Carlos Steward sits back in his chair and stretches his legs. “Man,” he says. “I love everybody.”
Steward’s open-arms philosophy sums up his approach to various ventures supporting the artist community in Asheville and beyond, including two with large world-wide audiences: The weekly True Home Open Mic and Featured Artist podcasts.
“We created the podcast about 3-1/2 years ago. Podcasting was very new; people were talking about it, having success with it in terms of getting messages out. We have all this talent in Asheville, Hendersonville and Western North Carolina that come to open mic to perform. We thought that a podcast would be an excellent way to promote the artists and give them more publicity.”
A podcast, according to Carlos, is a series of digital audio or video files that are uploaded to a website and then distributed over the Internet via subscription (normally free) by a podcast feed such as iTunes. A podcast is received, usually automatically, on a computer or portable MP3 player or device such as an iPod. The term derives from the words “broadcast” and “iPod.”
Once a podcast is stored on a computer or portable MP3 player, it can be retrieved and enjoyed at the convenience of the listener. Podcasts are very popular. There are literally thousands available, from individuals to major media outlets, on virtually every subject and topic.
The True Home Open Mic, source for the podcast of the same name, is held every Thursday evening at the Courtyard Gallery in Asheville between 9:00pm and 12:00am.
“Whoever shows up for open mic will be on the podcast,” says Steward. “It’s part of our philosophy of openness — whoever wants to perform. Maybe they’re not really good yet; maybe they’re practicing. Raw material needs to go through a lot of evolution before it gets to its final form. The podcast gives people a chance.”
The live open mic sessions are hosted by Jarrett Leone, an amiable MC who keeps the session on track. He calls each performer up when it’s their turn, introduces them and tries to have them tell a little bit about themselves, especially information about their music and a website, if they have one.
The open mic session is recorded on a video camera and then Steward or his assistant, Amanda Hughes, edit the sound into a one-hour audio MP3 segment which is uploaded on the Internet, ready for distribution to the podcast’s subscribers. A video camera is used because Steward eventually plans on doing a video podcast, and the recordings provide a convenient archive which can be easily accessed when the time comes.
As for subscribers, Carlos and his staff are nothing short of amazed. To date, there are currently over 110,000 in 55 countries. “We weren’t trying to get a bunch of subscribers — that was never our intent. We thought if we got a thousand, that would be great,” he says.
Steward attributes the podcast’s success to art-centric Asheville. “People like Asheville. They hear about Asheville, that’s it’s a very creative town. Or they’ve lived here before and moved and want to stay connected. It’s that connection with Asheville that’s driving the podcast.
“What’s happened, because of the large number of subscribers and popularity of the program, it has attracted people from all over the United States who want to perform at our venue. They know, although there are only 50 seats, that 100,000-plus people will hear their music. There’s a very large audience generated from this little podcast,” he says.
Steward points out that the success of the podcast is not dependent on a live audience. “Those in the audience are usually the people performing and their friends. It’s not about a live audience, a live venue. It’s about people coming in and performing for each other. It doesn’t matter how many people are there because the podcast’s ultimate audience is world-wide.
The performers, although appreciative of each other’s talent, are aware that the open mic is being recorded and will eventually go out on the podcast, with a much larger and wider audience than could ever be hoped for inside the building.”
Another aspect of the podcast’s success is an association with Sonicbids, a website whose mission is to help people who make music and book music connect and interact with one another. “Our original thinking was to tie in Sonicbids with our media festival. As we worked with Sonicbids, we realized that there was a much larger opportunity because it has millions of artists.
“We decided to create a special complementary podcast through a partnership with Sonicbids. We call it the Featured Artist podcast. Anyone can submit. They can be from Asheville, and some of them are, or from Russia, and some of them are. Those selected become a highlight to the True Home podcast.” Unlike the open mic, where artists are recorded live, those on the Featured Artist podcast are selected from submissions sent to the Courtyard Gallery website.
“The featured artists come from all over the world, a majority from the United States. The open mic performers are mostly from Western North Carolina, probably within one or two hours from Asheville,” adds Steward.
Then there’s the synergy and crossover from Steward’s other venues, The Twin Rivers Multimedia Festival and the Anything Goes — Everything Shows mail art exhibit. “The podcast ties in really well with our Twin Rivers Multimedia Festival. It’s a way for us to attract national art talent, not only for the media festival, but for the podcast.
People who come to the open mic are very artistic. They see the mail art exhibit and many of them have become involved with mail art because they’re visual as well as audio artists. We’ve had quite a bit of crossover.
It’s also a direct tie-in with the media festival because people at the open mic hear about the media festival and are encouraged to apply and send in their work. The media festival has also been a way to bring in national artists to the podcast,” says Steward.