a front-row seat to the family business started by his father, John Wheeler.

While he’s certainly invested in the success of his real estate business, Wheeler also enjoys serving the community by exploring his creative side, including as executive director of Great Lakes Music Camp, a folk music-focused camp that brings together folk musicians and students from West Michigan. He also plays mandolin for the old-time folk music group Round Creek String Band, which released its self-titled debut album in September in conjunction with a performance at the Wheatland Music Festival.

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“The band is a good fit for who we are now and what we’d like to do,” Wheeler said. “We have a lot of love and respect for each other in the band. It’s natural right now.”

He talks to Crain’s Business in Grand Rapids about what connects his career in real estate and music and how he balances multiple professional and creative interests.

How did you first get into music?

I started playing (guitar) at 17 or 18 and switched to mandolin for a more permanent time at 20 or 21 and really dove into full-time study at that time. I have always enjoyed music a lot as a listener. I had a roommate my sophomore year in college who played a lot (of music), so there were guitars all the time. He started teaching me, then I started taking lessons.

There was this music class offered in the dorm I lived in, so I took it and then I really started doing it. It was a music theory (class) and it wasn’t what I expected, but it really lit a fire for me to dive deeper into it. I actually started studying and playing every day at that point and then started taking it really seriously when college ended.

It’s been two decades of really focused time getting to know the instruments and the culture around them.

Who were your early musical influences?

One was Bruce Ling: he’s a teacher, a musician himself, a bandleader. He now directs a non-profit organization, the Grand River Arts and Music Council. Bruce was teaching a lot of old time and bluegrass music and I started going away from electric and into acoustic music. I also met Don Julin, Billy Strings’ old mandolin partner.

I started spending a lot of time with these two guys, and both of those relationships made me continue to study and appreciate the music itself. A lot of that spirit in my music came from Bruce; much of the technical training and contacts came from Don. Both, in their own way, are connected to much more than music. They use music in one case as a business and an author, and in another case as a mechanism for community support, fundraising, bringing communities together.

Jason Wheeler said he finds creative fulfillment by balancing his career in his family’s real estate development firm with his musical pursuits. Credit: Courtesy photo

Where are you in your music career now?

Your choice as a musician is to either go on the road – which I did for a period of time until we started having daughters – or go into teaching. COVID has really severely disrupted in-person teaching and changed the way people would interact. I bounced back and forth between this educational platform and the executive side of it. Now I think most of my energy is spent trying to create inspiring and educational acoustic music events through Great Lakes Music Camp.

What attracted you to the folk scene?

(Music) can be a very competitive thing because it’s hard to make money. Music is hard to make a living from. If you’re into rock or anything else that gets played on the radio, you have to sacrifice a lot and you have to take a certain path. (With folk music), you play it until you can understand it and improvise on it, and then you play it until you’re good enough to teach it. Then you teach it and someone will play it better than you and then you know you did something right.

How do you juggle two very different careers, real estate development and music education?

Music is a good counter for me on the business side of things. What we do in business is very cool, it’s impactful, but it’s not a creative outlet in the same way that art or fishing or tourism can be. (Music is) where I found that creative space to help me balance my work life.

As much as I love the professional career I’m developing, I don’t think anything really holds a candle to making a positive impact using something you truly love to do. And for me it was music. Some people end up having to sacrifice that part of themselves to make a living or support a family or a home, and then other people say, “I need this.” If you’re one of those people, then you’ll just find a way to do it. It’s a priority for me.

What are some strategies you recommend to help balance career and creativity?

Understanding your priorities in life is probably the first step. This is different for everyone and develops over time. If you love him, you make room for him. I’d say I’m pretty disciplined in my pursuit of that, and I don’t think everyone should be or should be.

I also have a wife and children who love music and support it. Not everyone has the same dynamic, so it’s hard to know specifically to tell a person how you can get to them, whatever your goal or destination is with them. This bottom line is simply making time for that in your day. Consistency is important. Do not abandon your creative pursuits, do not sacrifice them for your professional goals if they turn out to be different.

Part of your professional goal should be to maintain a creative element of yourself. Five minutes a day or 10 minutes a day of that expression, whatever that art you’re pursuing, I think is enough to keep you young, curious, and intrigued by that pursuit itself.

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