Jonathan Susman is a familiar face to Chattanooga’s music scene. When he’s not being business professional in his role as the public spaces coordinator for the City of Chattanooga, he is playing drums for the Communicators or attending other music functions around town. Jonathan grew up in Chattanooga, where he got his start in his early 20’s playing drums for Milele Roots. He then played his way around Nashville for seven years, where he worked in several prestigious bars and cafes including the Bluebird Cafe and 3 Crow Bar, which he helped to open.
Since moving back to his hometown, Jonathan dove wholeheartedly back into the music scene. He has had a hand in multiple projects including Gig City Productions, Road to Nightfall, and SoundCorps, and he hopes to contribute to Chattanooga’s growth as a thriving music city.
What brought you back to Chattanooga?
Jonathan: I heard that Track 29 was going to open up and I knew the impact that was going to have on the local music scene. While I lived in Nashville, I maintained good relationships with people like Mike Dougher and Carla Pritchard. Nashville was on the brink of becoming what people call now the “New Nashville,” which wasn’t for me although I did love the city and what music options were out there. I wanted to actually help build the music scene in Chattanooga.
How did you contribute to the local music scene when you returned to Chattanooga?
Jonathan: When I moved back, I helped Carla (Pritchard) with River Rocks and the formation of Road to Nightfall. These projects made me realize that Chattanooga could benefit from having a company whose sole mission was to help the music industry grow. I went on a trip to Austin and Seattle with Adam Kinsey, Monica Kinsey, and Johnny Smith to figure out what a music resource center might look like. We visited several entities, including the Vera Project in Seattle, returned to Chattanooga and began talking to community leaders and philanthropists to get behind the project. That was what eventually became SoundCorps.
What do you do as the public spaces coordinator for the City of Chattanooga?
Whenever an event or gathering needs to use the public right–of–way, be it sidewalks or roads, it’s my job to give them permits to use that space. I would say that’s the basic role of my job, but I also work with city attorneys to offer beer permits for special events, I work with the parks people on many music events, promote public spaces for public use, and overall act as a kind of consultant, in a way, for people who want to do events. I’m still pretty involved with our local music scene, of course. I play drums for The Communicators.
Whose music inspires your playing? Live show?
Jonathan: When I first got started, I was highly inspired by reggae and African percussion. I get inspired by many different types of music, however. I saw Puscifer, Maynard James Kenan’s sidegig, in Nashville and they had the craziest stage set up I’d ever seen. It was set like a campsite where they brought in all of these background props, and then the audience realized that those props are actually the instruments. Anything with that kind of production value is great, like the Flaming Lips or local act Nick Lutsko. To get to that level of production is as inspiring as having a very simple stage set up but be incredibly talented as a musician.
What are some differences you’ve seen between the music scene in Nashville and Chattanooga?
Jonathan: There’s more hunger and drive in Chattanooga. From my experience working at the distinguished Bluebird Cafe, I can tell you that the biggest jerks were people who thought that they had made it big, even though they were not necessarily a significant music industry personality. I think that there’s more determination, drive, and focus on creativity here. I know that sounds crazy because of how large Nashville’s scene is, but this is a smaller market with limited venues and I think that’s made people step up and collaborate more, too.
How have you seen our scene change over the years?
Jonathan: I’ve seen it change immensely. I can remember when I was in Milele Roots and Hopsing Project; there was a core group of us who were in the bands that drew a crowd. You could count those bands on one hand because there weren’t many audience members here who were going out to shows. Now I think our audience pool has grown, our venues have grown, and the ability to share new music easily has helped with that. We used to rely on printing posters, making handbills to pass out, and flyering the whole town.
I don’t see that drive in making personal connections and passing out flyers as much anymore. While I do see social media doing good in making news more easily accessible to a wider audience, I also think that impersonal invitations through that get lost in the noise of everyday life. I do see a drive to share music though.
How do you hope to see Chattanooga’s music scene grow in the next five years?
Jonathan: I think we need to get out of the way of our music scene. I’ve heard several different organizations try to define what genre our music scene falls into, but it’s only really defined for the person they are trying to classify. I think we need to build a platform for our local talent to continue to grow, and that talent should go out and tour in different cities.
There should be more concerts here. I would like to see more people go to original band shows, rather than cover band shows. I feel like I can say that as a guy who plays in a cover band. There’s so much great original talent out there that I think cover bands tend to overshadow their success.
I want to see more participants and audience members at songwriter rounds, too. I want to see our music scene build and utilize more relationships with Nashville. I think giving locals the opportunity to hear from music professionals at TakeNote events is great, but what would it look like to bring a Nashville producer into a local studio to work with musicians here? It would be cool to do more gig swaps with bands in Nashville. I know a few who would be willing to exchange gig opportunities there in Nashville with the chance to play to new audiences here in Chattanooga.
I just hope our local artists are ready for the kind of growth that this music scene is ready to have in the upcoming years. We’re already taking steps to get there, but I want our musicians to focus on what’s important. If their music is good, people will come and buy their product because they like it. Selling your music is as easy as that.