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Harvard kids have sex. Sometimes they do drugs. But it’s not often that they rock ‘n’ roll. Last Wednesday at Harvard Rocks NYC, five bands featuring Harvard alumni took to the stage in the first off-campus music festival to bring Crimson rockers together. Ashley V. Furst ’03, the lead singer of the Ashley 1st Band and creator of the event, set out to create exposure for the artists while proving that Harvard is, in fact, a rich source of rock musicians. Having been recently turned away from other music festivals, Furst hoped not only to provide a venue where Harvard musicians could be seen but also to disprove the assumption that Harvard students can’t be rock stars.
“People expect us to calculate the rate at which a rock rolls—not give them straight-up rock ‘n’ roll,” Furst says.
The path from Harvard student to rock musician is not obvious. As Socrates R. Cruz ’06 of the band Moniker said, “It’s not like there is a music business concentration.” Indeed, many of the musicians have struggled to break into a world where a Harvard diploma is more of a curiosity than anything else. Harvard Rocks NYC offered these aspiring artists, who have mostly found themselves making it alone in the New York music scene, a chance to find support in each other’s experiences, network, and show the audience that Harvard truly rocks.
CREATING THE FIRST CRIMSON ROCK EVENT
Harvard Rocks NYC was produced in collaboration with Harvardwood, a non-profit organization for Harvard students, alumni, and staff interested in the arts, media, and entertainment. The festival was born during a panel on music and the economy held by the New York branch of Harvardwood last spring. Jared L. Hoffman ’84, president and CEO of Knitting Factory Entertainment, parent company of the legendary New York club of the same name was among the participants.Furst—who was one of the panelists—saw an opportunity to use Harvard’s biggest resource—its people—to help promote and showcase unsigned bands like her own. Harvardwood, looking to expand its reach beyond Hollywood and film, was only too willing to help.
For the next six months, Furst worked tirelessly to pull the music festival together. Looking specifically to create an event that would attract a wide range of young alums not necessarily involved in the music scene, it was important that Furst pick the right venue. Tenjune, a pricey nightspot in the meatpacking district, was just the kind of club she was looking for. Known not as a venue for live shows but as the place where Kanye West and Britney Spears had their birthdays, Tenjune attracted the kind of audience that would come first for the atmosphere and then for the music.
“Before, we’d bring people to the music—a place known for the music,” Furst says. This time however, the goal was to “bring the music to the people.”
First up were two singer-songwriter acts—the poppy band of Alison R. Wood ’01, and Jeremy J. Parise ’96—who played to an audience clustered in pairs on the requisite low leather couches. At this point, the oval-shaped room, covered with overlapping wooden panels, felt like the belly of a very fashionable beast. But as louder acts followed—with the youthful Moniker rocking out on their four guitars and asking the crowd to get up—Tenjune started to feel like a real rock venue. The seasoned band The States, fronted by guitarist-songwriter Christopher W. Snyder ’04 and the Ashley 1st Band headlined the night with good, clean rock.
Though much emphasis was placed on the event’s packaging, in the end, it was all about the music. Frustrated by the seemingly random choice of acts at many of the venues she had played, Furst tried to build a cohesive lineup of artists who had seen some sort of success. “Each band was handpicked to represent the next generation of hits of rock and roll,” she says.
FROM HARVARD TO RAMEN
New York is famous for its struggling musicians, and those with Harvard diplomas are no exception. For Snyder, this meant the need to “subsist on pb&j for months at a time.”
Life as a starving artist came as a shock to many of the musicians after the support they claimed to have received as undergraduates—from a new recording studio at Hilles to performance venues where some of the bands first got their start. Snyder created The States in the basement of Leverett F Tower his junior year. Cruz founded the band Major Major during his time at Harvard and was also the head of Mariachi Veritas.
Even if they didn’t start a rock band at Harvard, most who played at Harvard Rocks NYC took advantage of Harvard’s music scene. Wood dabbled in musical theater and was a member of the a cappella group The Callbacks. Snyder, originally a violinist, played in two orchestras and a string quartet while at Harvard.
Furst’s path was more unusual. Instead of pursuing music, she instead concentrated on track and field and eventually became co-captain. A sociology concentrator, Furst always intended to go to graduate school but realized by the end of college that her heart wasn’t in it. She decided to move to Manhattan and there discovered that music was her calling. “I never heard music in my head and then I moved to New York City and started hearing it one day,” Furst says.
Even for those who had focused on music during college, most had other plans. Cruz had a job lined up in Latin America after college and always thought he would do something with Latin American politics. Instead, he showed up in New York with his guitar and little else planned.
Though Harvard’s resources could let them make music, there was no guidance in how to turn it into a career. “Were there a lot of resources on how to do it? No,” Snyder says. “There wasn’t a career fair you could go to.” In New York, their Harvard degrees proved unhelpful and, in some cases, left them with a lot of catching up to do.
In The Ashley 1st Band, Furst is the only one without a degree—a music degree that is. Receiving none of the formal training of her band mates, she relies on them to translate the songs that are in her head. “In the practice room, the Harvard diploma doesn’t tell me what key it’s in,” the singer says.
A lack of professional training was just one of the challenges that the hopeful musicians faced trying to launch their music careers. “We moved to New York and got a few day jobs and thought that a few shows was all it would take,” Snyder says. Trying to make it in the music industry was much harder than these artists expected. “I was definitely not prepared coming out of Harvard for a career in music, but that was part of the thrill,” Cruz says.
Nevertheless, each band has found a measure of success in the rock world; they’ve gone on tours, recorded albums, and all have plans to continue. “Momentum is building. We’re not signed but we have all the credentials,” Furst says.
The musicians know that the music business is difficult, but they are all sticking to it. “I’m glad to be taking an out of left field approach to my life after Harvard,” Snyder says.
And for now, even if they are unsigned, they are happy to be simply making music. “I have no aspirations to be the next Britney Spears,” Wood says. “My favorite thing is when someone hears my song and says that they like it.”
A ROCK ‘N’ ROLL COMMUNITY
Many expressed the wish that the rock ‘n’ roll not stop with Harvard Rocks NYC. While the event was aimed squarely at alumni, organizers do hope to bridge the gap between undergraduates and recent grads jumping into a career in the arts. After being involved in the festival, Snyder talked to Porter about creating a Harvardwood event whereby musicians could give crucial advice to students pursuing musical careers, an idea Cruz seconded.
“As an artist and someone who was at Harvard at a time when the OCS wasn’t sure how to advise us, I love the fact that Harvardwood exists now,” Wood says. “There is a support structure for those who want to go into arts related careers.”
After graduating without intensive musical training, the connections Harvard invariably provides may be all aspiring musicians have, especially in an industry where success is heavily dependent on word of mouth.
“We’re really excited about networking with some of the people,” Cruz says. “I’ve been a huge fan of The States since I was an undergrad and saw them perform. They were kind of like a big influence on me, and I’m excited to see that they’re still going—doing a lot of festival circuits right now. I’m excited to swap ideas, see what other bands are doing.”
For The States, it was the prospect of new fans. “It’s the same thing we try to get out of every show. Play for new people, make new fans,” says Cruz, who got the chance to perform in front of a crowd of 200. “I’m hoping that Harvardwood and the band can put our heads together and see if there are any events we can put together.”
Although the five bands had made it on their own thus far, the chance to share war stories with each other and use their alma mater to gain increased visibility was one they greatly appreciated. It was no career fair or magic job offer, but it was a sign that Harvard really did believe that they rocked.
“We’re at a point right now where a few factors have come together that make it possible, if we do everything right, to create a really vibrant arts community in New York,” Porter says. “And this would pay off for everybody in the arts at Harvard.”
—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at email@example.com.
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