Over winter break of last year, while the University of Michigan was quiet in an empty Ann Arbor, LSA senior Ben Schechter was sitting on a sofa 8,308 miles away, in Cape Town, South Africa, listening to bluesy rock duo Abbey Grange play a set. Schechter was at The Waiting Room, a bar/balcony combination, which is the place to see live music in Cape Town. Situated on the building’s second level with a metal railing over which patrons can look at the street, the 60-ish-person-capacity venue recalls Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
“I was the one of the only people there who were unrelated to the band. Just a random guy sitting on a couch, but I enjoyed every minute of it,” Schechter, a former photographer for The Michigan Daily, said. “I’m really looking forward to their future.”
He said that about every band during our conversation, but rather than coming off as rehearsed or customary, his words dripped with genuine excitement every time. Schechter, graduating from the University in December with a degree in General Studies as well as a certificate in Entrepreneurship, is the founder and sole employee of What The Sound, a music website dedicated to exposing up-and-coming artists to new listeners.
“I’m curious when I listen to bands what their story is, why they make music and whatnot,” he said. “I was on the East Coast visiting my sister, and I thought why not reach out to some bands.” Following that initiative, What The Sound built a catalogue with upwards of 30 artist interviews over the course of the fall 2015 semester.
Interviewing Abbey Grange in Cape Town is far from What The Sound’s only international venture. The website’s homepage boasts a black-and-white world map with smatterings of yellow geotags congregated in South Africa, Australia, Western Europe and across the United States, signifying the locations of artists.
“One of the big things when I’m listening to these bands is that I want to see them live, but then, ‘Oh, they’re from New Zealand or from Russia.’ I think it’s really cool to lay out that information so when people go to What The Sound, they can think, ‘Oh, I wonder who he interviewed in L.A.?’ … press on L.A. pin, learn that way,” Schechter said.
An admitted lover of geography, Schechter hopes the visual guide to What The Sound’s interview archive encourages a boundaryless music scene:
“Depending on where people are from it can change assumptions about the area. If you didn’t think hip hop could exist in the middle of Australia, press on Canberra and check out these two female hip-hop artists, Coda Conduct. It’s a neat way of exploring new music, geographically and seeing it rather than pressing a drop-down menu.”
Prior to What The Sound, Schechter was an intern at the Blind Pig after a semester of follow-ups with the Pig’s talent buyer, Jason Berry.
They still talk often, Schechter said, and two years after finishing his time at the Pig, Schechter finds himself working with Berry again, this time on “What The Sound Presents,” a series of showcases featuring local talent. The majority of the shows have happened at the Pig, save for singular shows in New York, Chicago and Hamtramck. What The Sound presented its first showcase in February and expanded to four showcases this semester, with the possibility of additional shows in November and January.
“In February I was like, OK, I know all of these musicians,” Schechter said. “Maybe not personally, but I listen to them and know their music. So, I figured I might as well reach out on a local level and put on shows.”
The criteria for landing a spot on a What The Sound lineup is simple: 1. Schechter’s got to dig your sound and 2. You’ve got to have the potential to grow.
Last Friday, What The Sound presented a showcase of five hip-hop acts — four from Ann Arbor and one from Detroit, headlined by the rapper Munch. The first two acts of the night, Dude Madison and Broccoli, are both students at the University. The former earned his spot on the bill through hard work and being assertive and, of course, Schechter digs his sound. The latter, a buddy of Schechter’s, goes by many aliases and wore all black while serving up a cool Travis Scott cover. The third act, Awkward Theory from Detroit, played Ann Arbor for the first time.
The fourth act on the bill consisted of Ann Arbor rapper Isaac Castor and local band Arch Hotel. Friday’s showcase, Castor’s first with a live band, wasn’t the 21-year-old’s first set at the Pig.
“I’m trying to take my standard live rap set and do something different with it and make it creative and fun for the audience,” Castor said in a phone interview. “I think it went really well in that regard. Everybody brought out a lot of friends. I had a lot of fun. I definitely prefer to play with a live band. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to performing without one again, so hopefully we can keep this ensemble going.”
After developing a taste for 2Pac, Jay Z and OutKast as a child of the ’90s, Castor began writing music in Naperville, Illinois at the age of nine. He released his first mixtape six years ago and plans to release a new EP before the end of the year. In April he opened for rising rapper Lil Dicky (who played Hill Auditorium with Vic Mensa the same month).
But the highlight since dropping that debut mixtape in high school? A feature in XXL, one of hip hop’s most prominent magazines.
“That was a goal I’ve had for a long time that felt really good to accomplish,” he said.
Schechter discovered Castor’s music while SoundCloud surfing, and then the XXL write-up, which led to him eventually offering Castor the fourth slot in Friday’s show.
“(Ben) asked me a long time ago if I would perform at (Munch’s) headlining show and, Munch is the homie, so I was obviously down for that,” Castor said. “(What The Sound) definitely wanted us to do our part for promotion, but that’s cool because I would rather perform with people I know in the crowd, familiar faces who know my lyrics. That’s encouraging. What The Sound took good care of us, so shoutout to Ben for that.”
Castor met Munch (real name Maher Hachem) last year during Ann Arbor’s annual summer concert series, Sonic Lunch. As Castor played with a band for the first time, Friday was also a first for Munch — his first headlining show. A senior at the University, Munch grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, but his vibe is decidedly West Coast, a quality which carried into his 2015 album, Beaches.
“A lot of inspiration for Beaches came from that weather, the energy, that laidback vibe,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week. “I really wanted to carry that over and add deeper meaning to my project — I didn’t want just a bunch of songs. I wanted a story: highs, lows, chill, upbeat songs.”
Friday’s showcase wasn’t Hachem and Schechter’s first time collaborating in the production of a live show; while Schechter interned at the Pig, he helped Munch gain exposure by getting him to open for Futuristic this past April.
“(Prior to last Friday’s show), Munch was really persistent about doing a big thing at a local venue, so I gave him the opportunity, and he did a great job,” Schechter said. “It was like a family reunion for Munch. He brought out his whole family, kind of seemed like a wedding at one point. I loved his energy; it was a good vibe.”
Munch’s tenacity toward exposure is also present in his artistry. In developing his upcoming eight-track album, expected out before the year’s end, Munch approached the project from a place of honesty, looking for his true self to come through in the music. In terms of Friday’s show, the “family reunion” vibe Schechter touched on was a direct result of Munch’s efforts to push the boundaries of his own marketing, seeing how many people he could get out to the show.
“(The turnout) was more than I was expecting,” Hachem said. “I didn’t go in with any crazy expectations. It was really amazing to have people who honestly support you. No one had to do that.”
“No one” encompasses not just fans who came out to the showcase to see local hip hop, but also Schechter. The admiration Schechter exudes toward the artists and bands he is passionate about is reciprocated by gratitude; both Castor and Munch had nothing but praise when it came to Schechter’s involvement in the showcase.
“He’s the biggest homie Ann Arbor has to offer,” Munch said. “The guy is creating amazing opportunities for local artists, committing his time and efforts to give them a chance to shine in the community. He’s so professional and appreciates the artists. And that’s the best part of working with What The Sound: he shows respect to everyone.”
On What The Sound’s promotional breadth, Castor praised the emphasis on a University-centric show: “They really came after the college crowd better than a typical hip-hop promoter would for an Ann Arbor show. Including University students on the bill such as Munch, Broccoli and Dude Madison so they can invite their friends and going after that college base is a smart move.”
Schechter has ambitions to push What The Sound beyond the city of Ann Arbor. After graduating in December, he hopes to find a job that allows him to continue What The Sound on the side. Interviewing more artists (when he has the time to transcribe) and continuing to promote shows locally while also looking to expand to other markets are key pillars of Schechter’s vision. Specifically, What The Sound is in the process of setting up a second Chicago showcase as well as one in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University.
The showcases go through a plethora of iterations before Schechter lands on the final version of a lineup. Two months before a show, he locks in the date with the venue and about half a month later, promotion begins. Moving beyond posters on campus, What The Sound’s third showcase of the semester will have a Snapchat geofilter Friday night.
“I feel like I learned a lot while interning for the Pig: which shows do well, which don’t and how to build a good lineup,” he said. “The last four years of learning about the music scene in Ann Arbor, the past artists who have played here and the artists currently becoming musicians here have taught how to formulate a good bill.”
As he did last Friday, before Munch performed, Schechter will walk onto the Blind Pig stage tomorrow night to introduce another What The Sound headliner. This week, that’s The Stellars, a two-person indie-rock band which will also consist of eight live band members for the showcase.
“I really enjoy saying this was my idea from the start; these are the bands I chose, and next thing you know there are 250 people at the show,” Schechter said. “Knowing that I’m the one who organized, promoted and advertised the show, it’s really rewarding to see the show happening, really great music being played and people really into it. A lot of people know that I do this, and they say it’s really cool, and I’m so appreciative of that, but to actually see the night go well and know that I put it together is really rewarding.”