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Breaking into the business: student musicians at UNC

The Gentleman Contender performed at Local 506 on Monday.
The Gentleman Contender performed at Local 506 on Monday.

And that girl who’s always humming in biology? She could be the next Carrie Underwood.

UNC is teeming with student musicians, and they’re balancing tough course loads with growing musical careers like professionals.

Junior Holland Gallagher, who performs under the moniker Gentleman Contender, said he knows a thing or two about balancing his passion with growing school demands.

The 20-year-old is on track to receive a degree in statistics but spends the majority of his free time mixing electronic and synth-pop elements with tight, emotion-drenched raps. Gallagher’s career began while he was a freshman living in Ehringhaus dorm, where he played his first show and experimented with rapping, singing and writing his own songs.

“I spend most of my free time in the studio working on music, or I’m trying to book shows, or I’m reaching out to music video companies, or I’m working on the website or doing this or that,” he said.

“And now that I’m in the mindset of doing everything music, it has gotten noticeably more difficult and stressful to balance everything.”

This summer, rather than pursuing internships and jobs, Gallagher set his sights on a music career. He said his new EP “Blank Narrative” — a project he has poured nearly six months of work into — will be released in the next couple of months.

Balance is key but so is having a built-in support group and local stages that are willing to help young musicians get their time in the spotlight. Spontaneous concerts in the Pit and events like FallFest and UNC Dance Marathon cater to student musicians who are looking for local outlets.

“At UNC, there’s a million resources, and that’s not limited to things outside of music,” Gallagher said.

“I’ve built a lot of relationships here, and there’s a lot of opportunities and sponsored events where you can get your name out. There’s a real sense of community here, and at campus events there’s a lot of positivity.”

Mark Katz, UNC music professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, said he’s doing his part to help students break into the music business through the creation of courses like “Beat Making Lab,” “Rap Lab” and “Rock Lab,” which promote the blending of academia with music.

“Part of the mission behind all of these courses is to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit and professionalism for those who are seeking careers in music,” Katz said.

“We bring in well-regarded musicians in the industry to come and talk to the students about not only how to make (music) but also what it takes to create and sustain a career in music.”

Faculty recognize the juggling act that student musicians must master during their time at UNC, and professors, such as Katz, have made it a point to assist them with their busy schedules.

“It’s a balance that all students face,” he said. “They’re trying to make sure that they’re giving enough attention to all of their classes while also keeping an eye on the future and thinking about career development. We try to help mentor and help guide them through the various decisions that they need to make about their futures.”

Local venues and bars, such as He’s Not Here, Local 506 and Cat’s Cradle, have welcomed student musicians with open arms, perhaps none more so than Kelly Reiter, a singer-songwriter who has dabbled in rap, pop and country since she began her music career at 5 years old.

Reiter’s latest song “Urban Cowgirl” receives frequent airplay at The Deep End’s Country Night, and come October, she said she will be playing with a band at He’s Not Here.

Like Gallagher, Reiter has found an environment ideal for musical growth at UNC.

“This is the perfect setting for music,” she said. “I’m finding the people here are very warm and welcoming — especially girls. It’s tremendous.”

Reiter said she has been talking to Los Angeles music executives but plans to devote her energy to a biomedical engineering major for the time being.

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“Anything I do this year (musically) will be local and focused here,” she said.

“Managers have been telling me for years that I have to choose and commit, so basically my approach is: I wake up everyday, I work my butt off and if a door opens, I run through it.”