Cotton Mill Live (CML) is a labor of love for Gavin O’Neill, proprietor of vintage boutique Hello Boys, and his partner Jeremy Ryan, a professional photographer and former co-host of Out & About Today on NewsChannel 5+.
The creative couple built CML as a vehicle for introducing up-and-coming artists to the world via professional quality web production, while also creating networks through intimate live, acoustic shows. The real trick? They do it in their living room!
In some ways, the path to CML began with Hello Boys. O’Neill moved to Nashville in December 2011 for what was supposed to be a few months. “On my days off,” O’Neill said, “I would just wander Five Points finding my community and my friends, and I became really good friends with the girls who own Goodbuy Girls…”
When one of them told O’Neill that one of the spaces in her row was opening up and that they’d love a “boys’ shop” to complement Goodbuy Girls, O’Neill thought to himself, “I can’t say no to this, this is something I’m never going to be a thing I get to experience again.” He said, “Goodbuy Girls had put forth such a strong brand, so it’s been a really big gift to us for sure!”
Hello Boys “helps us do the things that we love,” O’Neill said. “In a lot of ways, it really helped let Jeremy grow his photography business into what it is today, where he’s booked solid…. The store has also been a really cool tool, and it’s helped us meet a ton of people, which fed into CML.”
Shortly after opening the store, another opportunity presented itself to the couple. “We went to a Christmas party in the loft that we now live in—which houses Jeremy’s photo studio, and which is where we produce CML,” O’Neill said. “We walked in, and I’ve never felt this way about a space ever, but I was like, ‘We’re going to live here, this is going to be ours. We’re going to live here, and we’re going to do weird, fun stuff.’ Literally a year later we moved in.”
When the couple moved into the space, O’Neill said, “The house was still selling and we didn’t have furniture, it was kind of like living in a jazzercise gymnasium. It was just this big hysterical space. But Jeremy had plans for setting up his studio, and we wanted to live in a space where we could create our own community, and where people felt like they could come and have fun.” Their new loft, then, fit perfectly into their vision of life.
The first opportunity they had to expand into music came by accident, when they offered to host a friend’s birthday party. “One of her favorite bands was in town and she asked if we minded if they played a short set,” O’Neill recalled. “And it was really killer, and there was something there, and I thought, ‘We have to do something with the space!’”
Recording a live show combined their skills and interests. “I have a background in stage and audio production,” Ryan said, “and we have several friends that are hardworking musicians in town. We decided to create something that could benefit incredibly talented musicians that deserved high quality content and that would also be used as a marketing tool for our budding businesses. So, when we put all the pieces together, we had created a concert series that was produced by Jeremy Ryan Creatives and styled and sponsored by Hello boys.”
At first, they made it all happen themselves. “During the show before each song, I would hit ‘record’ on my computer, hit ‘record’ on an extra camera on a stand, and then jump on a ladder with another camera to capture the sweeping opening footage,” Ryan explained. “It was difficult finding people to help with those tasks during the show. Also, though I’m a photographer, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge in video production and had to teach myself how to edit the video footage.”
Nevertheless, the results were impressive. “Even though our jib back then was literally Jeremy on a ladder,” O’Neill joked, “we got to do some incredible shows: Carolina Story performed, as well as Native Run. Lera Lynn did a show, and the cast of Wicked did a show for us when they were in town! We had Jeremy pulling mattresses off beds, because there were literally too many people and they had nowhere to sit. That was a really fun night!”
Help would come in the form of Ally Rodriguez. “One of the biggest reasons for the quick growth and success of CML is our third partner we brought on last year, Ally,” Ryan said. “Her knowledge and talent has been instrumental in introducing the series to the music industry. We’ve been able to produce beautiful shows for quality acts here in Nashville. Our goal is to be an incredible resource and platform for talented musicians that can deliver an entertaining stripped down show to an eager audience.”
Shortly, with Rodriguez’s help, CML got a television deal with Zuus Media. “So last year at this time,” O’Neill said, “we produced fourteen episodes in eight weeks. It was insane. It was like every Friday and Saturday. It was awesome, it was great. Keb’ Mo’ performed, and I couldn’t even be in the room! It was too nuts! They were really fun shows…. It’s really fun to go back and watch those shows now and think, ‘I cannot believe this happened!’”
In the end, however, CML decided to go a different direction. “The production team for Zuus was awesome. We’re really glad we got those fourteen episodes because they were beautifully done,” O’Neill explained, “but we wanted to secure our creative control. So this year we’ve decided to go with Maid-In Network. They do the 24HR Records—they do professional, Youtube-like series shows.” Since switching to Maid-In, CML has featured Swear and Shake, one of the couple’s favorite bands in Nashville, Lucie Silvas and Rick Brantley, and Johnny P, and has plans to work with Brooke Waggoner and to produce a Christmas show.
“Maid-In just feels a lot more organic for us,” O’Neill said, “it just feels good. The coolest thing about Maid-In is they just want us to do what we do best. They don’t want to toy with anything, which is great and music to Jeremy’s ears.”
When asked about his favorite guest, O’Neill didn’t hesitate: “Alyssa Bonagura! What I love about Alyssa is that not only is she an artist’s artist, a true musician, but she was so full of love.” At last year’s Christmas special, “Alyssa sat front-and-center and clapped louder than anyone for all the artists. She is so supportive of anyone who picks up an instrument and makes anything out of it, which I think is so cool.”
There have, of course, been challenging guests as well, of course. “People don’t realize what it takes to put on something like this,” O’Neill said. “People sometimes show up and ask why we haven’t done this or that…. People also forget that our studio is our home, since when it’s being run for a show it doesn’t look like a home.”
While most of the artists have become good friends, there have been times when the artist or their team didn’t fully understand the situation they were coming into. “That’s the difficult thing with running a show: you never want to make your artist unhappy, but you just have to be careful about reading cues and who’s going to be easy to work with or not. Thankfully people have been so appreciative of the opportunity we provide … we haven’t had an issue with an artist in the last twenty episodes. But those are the stressful moments, when you know the artist isn’t listening and that’s when things go awry.”
The show’s unwavering commitment to its mission—the support of the best artists—has kept it diverse and its quality high. “The only rule we had when we started the show,” O’Neill said, “was that you have to be able to do an acoustic, stripped-down set, and you have to be able to kill it. Talent was the only thing, not genre, and we try to keep it that way still.”
Beyond the mission, CML does provide something for the men behind it, however. “We always say it’s all for the artists and to support them,” O’Neill confessed, “but it was also in a wonderfully selfish way also to support ourselves—to make us feel like we weren’t the crazy ones, and to kind of make a family in a way, and share these fun things! CML is a moment when we could have time together. That’s what it boiled down to for me.”
Be sure to check out their show at www.cottonmilllive.com!
Photos by Jeremy Ryan and Deanna Hampton