UTG INTERVIEW: High School Nation Founder Jimmy Cantillon

There is a traveling music festival that performs to essentially sold out audiences hundreds of times every year across the country regardless of location or lineup. Those of you over twenty may have never heard of it before now, but there is good chance your younger siblings are already well aware of its existence.

High School Nation was started in 2004 by two brothers hoping to help their younger sibling’s band find a place to perform. They worked with their school to setup a free lunch time event, and before they knew it the brothers were traveling the country performing at schools nationwide. The brothers realized they had tapped into a special market for reaching young minds, and over the years began to develop their show into a full-blown festival featuring a diverse musical lineup and multiple opportunities for students to learn more about careers in the arts. When we learned of the program we knew we needed to help them gain exposure, and below you can join us in better understanding how this great effort is helping change the lives of young people across the country.

UTG: Hello! How are you this afternoon? Can you start off by sharing your name, title, and who you’re representing today?

Jimmy: My name is Jimmy Cantillon, Co-founder of High School Nation, and I am speaking about the High School Nation Tour this afternoon.

UTG: Let’s start with the basics. For those unaware, what is High School Nation?

Jimmy: High School Nation is a traveling music and arts festival that exclusively visits high school campuses nationwide.

UTG: From what I’ve found the tour started in 2004. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for High School Nation, and how it initially got off the ground?

Jimmy: The bigger tour we’re doing now is more recent, but I actually started in 2004 as a way to get my younger brother’s band into high schools to perform at lunch. We just did free lunch time concerts. He was in high school himself and there were no venues in our hometown to perform at, so it made sense to me that if he played where kids were he would build a fan base.

So we started in our hometown, and then we decided to take it to the next town, and the next town, until we had covered pretty much all of California. We figured if it worked there it would work across the country, so we began booking and traveling the US together at a young age, and as I started to meet school administrators in person I would make it a point to maintain those relationships so that we could one day return. Then I started working with Drive-Thru Records and thought to ask the owners if they would be interested in having bands perform at schools. They thought it was a cool idea, so I was able to reach back out and make that happen. I ended up going back to the high school thing full time, working with labels and managers to setup tours for artists, and that’s how we got to the place we’re currently at.

UTG: The tour combines learning opportunities with performances from a number of rising young stars. Where do you find the talent for your tour?

Jimmy: At this point we don’t really have to look because it comes to us. For years, because I had worked with so many people at various labels, I would reach out to my contacts to see if anyone had talent that would be interested in a tour offering like ours. Over time word of mouth began to spread, and then it just organically grew from there.

UTG: Back to the non-music side of things, what can you tell us about how High School Nation helps kids beyond providing entertainment?

Jimmy: This is part of our recent growth. As we began building High School Nation and another one of my brothers came on board we became increasingly invested in the schools we were working with and noticed a lot of the programs that were tied into what we were doing were being cut or eliminated altogether. We knew we had strong relationships with these schools and thought we were in a unique opportunity to help them out by taking our efforts one step further than lunch time entertainment. We’ve always wanted to make our program more educational, and by bringing in aspects of journalism and media we’ve offered students the opportunity to engage with the artists from different cultures and learn more about other areas of entertainment that may interest them.

UTG: What do you hope students take away from their time at your event, and how do you measure the success of your efforts?

Jimmy: At first our hope was that we would get a handful of kids interested in the arts, or at the least let kids know that there were people who would support them if they wanted to do something creative in life. We just wanted kids to walk away knowing there is no right or wrong way to create, everyone starts somewhere and no one is perfect coming out of the gate. Pick something up, be messy, and make mistakes. That’s how the best stuff gets started.

As we started to visit campuses with a larger tour and saw the reactions we got I realized it was an opportunity to do a lot more. I always tell people that if you had asked me if I expected the reaction we’ve seen I would have told you ‘no.’ We’ve heard some crazy stories from kids, and we’ve seen them really open up in a way where they just felt comfortable. I think the impact reaches much further than we ever imagined.

UTG: You show no signs of slowing your efforts anytime soon. Your website tells us Winter tour dates should be rolling out soon. What can you tell us about the upcoming installment of High School Nation?

Jimmy: It’s getting really exciting. We’re about to announce another couple sponsors, so we’re rolling out a quick winter tour to introduce them before the end of the year. We’re hitting the Southeast and making our way to Texas. It’s a quick run, but we wanted to get out there and try some new things to see what reactions we get before diving into the 2014 tour year.

UTG: Before I let you go, do you have any final thoughts to share?

Jimmy: There is a lot more to High School Nation than the tour. It’s a great piece and an important piece, but the whole idea behind HSN is to play liaison for really talented students around the country who may not have access to the kind of opportunities others are afforded by exposing their art and creativity. We really want to give them a shot at having a potential career in the arts. We have the new High School Nation magazine and our clothing line, which are both user-content created. We’re really excited about both of those, and we have a lot of new ideas we’re hoping to launch in the years to come. Our vision for this is to really become the go-to and go-between for artists, teen artists, and actual experiences in the real world.

James Shotwell
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