Pearl-Cohn is Nashville's School of Rock
At one Nashville magnet school, a groundbreaking student-run music label is taking notes from industry veterans.
Written By: Jennifer Justus
Photographers: Shannon Fontaine
Just before lunch at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School, while a group of students are jamming in a classroom to Sly and the Family Stone on guitars, drums, and keyboards, producer Cedric Caldwell is honking an off-key version of “Silent Night” on a saxophone across the hall. A few students groan in protest.
But Caldwell, the former music director for BeBe and CeCe Winans and producer of a track on Whitney Houston’s Grammy-winning The Bodyguard soundtrack, is honking to make a point about pitch. Soon, he’s encouraging the group to swivel their special desks on wheels into the “feedback circle” to vote on a classmate’s draft of a logo and critiquing another student’s performance of a particular song.
Yes, this is a high-school classroom, but it’s also Relentless Entertainment Group, the nation’s first student-run label with distribution in conjunction with a major label. Warner Music Nashville announced earlier this year it will provide digital distribution of the Pearl-Cohn students’ music at no cost, and now Relentless Entertainment—also supported by the local Music Makes Us initiative—is hitting its stride.
Learning less by “chalk and talk” and more from real-world experiences, the students practice outside partnerships through summer internships at Warner Music and also learn to work together amongst themselves. Working as a label, the 89 students involved in the project experience all aspects of the music business—not just the glamorous performing parts—as they produce a Christmas album to be completed by the end of the year. All decisions are made based on a Motown concept that everyone in the group has equal say.
They’ve studied and selected songs and held auditions—no fewer than three young women wanted to perform “Santa Baby” on the album. Students in a media publishing class researched music licensing rights, while audio production students have been testing arrangements that suit each singer in tempo and style (for example, the “Santa Baby” front-runner draws a bit from Eartha Kitt with a smidgen of Madonna’s version). The house band jamming across the hall will soon begin rehearsing the pieces, and then they’ll step into the school’s new state-of-the-art recording studio. That’s where Caldwell is sitting after his morning of saxophone honking.
“They’re dying to get in here,” Caldwell says from behind the mixing board.
And for good reason: This is no kiddie version of a studio. Downstairs from the label’s offices, inside an audio production space, students work on computers with keyboards and headphones tethered to them. The best in the business volunteered to build the studio, and Caldwell estimates that the equipment alone could have cost about $1.5 million. Acoustic engineer Steven Durr laid out the room, while the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy in Nashville physically built it by standing on ladders and drilling holes in the walls.
Susan Stewart, the recording academy’s south regional director, says they aim to establish a sense of community with all musicians in the city. “This gives us a way to really make a difference in the lives of young people,” she adds. And what better way to do that than with top-notch entertainment professionals leading the classrooms?
“It’s our natural resource,” Lorber says. “Every town has its local asset.”
Caldwell, for example, worked in music education for eight years, moonlighting as an RCA-signed jazz musician in a duo with his brother Victor called Caldwell Plus. But when the opportunity arose to work as musical director for The Winans in the early 1990s, he left education to tour the world for six years. The job landed him in rooms with legends like Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston. He then built a studio of his own, where he still works. Two years ago, the principal at Pearl-Cohn asked Caldwell and his brother for help. Now they’re at school every day.
“I feel like I’m not even working,” he says. “To see these kids light up, it lights me up.”
Caldwell wants the students to see and feel the business from the inside out. When they watch Beyoncé on stage at the Super Bowl, he explains, it just looks like millions of dollars. But Caldwell has them study Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule in Outliers, which posits that it takes that much time to become an expert like the Beatles or Mozart. “That’s the work ethic I’m trying to instill in them,” he says.
Vincent Pitts, the 16-year-old head of Relentless Entertainment Group, folds his hands calmly on the conference-room table. He wears a purple polo buttoned to the top and black-rimmed glasses, an earring glinting from one ear.
“I noticed she had a very unique voice,” he says of classmate Jamaika Humphrey, who has been chosen to sing “Santa Baby” on the Christmas album. “I like working with an artist and listening to them sing and developing [them]. That’s really my favorite part of the record label.”
Pitts wasn’t always all about brand management. He had planned to study broadcasting at Pearl-Cohn, but an internship at Warner Music “completely changed everything,” he says. “I want to set an example for the other kids. Since we’re in an urban area, a lot of kids feel like all you need to do is graduate. I want to make a mark.
“My momma always told me, in life it’s better to give than to receive,” he continues. “Music is a very good way to do that, because I’m giving my all as far as helping produce these songs and helping make a career for those who want to become a singer or an audio engineer or want to make videos and publish."
As head of Relentless Entertainment, Pitts could someday be at the level of his Warner Music Nashville counterpart, president and CEO John Esposito, who joined Mayor Karl Dean’s Music City Music Council about four years ago.
“I was thrilled to be asked, because I’m a product of the public school system and music education,” Esposito says.
And it was during one of those council sessions that he volunteered to give Pearl-Cohn students distribution through Warner Music. “I’ve quite often made the comment that music education saved my life. It’s a little dramatic to say it, but I was a skinny little kid, an outcast in my school, and somehow gravitated to learning to play an instrument. It made me have a level of acceptance that was wonderful,” Esposito says. “What I didn’t think about then is it also is amazing for teaching you math skills and disciplinary skills. I think I’m more qualified to run a business from having to sit through all those hours of rehearsal to get myself in shape to get on the stage.”
Having a major label on board brings credibility and distribution that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible for Pearl-Cohn. “That’s way beyond anything we can do,“ Caldwell says. “We just kind of mirror what they do and stay in contact throughout the year. If we can find someone, we can sign them to the label, and then Warner can pick them up and put them on the big stage. Our job is to develop talent.”
So far, Caldwell is impressed. “I’ve never seen [this] talent and bravery—they’re not afraid to make a mistake. Even when they know someone else is better, they step out of the way and honor their gift.”
Once the Relentless Entertainment Christmas album is finished, the personal care/cosmetology students will style the artists for videos to be shot by the broadcast students. As the holiday season rapidly approaches, Caldwell acknowledges that there is at least one thing he can’t help the students with: firm deadlines.
“I can’t change Christmas,” he says.