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March 1, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Jer Coons began gathering the tools he would need to become a successful singer-songwriter early. He was born with the talent, he got his first guitar at age six and he befriended his would-be booking manager, Spencer Kelley, in the playrooms of Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury.

Together, Coons and Kelley, who both graduated from Middlebury Union High School last spring, are jumping head first into the independent music scene, preparing to make a living doing what they love.

“This fall, when Jer started getting serious about his music, we realized we could both benefit from each other,” Kelley said.

And it seems to be working.

Coons, who recorded his debut CD, “Entropy,” last summer with GlennSource Records in Bridport, is hitting up the clubs, colleges and coffee shops from Philadelphia to Burlington. He plays the acoustic guitar most times, but on his CD he also plays a range of instruments from bass and drums to glockenspiel.

And Kelley, who recently incorporated his Burlington-based managing and booking business, Autumn Artists Agency LLC, is boosting his first client, and oldest friend, everywhere he can. They both have high hopes for Coons’ success.

Musically it started for Coons, whose given name is Jeremy, on his sixth birthday when his parents, Jim and Julie, gave him his first guitar. The couple had always been musical, the sound of the piano, flute and guitar regularly drifting through their home in Middlebury. So even though their son couldn’t have been much taller than the instrument itself, it seemed only natural to let him try it out early.

“My fingers weren’t big enough to play,” Coons said. “So I just looked at it.”

By the time he became a serious guitar player in middle school, Coons and Kelley were fast friends.

“We were always really close,” Kelley said. “Both of us were geeky in our own way, always analyzing bands, talking about the details. Now it’s the same, but the focus has switched to (Coons).”

Both Kelley and Coons played in bands at MUHS, Kelley in the Green Gold Groove and Coons in the Theory. When most of the members of Coons’ band left the area to go to college, Coons kept writing songs and began performing solo acoustic shows in venues like Carol’s Hungry Mind Café.

“The response of the people in the Middlebury community has been overwhelmingly positive, which is more than I could have asked for,” he said.

Kelley, though he continues to play the mandolin in his free time, was always more interested in the business side of music. As an MUHS freshman, he booked the Rhode Island band Zox in Middlebury, and with the mentoring of John Zox, the band’s drummer, and Kelley’s uncle, a Burlington-based business planner for software companies, Kelley has found he has a knack for the business.

He has also found a way to make it profitable.

Kelley takes a percentage of Coons’ revenue from shows and t-shirt and CD sales, and has figured that both he and Coons will be able to make a living from their work together. Kelley has booked Coons almost every weekend since the release of his CD. And as a solo artist, Coons doesn’t have to divide his income among band members. 

“It’s really easy for a band to take in $90,000 a year,” Kelley said. “A lot of colleges will pay $1,500 for an artist they’ve never heard of before.”

Kelley and Coons do most of their business long distance, since Kelley studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where he’s majoring in music, and Coons attends Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., where he’s majoring in music business. A good portion of Kelley’s phone bill is dominated by calls and text messages to Coons.

Luckily, the pair also has tapped into the online social communities of MySpace and Facebook, where Coons does most of his networking. From the profile of Coons that appears on the sites, devoted fans and newcomers who never have heard of him otherwise can listen to his songs and find out about his upcoming concerts.

Before a show in Philadelphia, Coons scoured MySpace profiles for girls between the ages of 22 and 24 — a demographic he and Kelley often notice swooning in the front rows of his shows — who listed musician John Mayer as one of their favorite artists. Coons then emailed them invitations to his show. Coons admires Mayer’s music, and is often compared to him. So instead of waiting for an audience to come to him, Coons was able to woo new fans before they even heard him in concert.

He also got some help from other local musicians. Clint Biernan, owner of GlennSource Records, took Coons under his wing back when the high school senior was booking for himself at open-mike nights around Addison County. Biernan’s band, The Grift, has accompanied Coons on tour this year and last Friday they performed together at Higher Ground in South Burlington.

At 18 years old, Coons and Kelley have lofty goals. Kelley hopes to be managing another artist by the end of this school year and four or five more by the time he graduates from UVM. And Coons hopes to shake people up with his music, make them dance, cry, sweat and perhaps even think.

“It’s good that both of us are starting so young,” Kelley said. “I’m already doing this full time. And by the time Jer finishes college, he’ll be able to get right into that market.” 

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