Candace Avery: Finding Joy Helping Artists and Songwriters Further Their Careers and Achieve Their Goals


As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021

Candace Avery is a woman that is full of ambition, drive, and a whole lotta love for music, music business, and songwriting. She has created the Boston Music Awards, Fall Fest (now MIX Fest), and in 1996, founded NEMO Music Festival & Conference, a three-day music conference with several clinics and events. The conference has held clinics and events and showcased over 2,000 major label bands, indie bands, and solo artists worldwide. 

Avery has worked with many artists—both household names and indie artists—whom all have benefited from the endeavors she has crafted to perfection. Over the last 20 years, she has given awards to a variety of artists, including James Taylor, Donna Summer, The Cars, Aerosmith, Frank Zappa, Carly Simon, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Trisha Yearwood, Aimee Mann, Little Richard, Bobby Brown, Brian Wilson, Natalie Cole, The Black Crowes, J. Geils Band, Morphine, Boston, Arrested Development, Travis Tritt, Godsmack, Staind, Babyface, New Kids On The Block, R.E.M., and many more. She has also put together showcases for thousands of solo artists and bands such as Linkin Park, Godsmack, Guster, and even Aerosmith (at the height of their career) in a club that held 500 of their fans.

In 2002, Avery founded the International Songwriting Competition (ISC), which has quickly grown into one of the largest music competitions in the world. Avery is also the co-founder and co-director of the Unsigned Only Music Competition.

ISC is renowned for its high-profile and highly talented judges who have included musical icons such as: B.B. King, Tom Waits, Adele, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Kesha, Lorde, Pat Metheny, Kelly Clarkson, Avicii, Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20), Nas, Bo Diddley, Rihanna, Jeff Beck, BeBe Winans, Andy Summers (The Police), Steve Winwood, Brian Wilson, Macy Gray, Peter Gabriel, Sonny Rollins, Casting Crowns, Paul Oakenfold, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tori Amos, Branford Marsalis, Taj Mahal, Kings of Leon, Darryl McDaniels (Run D.M.C.), Ornette Coleman, and many more. Industry judges have included many top record label executives, including Monte Lipman (President, Universal Records), Arif Mardin (Vice President, Manhattan Records), Craig Kallman (Chairman/CEO, Atlantic Records), Sylvia Rhone (President, Epic Records), Dan McCarroll (President, Warner Bros. Records), and many more incredible people. 

What was the inspiration behind founding ISC, and what is it like to run such a successful, well-known competition? I’m sure there are many behind-the-scenes things that people may not even be aware of that you have to handle.

At the time that I started ISC, I was living in Boston and producing both the Boston Music Awards and NEMO, a music conference. However, I really wanted to focus more on the creative aspect of music and songwriting, in particular. I was aware that there were other songwriting competitions, but I felt that there was an opportunity to create a songwriting competition that would provide more opportunity, more transparency, and better help songwriters get their music heard by top artists and industry executives. Shortly after I started ISC, I traveled to Nashville for a music conference and decided to move to Nashville. I went back to Boston and sold the Boston Music Awards and NEMO within a few weeks and made the move to Nashville.

The behind-the-scenes component of ISC that is the most challenging and time-consuming, yet inspiring, is listening to all the songs. We have so much respect and admiration for the songwriters who enter ISC, whether they are seasoned pros or just beginners. Everyone who works at ISC is (or was) a musician and knows how personal a song is to its songwriter, so we put a tremendous amount of effort into the listening process. For me, one of the best parts of ISC is discovering an artist and falling in love with their music.

What is your biggest piece of advice for any young professional seeking to work in the entertainment/music industry?

The music industry is a tough one. I always say that if you can envision doing something else with your life in terms of a career, you probably should. If you can’t, and music is all you want or can do, then go for it. But be aware that it can be a difficult journey, and you have to be prepared for it. Also, be proactive and take advantage of every opportunity you can because you never know what it might lead to.

What is one of your favorite moments from ISC since its inception?

One of my favorite moments was when Gin Wigmore won the Grand Prize in ISC many years ago. She was a 17 year old from New Zealand who had never really even played a gig before. She was on the path to becoming a teacher. When I called her to tell her that she had won, I thought she was going to have a heart attack, honestly! She was so excited and shocked. She was very green and inexperienced, but her talent shone through. She had never even done an interview before, and the next day her photo was on the front page of their national newspaper. As part of her prize package, she won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music’s Summer Performance program, so she came to the US the following summer. During her time at Berklee, Epic Records learned about her from a CD we put out with her winning song on it, and she showcased it to a group of A&R execs in NYC. However, she ended up going back to New Zealand and went backpacking with her winnings (she still wanted to be a teacher). Long story short, she eventually decided that she wanted to pursue music as a career, got a manager, got signed to a major label, and has had a successful career in music. This was a very gratifying, personal experience for me because ISC made such a direct and profound impact on her life.

Who are some of your favorite artists that you have worked with through ISC?

There are so many—Gin Wigmore, Faouzia, Kate Miller-Heidke, Illenium, Dean Lewis, Passenger, King Charles, Mick Flannery, Eskimo Joe, and many more. Currently, I am really excited about a new artist, Sean Murphy, who is a brilliant singer-songwriter and artist from Ireland.

Tell us more about NEMO as well as Unsigned Only. What do those endeavors mean to you as a professional and on a personal level?

My career in the music industry began as a drummer. While attending Berklee College of Music, I decided to segue into the business side of the music industry, and I created a red-carpet music awards show, the Boston Music Awards. I also produced similar shows in Los Angeles and Atlanta. At the same time, I launched and produced an outdoor music festival, Fall Fest, on the Boston Common, which later was sold to a local radio station. After Fall Fest was sold, I decided to launch a music conference called NEMO, while at the same time continuing to produce the Boston Music Awards. The awards show took place on the first night of NEMO, and then for three days afterward, we had educational panels, clinics, a trade show, and showcased hundreds of bands throughout clubs in the city. It was a huge event and drew bands and industry professionals from all over the US and beyond. The mission was to educate musicians about the music business and also give showcasing opportunities to artists. It was a great experience for many years, but I missed being involved in the more creative side of the business, and that was when I decided to start a songwriting competition. 

Ten years into ISC, I created Unsigned Only with a business partner, Jim Morgan. Unsigned Only’s goal is to recognize and honor artists and their talent, not their songwriting like ISC does. So, the two competitions have entirely different focuses. Being involved in both competitions has been extremely gratifying in that I listen to a lot of music and continue to get excited when I hear a song or artist that I love. 

I feel very fortunate to have carved out a niche for myself in the music industry—not only do what I love but also help artists and songwriters further their careers and achieve their goals. It is the ultimate joy for me.

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Gabbi Calvert is a writer, publicist, and artist from Findlay, Ohio who now resides in Nashville, TN. Gabbi is incredibly passionate about all things pop culture, but her forever love is music. Following her passion for entertainment and music, she graduated from Belmont University in April of 2021 with a B.S. in Creative and Entertainment Industries with a minor in music business. Her academic endeavors led her to find a home working in music public relations and she is now a senior publicist at Publicity Nation PR. Not only does Gabbi work and thrive in the music industry, she is also a musical artist herself. She began singing and playing gigs at the age of 12 in her hometown and has an extensive background in performance. Under her stage name Gabrielle Vaughn, she has released two singles. Gabbi is also a member of the all-female cross-genre supergroup The Highway Women. In her free time, Gabbi loves spending time with friends and family, attending drag shows, and bonding with her two guinea pigs Queenie and Peach, and her cat Mitzi.