Passion to help unsigned artists brought Al Shephard to move here, start ICMA

Independent Country Music Association founder Al Shephard’s first musical venture was the mobile DJ business, which turned into a very brief career.

I did three gigs before I realized I hated it,” Shephard says in a phone conversation in mid-July, soon after he relocated to Music Row from Bennington, Vermont.

A husband who loved traditional country booked Al for a birthday party for the man’s wife. She, however, preferred Seventies rock.

As soon I played one of those country songs, the wife came up to me and says, `I don’t want to hear that crap,’ ” Shephard recalls, smiling.

When he spun the rock records she requested, the husband repeated the screaming match.

By the end of the night,” Al says, “they were both so drunk I don’t even think they knew I left.”

So he was stuck with $10,000 worth of sound and light equipment. A friend soon opened a club in Bennington where unsigned college and high school bands could play, and Al donated the equipment to the club and began working sound and light there.

Another buddy ran a Bennington radio station, where local music was featured. Al took the best of what he heard at the club there. That became a 2-hour show.

Meanwhile, Shephard discovered MySpace Karaoke, another platform for new and unsigned acts. He got in touch with a San Antonio singer named Felix, the most popular artist ever on the format.

Al told Felix he should have a record deal.

Yeah, but I don’t know how to work that,” Felix said.

Shephard realized that “there was an enormous amount of talent wasting their time in living rooms who should be on stage.”

Al stopped doing the local radio show, began working with the Web site, and met an Oregon artist with similar dreams called Ronnie Lee Hurt. They began working together on a radio program called Country Dreams, which quickly caught on nationwide. It’s recently aired its 130th episode, and is carried by stations from coast to coast.

More and more artists began sending Al their music, asking the same questions about how they could get their break. Eventually that led him to make the big move to Nashville, where he soon met NMG co-editor and TCM Records CEO Randy Matthews, and the two became fast friends who shared many musical and business ideas.

Shephard founded the ICMA, and has been appointing Regional Directors around the USA to help spread the message and help artists and writers in their areas. “The goal is to bring together all people,” the ICMA says, “so they can network, learn how the industry works, open new ways to promote, and bring all this great music to the fans.”

It didn’t take long for success stories to emerge. One was an artist in Alaska, who found that in such a small market it was tough to find good country songs to cut.

We hooked him up with a songwriter for Vermont, and he cut six songs off his debut CD by that writer,” Al says. “That never would have happened without ICMA.”

Shephard chose to make the big move to Nashville so he could be right in the heart of the industry and its decisionmakers. He’s begun working up with Vinny Ribas of Indie Connect, who’s helping Shephard build the educational arm of ICMA.

We’re going to have an all-day workshop,” Shephard says, “Vinny will film that, and from that seminar we’ll create a home study course.”

Another goal of Al’s is to make the world smaller for country artists, by breaking down the barriers between Australian country, for instance, and American country. He’s already appointed two regional directors for ICMA in Australia.

He then sums up his vision.

When people decide they want to start their music career,” Shephard says, “we need to get them right at that moment and teach them what they need to do. Plus, the major labels aren’t doing A&R anymore, so we could become the minor leagues to the major labels, weed out the bad from the good, and rise the cream of the crop to the top.”


BY: Phil Sweetland

July 17, 2012

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