Joel Fenelon’s triple transformation

How Brahms completely changed the career trajectory of the UT grad and Muzime founder.

click to enlarge Joel Fenelon - Elise Garcia
Elise Garcia
Joel Fenelon

Joel Fenelon is driving with absolutely no destination in mind. At this time of night, a steady speed and the buzzy hum of the tires rolling north up I-75 are all he needs for a little mental shelter from the utter mindfuck these past few weeks have been: the passing of five friends in two separate car accidents and a break-up with his girlfriend of five years — all within a matter of a month — are weighing on him heavily, to say the least.

After venturing more than 200 miles north, just past the Florida-Georgia state line, he snaps out of deep reflection and pops in a stray CD a friend left behind in his car. The disc whirs, and the third movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 bursts from the speakers.

“It was surreal,” Fenelon said in a recent interview. “I pulled over, I started crying. For the first time, I understood myself and all my emotions. Everything just came to life.”

The next day, Fenelon returned home to the University of Tampa and filed the papers allowing him to abandon his work as a third-year business major and embark on a thoroughly fresh start as a music major playing the tuba. It was a brash transition in a series of brash transitions that led to his becoming the creator and CEO of Muzime (“Like resume, but with music”), an online music service he believes will revolutionize the way we discover new music.

“My curiosity took me really far, really fast,” Fenelon said.

His parents, former business owners now dividing time between Tampa and Christian mission work at sites around the world, stopped paying for his tuition. But despite an hourly gig at Walgreens five nights a week, 18 credit hours worth of courses, and another eight hours of daily tuba practice, Fenelon somehow managed to pull through and was admitted to the school of music after just a few months.

He relished his new position, playing concerts, solo recitals and fiendishly honing his craft to the point of addiction in a two-year time span. Fenelon shifted gears again when he earned a scholarship graduate position conducting bands and orchestras at the University of Wisconsin. Just like reading music, he’d never conducted before in his life. “I took three conducting lessons, put myself on video, and sent it in. I was horrible, but passionate,” Fenelon said.

He hit the ground running in Wisconsin, soaking up as much as he could about the art of conducting. Before long, Fenelon was traveling the country, then the globe, guest leading prestigious bands and facing off against other student conductors in competitions.

The idea for Muzime crystallized at a competition in Chenôve, France. At this point, Fenelon was no stranger to sudden bursts of inspiration and he realized he might have something promising on his hands. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a platform that could connect all of these musicians with everyone around the world?”

This was 2010, however; iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, Myspace and countless other media-sharing programs had drained that well eons ago. Muzime would need a mark of distinction, something these other platforms had neglected.

Fenelon found it in local music — the little guys. “As I began researching concept, I realized that everyone is focusing on the music industry. The industry is driving every platform,” Fenelon said. He wanted a site strictly aimed at grassroots performers, a site where a community could gather, discover and support bands in their own locales and beyond.

Once again, Fenelon had an idea that would steer his life in an entirely new direction. Unbeknownst to his parents, who’d grown quite proud seeing him conduct across the world and gain his master’s degree, Fenelon ditched his conducting job at a local college, turned down a lucrative job offer to conduct in Europe, and returned to Tampa to flesh out his Muzime idea.

With help from UT’s entrepreneurship program, Spartan Accelerator, and its board of directors (now Muzime board members), Fenelon hashed out a business plan. Then, through blind networking luck, a Turkish investor (who wishes to remain unnamed) blessed the Muzime idea with a sizable investment, the only funding the site has needed thus far. Fenelon also got help from Nick Jagodzinski, a programming whiz and friend from Tampa Bay Tech, and he launched Muzime earlier this month.

For consumers, Muzime works like an online farmers' market for local music with “Music discovery like no other” as its mantra. Songs get profiled and categorized by mood as opposed to genre, making the discovery of new music more intuitive than a generic site with clinical genre descriptors. Fans can "touch" the artists and friends they like to stay updated, and buy tracks with credits purchased on the site knowing they’ll be fully supporting the artist.

For artists, the site’s main draw is its payout scale. Each song costs $0.89; $0.69 goes directly into the artists’ pockets and the rest to Muzime. This creates a platform through which the music of an independent artist can flourish free of the costly subscription fees of Muzime’s competitors.

Since Muzime’s launch, Fenelon said he’s extremely happy with its small progress thus far and remains unwaveringly confident in its potential to become a local and, eventually, worldwide hit.

Reflecting on our conversation, I asked him what that fateful drive means to him almost six years later. “You know, those emotions are what really opened me up to the idea of just trying something out of a sheer need to have an outlet for them,” Fenelon said. “Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s completely okay, it should be okay, there’s no reason for it not to be okay because now, I’m not living my life with any ‘what ifs?’”

Click here to visit Muzime today.

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