When Jason Mraz launched his third album in 2008 at a private music industry retreat in San Diego, he had no idea it would lead to him scoring several hit singles, including his ubiquitous “I’m Yours,” followed by his first two Grammy Awards.
But the multimillion-selling Oceanside singer-songwriter and his record company credit Michele Clark’s Sunset Sessions, an annual music-business event held in San Diego since 2007, with building momentum for Mraz in a major way.
And when the event’s 15th anniversary edition is held Feb. 16-19 at the Rancho Bernardo Inn, Mraz will return to preview songs from his upcoming new album. He’ll be part of a talent lineup that includes reggae-music legend Jimmy Cliff (a 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee), Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne, Americana troubadour Lucinda Williams and several dozen new and rising acts.
They will all be here to promote their music by getting up-close and personal with 600-plus radio programmers and music supervisors for films, TV shows, videos and commercials.
hese programmers and supervisors are key sources of exposure — and potential income streams — for newcomers and established stars alike. Their importance and influence are increasingly vital in a digital era that is repeatedly transforming the music industry.
“With Jason’s third album in 2008, ‘We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.,’ we needed to reintroduce him to the Adult Album Alternative (radio) market at a time when no one had even heard ‘I’m Yours’ yet,” said Brian Corona, the Los Angeles-based director of Adult Radio Promotion for Atlantic Records, Mraz’s label since 2005.
“Jason had a bus load of people from Sunset come to his house in Oceanside, hosted a barbecue and even taught a few of them how to surf. He came back to Sunset in 2010, straight from the Grammy Awards, just to say ‘thanks.’ Coming back now is a good opportunity for him to reconnect with these people, and that’s really important to him.”
So important that Mraz will fly in from New York to perform and host an album-listening party at Sunset Sessions, then catch a plane to Dubai for a concert date.
Such devotion is music to the ears of Sunset Sessions founder Clark.
“We really do sequester people at Sunset, so that the emphasis is on the music and building personal relationships,” she said. “The artists play their music, but they also sit and talk. When Stevie Nicks came last year, it was like sitting with her in her living room. That’s something you can’t buy.”
Clark began her annual event in 1998 in the Bahamas, with just four musical acts. It was then held in Cancun, Hawaii and other tropical locales, before moving to its first San Diego location (at Paradise Point) in 2007. Thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles, Sunset Sessions — which is closed to the public — has been here ever since.
“Artists whose careers we’ve helped launch include Jack Johnson, Ryan Adams, Five For Fighting, Pete Yorn and Jason Mraz,” Clark said from her Malibu Canyon office. “Our industry depends on our ability to launch and nurture these new artists.”
Artists like the Los Angeles rock quartet Dead Sara and the English quintet Scars On 45, whose 2011 Sunset Sessions appearance led to Scars’ music being featured on the TV shows “CSI: NY,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
Among the current or former San Diego artists who have been featured at Sunset Sessions over the years are Steve Poltz (2003), the John Butler Trio (2007), Tristan Prettyman and Switchfoot leader Jon Foreman (both in 2008), Jack Tempchin and Nickel Creek alum Sara Watkins (both in 2009), Sara Petite and the John Butler Trio (both in 2010), and — last year — Bushwalla, who also was featured at the 2011 debut of Sunset Sessions ROCK! (which is geared to alternative-rock radio stations like San Diego’s 91X).
“As an independent artist who doesn’t have a major record label deal, in some ways Sunset Sessions helped me, and in some ways it didn’t,” said Petite, who will guest with Poltz at his birthday concert here at the Belly Up on Feb. 19.
“Overall, it was a really neat experience and I really liked it. The cool thing is that, one you do a Sunset Sessions, you can go back for free anytime you like. I went back last year and saw k.d. lang perform, who was amazing. And I did a lot of networking that, maybe down the road, will help me.”
While there is no guarantee of success, for artists who do have a major record label deal, the potential benefits of appearing at Sunset Sessions is considerable.
“Atlantic Records has had a lot of success at Sunset launching new artists or relaunching established artists,” Corona said.
“We launched James Blunt, one of Jewel’s albums and the band Need to Breathe, which just toured with Taylor Swift. I’d worked to bring Need to Breathe to Sunset, since there were a lot of people who hadn’t seen the band perform yet, and it made all the difference in the world.
“I’ve been in this business since 1983, and I’m very grateful Michele Clark established this for people to connect with new artists. There’s nothing else like it.”
This year, one of those new artists will be singer-songwriter James Morris, a 17-year-old junior at Cathedral High School in Carmel Valley. He and his mother, Maria, turned up at the 2010 Sunset Sessions, armed with a basket of cookies. Their goal: To gain admittance to the private event.
“It was so sweet,” Clark recalled. “I said: Just give them some passes to come in, and James’ mom was almost crying. Everybody there was so nice to to him.”
Morris and his mother/manger — “She is the world’s greatest ‘momager’,” he boasted — returned to the 2011 Sunset Sessions, armed with more cookies. This year, armed with a new CD of his music, “Speed of Dark,” he will perform at the event for the first time.
“The least I hope to do at Sunset is to put on a great show, have fun with it, make a few new connections, be heard and leave an impression,” said James Morris, who performs Jan. 20 at the venue known as Across theStreet from Mueller College in University Heights.
“I’m not sure what the most I should be hoping for is. I was maybe hoping to meet (Vans Warped Tour mastermind) Kevin Lyman and maybe get a slot on the Warped tour next year. That’s a goal of mine. And to meet Jason Mraz at Sunset again would be tons of fun. He’s one of my role models.”