Conversation with a Creative
Assistant Professor Adam Caress joined the Recording Industry department in August and brings more than 25 years of experience in the music industry to the classroom. He has been a successful recording artist and songwriter, talent buyer, venue operator, author and professor. He is the author of the book The Day Alternative Music Died: Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, Alt, Majors, Indies, and the Struggle between Art and Money for the Soul of Rock Music” and former editor of the online music and culture magazine Mule Variations.
Adam, who grew up outside of Chicago and Los Angeles, earned his bachelor’s degree from Gordon College in Massachusetts and M.B.A. from North Carolina’s Montreat College, where he also served as an adjunct professor and director of communications. He also taught at the University of New Haven, serving as director of the Nashville Study Away Program and coordinator of Music Industry internships, for three years before joining MTSU.
He spoke to Beverly Keel about being a working musician, being influenced by Bob Dylan and his love of This Is Spinal Tap.
What sparked your interest in music? When did you start playing?
I am thankful to have grown up in a musical family. Both of my parents were musicians, and some of my earliest memories are of their band practices in our basement. So music was in the air I breathed growing up. I learned chords on the guitar so early that I don’t remember learning them. In that kind of environment, I guess it’s not surprising that my three siblings and I all became musicians.
Tell me about being a songwriter and member of The Troubadours.
Even though I learned to play guitar at a young age, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began performing in public. When I arrived at college in Boston in 1993, it seemed like everyone was forming bands. The alternative scene that was going mainstream at the time was really inspirational, and there was a large community of musicians who swapped in and out of each other’s bands and played on bills together. After playing in a couple short-lived bands, I decided to form my own band that I would write for and front. I recruited some of my favorite musicians on campus and what emerged from that was The Troubadours. We had some success on a regional level, building a pretty big following in the Boston area. And we got to play hundreds of shows and make a number of indie records. We eventually signed an artist development deal that brought us to Nashville for a while. But we were never able to land a big record deal or make it to that next level of self-sustaining success, and we disbanded in 2005. Looking back, my favorite recordings the band made are the live recordings. After playing together for so long, the band was a really tight, exciting live act by the end.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I inherited a number of musical influences from my parents—great artists like Dire Straits and Jackson Browne and Van Morrison who I still enjoy to this day. But my musical sensibility was really formed by the alternative music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. My family moved to Los Angeles in 1988 when I was 13, and that’s when I discovered legendary alternative radio station KROQ. That’s where I heard The Cure, The Pixies, U2, R.E.M., The Sugarcubes, Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil, Sinead O’Connor, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, Morrissey, Concrete Blonde, The Catherine Wheel, The The, Michael Penn, Social Distortion, and on and on. And KROQ also put on a lot of all-ages concerts where you could see these acts live: the annual Almost Acoustic Christmas Concert, the annual Weenie Roast. That music and those kinds of concerts were really formational for me during my high school years, when my own music taste evolved, independent of what I had inherited from my parents. When I began writing my own music, I was very influenced by my re-discovery of Bob Dylan. I had heard Dylan when I was a kid, and I hadn’t been a huge fan. It wasn’t until I was in college that his music really hit me. There was a certain way his lyrics rang true to my personal experiences, and it opened up a whole new door for how I thought about music and what it meant to me. And that translated to my writing. I wanted to be a part of that tradition, where the music could speak to people’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. I don’t think anything I’ve written sounds much like Dylan—I mean, who can write like Dylan?—but his whole approach to music and the creative freedom he embodied inspired me deeply.
When and why did you decide to begin working on the business side of the industry? What are some of the jobs you held in Boston and Asheville?
When The Troubadours ended, I didn’t really know what was next. I was 30, and a lot of my friends had already built careers, and here I was starting over again. Initially, I envisioned taking the lessons I had learned playing live music for so many years and helping aspiring artists book shows and build tours. So I recruited a group of like-minded friends to work on building a company that would do that. We started promoting shows in the Boston area, but we couldn’t get the funding to go national and fulfill the vision that I had originally had. And then one of the Boston-area venues where we had promoted some shows asked me to come onboard and be their in-house promoter. And that seemed like an exciting opportunity. The venue had formerly been the original House of Blues, but it had been gutted and turned into a restaurant. And a new ownership group wanted me to come in and make it a venue again and manage all the music aspects of it—booking the artists, overseeing live sound, and marketing the shows. We called the venue The Loft, and it had a good run for nearly a decade before it was bought by Harvard University. During that time, I also helped the same ownership group manage a venue on Cape Cod called The Living Room. That one was less successful, but it was still a good learning experience. Between the two, I booked and promoted over 1000 shows, and I ran sound for a lot of them as well. I particularly enjoyed discovering new artists and giving them a stage and helping to promote them. It was both fun and gratifying to see those kinds of concerts be successful. During that time in Boston, I had met my wife and gotten married, and we had visited Asheville, North Carolina. together and both loved it, so we made the move down there in 2011 and I became the in-house promoter for a downtown Asheville venue call The Emerald Lounge. That venue had been struggling, and I was brought in to help turn it around. We made a lot of progress during my time there, but eventually it was sold to really dysfunctional owners who ran it into the ground. That was really sad to see.
When you shifted from being a musician to a music business person, what were the biggest eye-opening moments?
I don’t know that I saw so clear a line between musician and music business person, at least as I conceived them. I mean, every musician is, in some sense, a music business person. And when I was promoting shows, I was still providing music to an audience; it just wasn’t my music anymore. But after being on the artist side for so long, it was eye-opening to see things from the venue’s perspective. The margins for smaller, independent venues are razor-thin. It’s a really hard business to succeed in. But those kinds of venues are essential to independent artists and local music scenes, and I found it to be a rewarding environment to work in.
When and why did you decide to begin teaching full time?
During the time I was managing music venues, I had gotten married and begun to have kids (we now have four kids between the ages of six and 12). Being out at the venue until all hours of the night was less compatible with raising a family. Also, the venue I was managing in Asheville had been bought by completely incompetent owners and looked destined to go under. Meanwhile, I had a friend who worked at a nearby college that had a Music Business program, and through that connection, I did some guest lectures there. A job opened up in their communications office, and I began doing communications work for them while also adjunct teaching in the Music Business program in 2014-2015. The head of the Music Business program became a mentor to me and really encouraged me to pursue full-time teaching, and so I went back to school and got my MBA with that in mind. Once I finished my MBA, I accepted a full-time teaching position in the Music Industry program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, which is where I was from 2019-2022. I just accepted a teaching position here at MTSU this past year. The Recording Industry program here is very impressive and well-respected, and it’s bigger and more established that my previous program. And I’m really excited for my future here. I’ve enjoyed everything about teaching. I enjoy the scholarship—the research and learning associated with building and teaching the courses themselves. I also enjoy being able to pass along to the students the knowledge I’ve gained from many years of professional experience. This is such a pivotal time in the students’ lives, and I feel honored to be able to have a positive impact as they are setting the course for their future careers. I also learn a lot from the students; their perspectives always help me see the material I’m teaching in a new and different light.
Tell me about your book The Day Alternative Music Died? How long did that take to research and why? What did you learn from that experience?
While I was in Boston, I had gotten together with some music friends and started an online music and culture magazine called Mule Variations, where I published nearly 100 articles, reviews, and interviews—and edited countless more. One of the articles I wrote there was called “The Day Alternative Music Died.” It addressed the way that the whole alternative music scene of the 1980s and 90s had been misunderstood and misremembered, in particular how Kurt Cobain’s death and the ensuing mythology that grew up around the band Nirvana warped the cultural perception of everything that had come before. I was eventually signed by a literary agency to expand that article into a book-length project, and I spent about four years researching and writing the initial draft of the book, then another year or so refining and editing, and it was eventually published in 2015. I learned a ton researching and writing the book, and the scope of what I had initially envisioned the book to be was expanded pretty radically during that process. As I did more research, it became clear that, in order to tell the story of alternative music the way I wanted to, there was a lot of background that needed to be added, going all the way back to the 1960s. And there were repercussions of the alternative music story that stretched all the way to the present day. In the end, the book became a history of the tensions between artistic and commercial aspirations in rock music, with the rise and fall of alternative music serving as a central example of those tensions. Looking back, there are a number of small things that I would change, but the central thesis of the book still holds true and is as relevant today as ever.
Tell us about some of the courses you teach, including Live Concert Planning and the History of the Recording Industry.
The Live Concert Planning class is one that I’ve taught for many years, at both of my previous institutions, before bringing it to MTSU. It’s a hands-on, experiential learning course where the students act as a concert promoter, planning and executing their own professional live concert event, including booking artists, branding and marketing, ticketing, sound and lighting, and more. It’s a great way for students to learn the nuts and bolts of concert planning. The History of the Recording Industry course is another one of my favorites. I really enjoy helping students piece together the essential artists and genres that make up popular music history, from jazz and swing all the way through country and rock and hip hop to the present day. I get to introduce them to all kinds of amazing artists and expand their musical knowledge while also diving into the industry trends, cultural movements, and technological advances that are inescapably intertwined with the music.
Are there other courses you would like to develop?
I was just talking about this with MTSU Professors John Merchant and Amy Macy the other day. I would love to develop a course on Bob Dylan. He’s been so central and pivotal to American popular music. In discussing his early career, we could explore the nature of protest music and the relationship between popular music and social movements. In the mid-1960s, Dylan expanded beyond the confines of folk music into rock and popular music, and his influence there expanded the scope of what a popular song could be and how it was perceived in the wider culture, helping to erase the centuries-old high art/low art divide. And the rest of his career has been fascinating, as well, through all kinds of metamorphoses—balladeer, gospel singer, Grammy winner, Nobel Prize laureate. And he remains an industry leader to this day; the 2020 sale of his publishing catalog sparked an industry-wide trend. He’s quite possibly the single most important artist in American popular music history, and I’d love to teach a course that explored his remarkable career and influence.
What are your favorite shows, movies, documentaries now?
Over the years, I’ve been able to amass a pretty large collection of music films and documentaries, many of which I use in my classes: from D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back to Questlove’s Summer of Soul. My favorites range from This Is Spinal Tap, which I still find prescient and hilarious, to Martin Scorsese’s amazing music films like The Last Waltz and No Direction Home. Among more recent music films, I thought Summer of Soul was both fun to watch and an important achievement for popular music history. As for my own pure enjoyment, I really loved the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. My wife and I brought our kids to see that at an independent theater in Asheville. It felt like an important and magical cultural moment to share with them in that way.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
Mainly, I spend a lot of time with my wife and four kids. We love adventures and music and traveling and games of all kinds.