Most of Asheville-based music producer Gar Ragland’s work is in artist development, be it management or helping build teams with publicists around releases. During his career, he’s witnessed numerous technological advances in the industry, perhaps none more dramatic than the digital revolution.
But while he thinks it’s exciting that artists can take their music directly to market, bypassing the prohibitively expensive need to go into a recording studio or surrender profits to a label, the rise of DIY projects has flooded the entry level with releases of varying quality. To help sift through the overwhelming number of options and elevate the most talented on-the-rise acts, Ragland co-founded the independent artist development company NewSong Music, whose 18th annual Performance & Songwriting Competition finals take place Saturday, Nov. 23, at Isis Music Hall.
“Those barriers to entry, those quality filters that once existed … have in many ways eroded for emerging artists,” Ragland says. “So we feel like our role is that we are a trusted sort of tastemaker for fans of original music, fans who enjoy discovering new artists before others do, but also to be a resource to the industry itself.”
Over the course of six months, Ragland takes a hands-on approach to the contest, listening to independent artist submissions from around the world with help from industry peers and artists whose ears he trusts. True to its name, the competition equally weighs songwriting and performance. According to Ragland, the NewSong seal of approval has become “a badge of honor,” and winners and finalists consistently report back on the numerous doors the distinction opens for them.
The grand prizewinner for 2019 will receive a fully funded, six-song EP, recorded and mixed at Echo Mountain Recording Studios and released on the NewSong Recordings label. Additional perks include a performance showcase at the ASCAP Music Café during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and a featured performance in the 2020 Arts Brookfield Summer Plaza series in New York City.
Ragland identifies 2006 grand prize recipient Ingrid Michaelson as arguably the most famous winner of the competition, and Megan Trainor and Grace Potter among the more recognizable entrants. All finalists, however, are encouraged to keep NewSong informed on their latest developments.
“We want to be an amplifier of what you’re doing,” Ragland says. “If you have a new record coming out or you announce a West Coast tour, keep us in the loop. We’ll broadcast through our channels, social media, Facebook — all that. We want to help.”
Finalists for 2019 are Danielle Ponder (Rochester, N.Y.); Grant Maloy Smith (Kingston, R.I.); Jae Jin (Wolftown, Va.); Jobi Riccio (Brookline, Mass.); Kelly Hoppenjans (Nashville, Tenn.); Kyshona Music (Madison, Tenn.); and Nathaniel Bellows (New York City). Joining them is Parker Ainsworth (Joshua Tree, Calif.), who earned his spot after winning the NewSong LEAF Competition in May. Nominated as a finalist in 2018 for his song “American Miracle,” but unable to attend due to touring, Ainsworth applied for the 2019 LEAF Competition with “Under the Gun.”
“It’s a song about how we live under the shadow of gun violence in America,” Ainsworth says. “I grew up hunting in Texas with my father, and though I have no issue with firearms specifically, I feel very passionate about our need as a society to reexamine our relationship with assault rifles and violence in general. So, I suppose I submitted ‘Under the Gun’ because it seemed to say the most at the moment.”
Ainsworth credits the win with giving him an introduction to the Asheville music scene. Likewise aiding that path was his onstage collaboration with local players Zack Kardon, Jack Victor and Mike Johnson at his return to LEAF in October. Careful not to get ahead of himself, he feels it’s important to remain in the moment at the Isis finals, “establish the music in my body and then show up as nascent as possible to be aware of what the story wants to do in the room.”
“I do my best to not anticipate much, but rather stay open and receptive to what’s possible,” Ainsworth says. “But if I am lucky enough to win, I’ll certainly be keen to what opportunities may arise. One thing’s for sure — it would be a dream to work with Zack, Jack and Mike in the magical space that is Echo Mountain.”
WHAT: NewSong Music Performance & Songwriting Competition Finals
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 23, 7:30 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show