John Bell Goes Back To School

JB recently held a Music Business program at the
University of Georgia-Athens.

Widespread Panic's Bell tells students to follow their dream
by John Barrett with Carolyn Crist for UGA
Image by John Kim

As the economy pushes students to consider majors that will earn big bucks, Widespread Panic's lead singer John Bell encouraged music business students not to give up the dream.

Bell, who joined Athens' native band Widespread Panic in 1986, explained how he became a part of the music business step-by-step in a motivational talk for music business students and alumni at the Chapel on Tuesday afternoon.

Music has to move from part A, or creation, to part B, the fans, through production, he said.

The business is "not just musicians and producers," he said, describing the business as a conglomeration of "agents, management, people who put up posters ... and it spills into TV and movies."

It is a multifaceted business with job opportunities, but it requires a great deal of homework.

"You've got to have your reference books around to keep you out of the dark," he said. "There are ways of doing things and avenues that are traveled ... it's good to recognize that stuff, but there are also so many opportunities to create your own job."

For example, the B-52's and R.E.M. tried their own styles in Athens first.

"If enough people dig it and catch onto it, all of a sudden you're making your own rules," Bell said. "There will be people who come up with a check in one hand and a contract in the other, saying it's ironclad. You don't have to trust them or be bullied - it's your dream, and don't let someone else push you around."

But the success starts with hard work and self-promotion, even with the simple things - putting up posters, creating demo CDs and selling merchandise yourself.

"You shouldn't expect anything beyond what you're willing to put in yourself to make things happen," he said.

But working with others isn't out of the question. In fact, within the band, it should be necessary, Bell said, describing Widespread Panic as "100 percent collaborative."

"Inspiration will pop up in any shape or form," he said. "You'll go places you wouldn't normally go by yourself."

Technology is another aspect of the music business that Bell didn't anticipate.

"Using music for entertainment and inspiration hasn't changed. Everything else - computers, the Internet, even instruments - have," he said. "I'm personally in the middle of it, and I dig the chaos that's out there."

Bell encouraged the students to stick to their dreams but keep their egos in check, allowing space and respect for fellow bandmates.

He humbly dished advice to students and closed the event by singing a song with the same thought:

"My thoughts are not for sale," he sang.