It should have been no surprise that Sonic Pie Productions owner Tess Mangum Ocaña was open to an interview. Discovering just how authentic she is was easy once she stepped into the room. Making her way into our offices, my teammate and I were immediately embraced. Anxious to start the conversation, I hoped for the best but that all soon subsided once her charismatic personality kicked in. Before we got down to business on her production company, I wanted to learn more about her background.
Where did you grow up and how was your childhood?
I’m a seventh-generation North Carolinian so I grew up in a really rural county, Stanly County. Go Locust! Even The Avett Brothers have a song called “Pretty Girl from Locust” but it’s not about me! It’s a very conservative place but on the other hand, you can keep your doors unlocked at night. I was always the girl that was curious about everything and everybody. Even now one of my favorite ice-breaker questions is, “What are you listening to?” because you’ll get all kinds of answers. Someone might say Justin Timberlake and then surprise you in the same sentence with liking Keith Jarrett, so I love that question.
Was there anything in particular that made you want to go into the music business?
Yes, my grandmother was the musical matriarch of our family. Her name was Kate and she was basically the Tri-Country guitar teacher back in the day. She was known as “the source” and had calluses on her fingers from her ability to kill a chop rhythm. She played much country music and even taught Randy Travis how to play a guitar, but she also worked at a textile mill most of her life. I think there’s a lot of women who balance that reality of their creative side but also produce the income. She did both. My dad and little brother are musicians as well. We call it “the disease” and it’s not a disease that we want to get rid of.
I obtained a degree in Public Relations from UNC Chapel Hill. I was interested in folklore but there was only a minor in folklore at the time. There was definitely no major in ethnomusicology, music production, music business, or anything similar. I knew if I got a degree from a great school, public relations would be a way to work in the music industry. I also wouldn’t have to live in LA, New York, or somewhere like that. This was also pre-social media so Snapchat and Instagram didn’t exist. After college, I soon landed my first publicity job at small, independent music label called Alula Records in Durham.
It was founded because of a layoff. I got laid off after a decade at a non-profit booking concerts there. Two months later I incorporated Sonic Pie Productions. If only I had a dollar for every time somebody said “when one door closes, another door opens.” I’ll be honest and say it’s not something you want to hear when you’re wondering about what-ifs. But if you’re good to people, there’s a certain amount of karma you’ll gain back. I knew I was good at the music business, budgets, and logistics. All these things you think of as good traits for business people, but I never considered myself a business person. An entrepreneur, however: surely.
Who makes up your team?
I brought on a contractor as a sound engineer who’s been with me since day one. Shout out to Sam Reynolds! A few years later I brought on a second person and we had our first intern last spring. We’ll be continuing the internship concept by partnering with a non-profit called Partnerships for Youth. I really want to show young women that they can do this job. Show them that they don’t always have to be the girl singer, but that they can do it all: produce, sing, design: everything!
It’s a lot of cell phone in one hand, laptop in the other. I won’t lie, as I was driving into this interview I was using talk to text so I could get out an email quickly beforehand. It’s challenging. I’m also a mother of two young sons, but you just roll them into it and talk openly about what you do. Talk about gigs, challenges, green rooms and contracts. Just talk with them about it. I’d say a lot of it as well is creating trust, relationships, and making sure people do a good job.
Money can’t buy that type of advertising. You have to earn that.
When things get hectic, what’s something that typically motivates you?
I think about my grandma, Kate. I’m blessed to work in this industry and be the first person in my family to obtain a master’s degree. A couple generations ago, it was textiles and outhouses. There was talk by my grandmother about how lucky they were to get an orange in their Christmas stockings. We’re not far from that at all and you still need to keep grounded from that. Once you get started, don’t throw your money everywhere; keep things solid and modest.
It’s great to witness a female-owned production company like yours. Any piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start their own companies?
Just do it. We all know in the business or non-profit world, you have a board of directors. They’re there to put forth your mission and accomplish things. Put together your personal board of directors. These are people that are a source of knowledge. These people aren’t necessarily supposed to be “yes people”. They’re supposed to tell you honestly what they think about something and have your back. I would tell every woman, and every man for that matter, to do that.
Lastly, word of advice to the gentlemen out there: hire women, work with women, and empower each other. Actively speak out when you see things that are not supposed to be happening. Be that guy; don’t be the other guy.
We’re launching the PLAYLIST Concert Series at Durham Central Park next Friday, June 8. Creative Allies is familiar with Too Many Zoos, which is a crazy brass house band in New York. They were one of last year’s big shows. This year, opening night, is a guy out of Brooklyn called Gabriel Garzón-Montano. He released a record called Jardín a couple years ago and is definitely progressive R&B. Synthesizer and keyboard-heavy, he’s super cool. Our headliner a few weeks later is Valerie June who is a banjo and guitar player out of Memphis. All shows are free and for all ages. There’s food trucks, local craft beer, and a variety of local, regional, and national artists!
Operating one of Durham’s finest music production companies is no easy task. But talking with Tess, however, it’s clear the challenge hasn’t been one to phase her. The insight gained from her life and journey is beyond inspiring for a music lover like myself. There’s absolutely no doubt for more great things to come from Tess and the Sonic Pie Productions team.
Guest contributors are the opinion of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Creative Allies Inc. or its affiliates.