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Southeast Music and Entertainment Summit creates a jumping-off point for folks looking to break into business

You don't have to venture very far into the local music scene to realize the Grand Strand isn't exactly ripe with opportunities to get noticed.

Luckily for aspiring hip-hop and R&B musicians, the gap between artist and executive will narrow this weekend as the Southeast Music and Entertainment Summit sets up shop in Surfside Beach for the fourth year in a row.

The three-day event, which kicks off today, will bring a collection of industry movers and shakers together with artists and businesspeople from all over the region. Executives from labels such as Capitol, Epic/Sony and Universal Records will come together with radio personalities, producers and musical entrepreneurs of all types for a weekend filled with performances, panel discussions and parties in an effort to create a jumping-off point for those looking to break into the music business.

"It's not like the record companies are really getting out to Myrtle Beach much," said Neff, a local rapper who has been attending since 2008. "But they bring the record companies to you, and as an artist you can't really pass up that chance."

Neff says SMES has not only helped him develop as a musician, but has also made the connections needed to grow his graphics company, HotZone Grfx.

"When I first started going, I didn't really know anything about the industry and I was just an artist passing out mix tapes," he said. "But now, I'm getting graphics business from there and I'm out trying to get exclusive interviews with record executives from Virginia for my website."

But even with the networking opportunities, organizers say the event is more than just a chance to meet people.

Men behind the music

To co-founders James Heyward and Anthony "Chubbz" Marcus, SMES is all about growth.

The men, who met doing independent promotions in Virginia and South Carolina, came together nearly 10 years ago over a common desire to help grow the musical infrastructure in their home states.

Heyward, a Duke University graduate and former N.C. radio DJ, and Marcus, who grew up performing near Darlington before moving to New York to work for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records, both saw potential for the region beyond a single destination.

"We got to realizing that the marketplace here was considered secondary because it had no one dominating city," said Heyward. "But when you look across the region, there's enough talent to put together our own music industry. We just needed a way to bridge the gap."

That motto of "Bridging the gap" has served as a central theme of SMES since Heyward and Marcus put on the first event in 2001 - which drew about 700 participants to Durham, N.C.

By emphasizing artist development the men created an atmosphere to conducive to growth.

"When we first did this thing, no one was trying to do this in the area. Period," said Heyward. "By us doing it, I think it opened up the eyes of a lot of people."

And although putting on SMES hasn't been without its hangups - the event was on hiatus for a few years before moving to the beach in 2007 - the men believe they are on the right track toward creating synergies that extend throughout the region.

"Every year we see more growth and people understanding what's going on here," said Marcus. "One thing we have noticed is artists in Virginia have a potential to have fans in South Carolina. We get lots of people meeting at the conference and going off to start a business together."

A chance to grow

One person who has bought it and seems to understand what SMES is all about is Ge-oz.

The Columbia-based rapper and producer, who has been attending SMES since 2007, says the conference has helped him establish himself as more than just an artist.

"They constantly teach you about making yourself a brand, so that when people hear your name, they know what you're about," he said. "It's like you're burning yourself into the industry."

During this time, Ge-oz has begun his own independent label, DIGI productions, and climbed to No. 40 on his city's Columbia Record Pool charts with a song called "I Luv Hip Hop."

In addition to giving him the knowledge and tools to succeed, Ge-oz said he uses SMES as benchmark for showing how much he's honed his skills throughout the year.

"Once you've learned something and come back the following year, you can tell they recognize," he says.

Regardless of the feedback he's gotten, he says attending the event has been a catalyst to keep his career moving forward.

"In 2007, one person gave me a standing ovation during my artist showcase, and that gave me more motivation to come back and see if I could do better," he said. "Last year, they told me my music was really good, but that I wasn't really putting myself out there on the local level. Instead of getting frustrated, I took that info and learned from it and just went harder into pushing myself in the state."

Keep an open mind

For those looking to push themselves out there hoping to get noticed at SMES, Heyward offers the following advice.

"I would say the most important thing is to keep the right mind state," he says. "You need your material - your fliers and things - and you need to understand what you are trying to do. You have to be able to get out of your comfort zone and come with an open mind."

Marcus adds this nugget: "Come with the intent to network. Even if you think you don't know how, you need to understand that folks are there to share their info."

The men say one thing that sets SMES apart from other events is its level of access. By having panelists and participants stay in the same hotel and offering small sessions that allow for direct interaction, they try to maximize the opportunities for attendees.

"Most places you go, you won't get a meeting with these guys," says Marcus. "But here it's an opportunity to sell yourself. What you do with it is up to you."

As far as how to best capitalize on these opportunities, Heyward says the most important thing is to just be authentic.

"A lot of people think they already know how to do this but haven't sold one record," he says. "As long as you check your ego at the door and come with an open mind about trying to get better in your craft, you got to know this can be done. Just remember these folks were in the same position at some point."

In addition to giving it out, the men say they try to take their own advice when it comes to making the event better.

"We challenge ourselves to get better and to learn at each event. You've got to keep learning, because who knows when something's going to just sprout up," says Marcus.

"People are starting to get it; it will just take time," adds Heyward. "The music industry knows about the Carolinas, it's just a matter of people coming out to support the talent when they are still nobodies."