When he was 16 years old, Phil Barnes was writing songs when he was supposed to be paying attention in chemistry class.
He was not a bad student, but music always came before school for the now 22-year-old musician.
“I always thought I was going to do music,” he says. “But I told my parents I was going to do business and psychology.”
Barnes was studying both subjects at Florida Atlantic University, but he withdrew last year when his 23-year-old brother, Adam, passed away unexpectedly after having surgery.
Twenty years prior, Adam had been riding his bike when a drunk driver hit him. Though he survived, he had serious medical complications afterward. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and unable to speak.
“With my brother’s passing I hit a fork in the road, and I thought, ‘Either I’m going to do what I love, or I’m going to do what might work out,’” Barnes says.
Finishing his degree would most likely work out. But music was his passion.
It was a risk worth taking. Barnes continually accomplishes exactly what he set out to do, which is to change the Pompano Beach live music scene – or lack thereof.
“I had been hunting for gigs there for a long time, and the most I had done was play in a Starbucks,” he says.
It frustrated him that Fort Lauderdale’s and Delray Beach’s live music scenes were thriving while Pompano Beach’s wasn’t, so he decided to introduce it to his hometown himself.
Barnes took his idea of a songwriter’s night on the beach to the Community Redevelopment Agency, where it was incorporated into the agency’s plans for Happy Hour on the Beach. The event now has 16 bands on rotation every Thursday night from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. between Atlantic Boulevard and A1A, and is expanding this fall to reach past A1A to Federal Highway.
It is an impressive achievement for a young musician who started his musical career without any professional marketing or promotion.
Barnes says he started by knocking on doors and going into every bar that he could, dropping CDs off and asking friends to pass copies to people who may be interested in discovering new music with a sound similar to Ed Sheeran’s and John Mayer’s.
Eventually the demos found their way to people who invited him to perform.
In the last four years, Barnes has played more than 600 shows. But before he performed his songs for an audience in a coffee shop, bar or club, he played them for his brother in their living room.
“When I started to actually learn chords and not just strum wrong notes, I started to see that it would make him happy,” he says. “So I continued to do that as long as he was around.”
Barnes continues to play live music for children with similar conditions to Adam with Musicians on Call, which brings musical performances to patients in hospitals. He was hired to run the Miami branch in May.
Barnes is looking forward to promoting his new album and touring the East and West coasts over the next year, but he won’t stop performing local shows, as well.
He is not the type to let the success get to his head. He is not under the control of a management team to promote a certain style or image. On tour, it will still be just him and a guitar, true to his folksy musical style, and he will be wearing his favorite boots despite the Florida heat.
In the end, chemistry class just wasn’t so important after all.