Music is part of life in our city. We celebrate it, we consume it and we make it, a lucky few even able to make a good living in the music industry. The rest of us, however, commit to music as a life-long side project, chasing our rock n roll fantasy after the workday and on weekends, like pick-up basketball with friends.
Jed McQuown, owner and president of Memphis design and communications firm Communication Associates, is one such Memphis music-maker.
A singer and a guitar player, his band Nine Daze Wonder was a key part of the city’s hard rock and metal scene in the early 1990s, cranking out heavy tunes to rabid audiences at local venues like Rascals and the Stage Stop, and hitting the road for regional tours that took them into Arkansas, Mississippi and western Tennessee.
The band built momentum and the table seemed set for the Big Break. As their popularity spiked, Ardent Recording Studios invited them in to cut a high quality demo that could be shopped to labels.
“We cut the demo the same week ZZ Top was recording,” says McQuown. “They were one of my favorite bands as a kid and we hung out for a week.”
But ultimately, the cruel truth of the music industry won out over the band’s ambition and talent; there simply isn’t enough money or fame for every good act to make it.
“Our band was great but it just didn’t happen, for all kinds of reasons,” says McQuown. “We lived like rock stars for a little while and I don’t regret anything. But I’ll always be saddened that it didn’t happen.”
But, endings become beginnings. “From ending playing came committing myself to work and school.”
After earning a BS in marketing from Christian Brothers University, McQuown came on at Communication Associates in 1999. Though the company also has design capabilities, McQuown was brought on for his teaching abilities.
“I was certified as a personal trainer, doing that while going to school and working full time for Kraft Foods,” says McQuown. “My brother worked for Communication Associates and put me in touch with founder Eric Brown for training purposes. We built a gym in his house and trained three days a week for a year. At the end of the year, Eric said ‘You’re a good teacher. Can you teach something else?’”
That ‘something else’ was training people in aspects of business, like interview skills and communications and writing training. Part of a two person team, McQuown would visit corporate offices for major companies around the country, work-shopping with employees and tightening the screws on effective communication.
In 2004, Brown was suddenly ready to get out of the business.
“I was faced with a sort of ‘buy the company or make changes’ dilemma,” says McQuown. “I said ‘okay’ not knowing anything about running a business. All of a sudden I went from being someone who provided work to a company to being the guy who paid bills, chased invoices, stocked Cokes in the fridge. But, I didn’t ever think not to do it.”
Today, he and his staff have honed the business into an efficient company, providing design work for smaller, Memphis-based businesses and communications training for larger national clients.
“If we continue to grow like we have for the last two years, I can see another two years, or twenty.”
But now suddenly a new musical adventure has opened up for McQuown, and it comes from an unexpected place. He’s begun writing songs with a partner, Shawn Few, for an up and coming singer backed by Disney, Olivia Holt.
The connection began when McQuown and Few were asked to submit a song for the Disney show “Kickin’ It.”
“It’s a show on Disney for 12-17-year-olds. It’s about a group of young karate experts,” says McQuown. “We submitted a song, but another was chosen. But, they loved our song and the producers asked for more.”
Olivia’s father Mark Holt was in another Memphis band during the Nine Daze Wonder days, and now manages his daughter’s career, bouncing between Memphis and Los Angeles. Olivia is a rising star within the Disney world, appearing in their TV shows and films. Right now, the push is on to move her into a music career.
“Mark is the business side of this thing,” says McQuown. “He keeps a residence in California and tends to the business stuff. He’s the connection to the people at Disney.”
Friends since elementary school, McQuown and Few have spent the last year writing a batch of songs for Olivia.
“Writing for tweens is weird,” McQuown says. “What does a 13-year-old girl want to listen to? We write about summer, kissing boys, that kind of stuff. Other songs are just good songs that we write because we’re creative artists who enjoy doing it.”
In the coming months, Olivia will return to Memphis to record the latest batch of songs. Success and stardom aren’t guaranteed, but her shot at her own Big Break has given a Memphis entrepreneur a second shot at his.