COVID-19 sucker punched the music industry this year and the blow has been painful, but it hasn’t been a decisive knockout. The battle has actually proven inspirational at times, with true fighters rising from the canvas to survive into the next round. Cue the Rocky theme music for Houston music entrepreneur Gibran Nassif, a good example of those relying on their talent, savvy, experience and the people in their corners to give their ongoing music careers a fighting chance.
Nassif’s a longtime music insider, one who began pursuing music as a seven year-old drumming to his sister’s favorite punk bands. No sooner than he graduated from Austin Community College’s music business program, he packed his bags for a national tour opening for Imagine Dragons and Awolnation. He’d later move into music production and management, but no matter his interest or role, Nassif used those opportunities to build a vast network of contacts. That network has helped him launch two impressive upstarts this year, Pulse Music School and his new podcast series, Keyed Up. They’re his left-right combo in his own battle against the pandemic.
“I worked at a music and film school here in Houston. Obviously with COVID we were furloughed and I was like, you know, I’m gonna start over. Let me start something fresh, something I want to do and I just wanted to help people,” Nassif said.
His idea was to offer online music instruction. Pulse Music School launched in April and the school’s key feature is affordable lessons taught by industry pros, people Nassif’s worked or broken bread with over the years.
Nassif lived in the U.K. as a youth and in Austin for school, but considers himself “mainly a Houston guy.”
“I was in a lot of bands, garage punk rock bands, playing crazy shows at Walter’s on Washington and Fitzgerald’s and there was this one place called – I don’t know if you remember it, it’s a horrible venue name – it was called Dead Baby Distro. It was a crazy, crazy venue, we would play there. I just always loved managing the bands, managing the Myspace page, updating stuff,” he said.
His first band was a high school punk outfit dubbed The Expats.
“I don’t know if you remember The Meridian – we actually opened for the Misfits back in 2006, one of our first shows. It was wild. It was funny, when we first showed up at the venue they were like ‘Are y’all the band?’ because we were so young. When we walked into the venue they were like, who are these kids? But, they had to let us play.”
Nassif learned early to seize opportunities and make connections. At Austin Community College, “one of my teachers was in the band Spoon, which was already cool, and the head of the program Geoffrey Schulman worked for The Who and all these classic bands, he worked for Island Records in the ‘70s. He was an amazing mentor,” he said.
He combined his textbook education with practical experience in Austin.
“I started drumming for different artists, I started all that in Austin. Really the first big thing that happened for me, I was the drummer for this hip-hop artist in Austin named Zeale and we were asked to be an opening band for Imagine Dragons and Awolnation and this was back in 2012, 2013. Really, that crazy, massive tour opened my doors to other opportunities, which then led me back to Houston.”
He said he kept drumming for different acts, artists like Roosh Williams, and the Houston-Austin synth-pop band Night Drive, but he also turned his attention to production and management. He went to work for Universal Music Group and worked some Nashville-based campaigns for country artists and for the local pop band Polaroid Summer. The pandemic and its changes to the music industry forced a focal shift in Nassif’s pursuits.
“It’s interesting how this industry, especially during the pandemic, your business is in your laptop right now,” he said. “It’s amazing how the networking game, since this pandemic started, is stronger than ever, obviously. I’ve just been staying in touch with people, working all the time, trying to network the most I can and keep building it. It’s just been a great, fun time.”
He used the internet to piece together his staff for Pulse, interviewing potential instructors by virtual chats. He tapped into his network of talented and enterprising associates, people like hip-hop producer Trakksounds, whom he met working with Roosh Williams, or Black Market Backline owner Chris Burgess, who teaches guitar and bass for Pulse. Besides their knowledge and hands-on experience, the instructors all had something else in common, Nassif noted.
“Since all the touring in the world has stopped, they’re going to be at home and they’re going to be looking for other gigs,” he reasoned. “I wanted to find the right teachers so I could promote them efficiently to potential students.”
“It was right when the quarantine hit so I was literally in my room two-and-a-half weeks just building the platform and making sure it was efficient. I built the platform, found the teachers and found the students,” he continued. “It was really successful when we first started because the teachers have produced multi-platinum records, they’ve toured around the world. One of our teachers, Ken Carkeet, he was in the band Awolnation and he produced ‘Sail,’ one of the longest-charting alternative songs of all time. This guy’s teaching online for 50 bucks an hour.”
Nassif said it was important to keep the lessons affordable, no matter the pedigree of the teachers. Anyone interested can take a free 15-minute trial lesson, he said.
“There’s people hurting right now. I wanted to give back so they can afford that lesson and at least get some kind of experience to make them feel better, just because it’s music. People want to look to music right now. What’s great about our teachers is they all have efficient audio/video technology so it really feels like you’re there with them taking a lesson. The kids and parents love it.”
The virtual chats Nassif had with his instructors set the foundation for his latest endeavor, Keyed Up. It’s a podcast/vidcast that has so far featured an impressive lineup of music names, most notably hip-hop innovator Warren G and singer Aaron Carter.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing it. I never thought I would be doing a podcast a year ago and once I started enjoying doing it, I just went full out. I transformed one of my rooms into a podcast studio set up,” he said. “I reached out to labels and networks I’ve worked with in the past and I told them about Keyed Up and what we’re doing and just went from there.”
“There’s always been surprising moments with every artist I’ve interviewed but the most surprising has got to be with the guys that were bigger, like Warren G, just him talking about hanging out with Tupac Shakur and working in the studio with him because he was a producer before he had the ‘Regulate’ hit on Def Jam,” Nassif said. He said he was moved by Carter’s story of “how he became a very famous, rich pop star by the time he was seven years-old and he didn’t have any time to grow up, and he told me about a lot of the family issues he was dealing with and stuff like that. I wasn’t shocked, in a way I already knew what I was getting into, once you saw what he was talking about you can tell there’s still some tension with that, some stuff with the past and his family.”
The interview list is telling. He’s hosted Austin guitarist Jackie Venson, Jake Kolatis from the veteran punk act The Casualties and “Rich Kids of Instagram” socialite and musician Lana Scolaro. The acts he’s interviewed run the musical gamut from soul, blues, punk, pop, dance and hip-hop. It’s obvious Nassif loves music, but does he have a favorite genre?
“It was a lot of punk music since I lived in the U.K. at first in my younger years, and it was really my sibling, my older sister was into Rancid, A.F.I., Green Day and all these bands that got me into drumming. Once I started playing drums to those bands it was like, damn dude, this is awesome. At the time, just like every kid has some ADD moments, at the time I was looking to music, when I would play music it would help the ADD out.
“I still listen to punk, I love punk music,” he said, but as he got older he realized, “punk and hip-hop kind of cross paths at one point. That’s what happened, I got into hip-hop heavily, especially being in Houston and that’s when I joined Zeale on drums and started playing for hip-hop artists live and just developed a huge love for hip-hop music.
“Anything to do with messages, either social or political, I’ve always been attached to and that’s usually found in punk and hip-hop music.”
Nassif said his dream interview would be chatting with Billie Joe Armstrong or Travis Barker. He’s already begun expanding Keyed Up to include notables outside of the music business, like BMX pro and movie stuntman Mike Escamilla. No matter who he interviews, he said his goal is to make them comfortable and share his enthusiasm so they’ll reciprocate for the Keyed Up audience. It’s all so fresh, he’s excited to see where these new roads lead.
“Just after all the experiences of working for others, I sat down and thought, all right, it’s time to do something I really want to do on my own and see how it goes, and it’s just been a great journey so far.”