Crabs in a barrel.
That’s how Nicole Churchill, one of the three founding members of Assemble Sound, describes Detroit’s music industry.
“When you think about crabs in a literal barrel, when one or two start to crawl to the top, the other crabs try to pinch at them and pull at their legs and drag them back down,” Churchill said. “It’s a metaphor for what support has commonly been like in the industry. Detroit’s the birthplace of a ton of different music genres, but a lot of people don’t realize that the talent never went anywhere. The industry might have left, but the talent is still here. It’s just so compartmentalized and fragmented that it’s really hard to connect the dots.”
Assemble Sound, Churchill explained, exists to put those pieces back together. Founded in 2012, Assemble Sound is a self-proclaimed “artist development hub” managed out of an old church in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Over the past five years, the company has grown to offer music synchronization and licensing services, artist management and artist residency in the church’s newly-built studios.
All opportunities aside, Churchill and her two co-founders, Garret Koehler and Seth Anderson, felt there was more they could be doing to connect the dots and build a stronger, more accessible music community.
“When you walk into the church, you notice all of the original pews are still in the building and there’s a little stage where the pastor used to preach on,” Churchill said. “We weren’t really doing anything in that sanctuary because all of the pews were there. So we were brainstorming last year, wondering how we could create more of community center vibe in this space. That’s when we got the idea to try educational panels.”
Today, those panels have evolved into Assemble U, a monthly educational experience by and for the Michigan music scene. From May through November, musicians, studio owners, publishers, artist managers and music enthusiasts alike file into the old church pews to participate in a panel of industry professionals that is part moderated, part freeform discussion. Covering timely topics ranging from branding, independent production and streaming services, the Assemble staff draws upon their past job experience in major music markets to bring in expert panelists from across the nation.
A Community’s Perspective
Nicholas Marco DiStefano is a guitarist in the Metro Detroit-based alt-pop band “If Walls Could Talk.” He first learned about Assemble U when his fellow Michigan musicians’ RSVPs to the online event pages began appearing in his Facebook news feed. He decided to follow suit and give Assemble U a shot, and since then, he’s tried to make it out to every discussion he can.
“The advice I learn from Assemble U is applied to every show I book, and it’s helped me grow a relationship with promoters that is absolutely invaluable,” DiStefano said. “It’s a chance for established gatekeepers in the industry to unwind and speak true about the industry that they are in, which offers unique insight for musicians like myself trying to break in.”
Evidently, DiStefano isn’t the only music-minded Michigander who feels this way. In just the past year, Assemble U events have grown from drawing roughly sixty people to packing the church’s sanctuary, leaving many attendees standing between pew aisles for entry. Additionally, local beverage sponsors have stepped into the mix, offering free alcoholic beverages to community members of age.
Yet even as Assemble U’s popularity grows, Churchill insists the events are as much of a learning experience for herself and her coworkers as the people who walk through their doors.
“We’re just using our relationships to get the right people in the door, but we’re learning just as much,” Churchill said. “It’s about bridging the gap between the things we have access to and the information we’re seeking out. People in major music markets like New York and Los Angeles have such access to opportunities and experience in an organic way, but in smaller markets like Detroit, those opportunities don’t really exist. So, if the opportunities are so few and far between, we might as well all learn together as a community!”
A Researcher’s Perspective
Professor Estrella Torrez of Michigan State University’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities specializes in community learning and teaching. She says community-based concepts like Assemble U’s can break down barriers commonly put in place by traditional academic settings.
“Community learning is acknowledging different bases of knowledge and understanding that knowledge production is not necessarily confined to a classroom space of the academy,” Torrez said. “It’s based in the community, so it can help the people who thrive in that space navigate and shape their interactions.”
To further bolster that sense of community learning, the Assemble staff insists on keeping their events free of charge, which Torrez said can have major benefits.
“When things are offered at no cost, you’re taking finances, which can sometimes be a very large barrier, and removing it from the equation,” Torrez said. “It shows the general interest and sincerity of having community members across class lines, and is recognized and central to creating an open space.”
That concept of an open space, Churchill explained, is what drives her and her coworkers to keep growing and refining the Assemble U experience.
“I think a huge part of our ethos is to change that ‘crab in a barrel’ mentality and bring people together,” Churchill said. “Knowledge is power, and if all different walks of life can connect in an educational setting because they all equally have something to gain from being there, then that’s a step in the right direction.”
Assemble U events will resume in spring 2018. For more information on Assemble Sound and Assemble U, visit www.assemblesound.com.