13 talented musicians. An elite Music school. the backing of a major record label. The result? A winning album.
The decisionmakers at Heavy Rotation Records are debating how to market their new album a diverse, 13-track compilation of up-and-coming female artists. But this clearly isn't a boardroom at a flashy, fast-paced record company: Backpacks are piled up in corners, books like "Music through the Years" line the wall, and students huddle over small desks in a slightly muggy classroom.
The setting may not be sleek for this meeting at Boston's elite Berklee College of Music - a spawning ground for top contemporary jazz and rock musicians worldwide - but the homegrown talent at the college has caught the eye of an industry heavyweight, Epic/Sony Records.
"Shekinah 13," the first commercial recording to be jointly released by an independent college label and a record company, features an eclectic mix of women artists, both current and former students playing folk and rock 'n' roll, metal and hip-hop.
"This CD lets the world hear what I'm fortunate to hear every day. Who better to pick out music than up-and-coming musicians who study it and buy it and know it?" says Jeff Dorenfeld, an associate professor and faculty adviser for Heavy Rotation Records.
The 25 or so musicians who run this college label are enrolled in a two-semester, two-credit course taught by Mr. Dorenfeld, where they're immersed in the day-to-day challenges of working in the record business.
The former manager of the multiplatinum band Boston, Dorenfeld relied on his industry connections - and Berklee's reputation as the "MIT of pop" - to land the deal with Epic three years ago.
Students have since worked with the record giant every step of the way, from signing musicians and promoting the album, to branding the CD and designing it to look like a diploma. Epic handles the national distribution.
The talented international artists on the album show the strength of tomorrow's contemporary music, Dorenfeld says. The CD also symbolizes the college's strong legacy of female students over the past 20 years: Such renowned artists as Paula Cole and Melissa Etheridge have roamed Berklee hallways, where jazz notes drift out of classrooms and students tote guitars.
Songs on the album range from Mancain's abrasive heavy metal to Valerie Brinker's unique "trip-hop" style, a combination of hip-hop beats and jazzy vocals. Polina, who sings the distinctive "Out of my Mind," is the daughter of Russian pop diva Anka and was born in Moscow. She started composing at age 11.
Adrianne, who sings "Feel You Breaking," has a style influenced by the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco.
"It's nice to be part of something that everyone can gain from," she says. A recent graduate, Adrianne lives in Los Angeles, where she tours and sings full time. She writes songs about love, prejudice, and social injustice.
Her song was inspired by a guy she had a crush on, she says. "Everyone can relate [in] some degree - [to] how it feels to be into someone and be scared and [also] elated."
Many of the artists, including Adrianne, have won local or college song-writing contests and have performed at music festivals nationwide. Recent grad Amanda Williams, who sings "Low" on the album, co-wrote the new Garth Brooks/George Jones hit song "Beer Run." She was trained in classical piano and is the daughter of platinum songwriter Kim Williams.
Heavy Rotation has independently released a handful of CDs since its inception six years ago, and sales have been in the hundreds. But this year, hopes are high that these budding artists will have wider exposure with Epic's national distribution.
Dorenfeld and two student directors oversee several committees that are managing artists, designing the website, and planning a fall concert tour on college campuses and in the artists' hometowns.
"We had a successful launch - now we are working on how to get this record sold," he says.
While class officially meets only once a week, students put in as many as 40 hours a week.
"There's a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears that go into making an album. That's the only way to learn in this industry - just go out and do it," says recent Berklee grad Natasha Bishop. While a student, she helped promote a four-song CD sampler of "Shekinah 13."
Ms. Bishop now works for the Los Angeles-based record firm Leopold Management, which manages Ms. Etheridge.
At a recent Heavy Rotation meeting, Alex Sartakov and Robert Salemo perch over a keyboard discussing how to generate traffic on the "Shekinah 13" website. Sartakov has been with Heavy Rotation for two years as a student and volunteer. Students often stay beyond the class's two-semester requirement to gain more experience.
Their hearts are in performing or composing music, but many find this internship inspires them to pursue dreams of producing a platinum-selling album. Others say the business side is a fall back if performing doesn't pan out.
Faculty adviser Dorenfeld and several students presented a business plan to Epic in 1999. Epic has since made a $100,000 donation to Berklee that will go toward scholarships and will give all royalties from the CD to the college.
"It sounded like a great opportunity to help college students learn the basics ..., but one visit to the Heavy Rotation classroom taught me that these students are already well versed in the music business," says Chris Poppe, Epic/Sony vice president of marketing.
"Everything went off smoothly and successfully. But releasing the album is only half the work. We have a long way to go."
"[Epic] trusted Berklee to find artists," Dorenfeld says. "Students have traveled to New York to work closely with the firm. They gave them great advice ... firm deadlines ..., but they also wanted students to weigh in."
The hard work has paid off: Last month's CD-launch concert at the Berklee Performance Center was sold out. (Sales figures for the CD aren't available yet, but Polina's career has received a boost - she signed with a record label recently.)
A few hurdles lie ahead. For one, compilations are difficult to market because they don't focus on a particular artist. In addition, Dorenfeld says the industry is flooded, with little space on retail shelves for unknown artists.The class is confident it can get the job done, from planning a fall tour to getting songs played on college radio stations, and, ultimately, to helping the novice singers land more record deals.
"It was a huge learning experience for me," says singer Brinker, whose song "Deeper Into Me" was chosen for the CD by her peers. Brinker has one semester left and hopes the exposure will boost her singing career when she graduates.
Regardless of how well the CD sells, the knowledge acquired is invaluable, says Melissa Axel, a codirector of Heavy Rotation. To succeed in the music business, it takes "persistence, talent, dedication.... It's also about relationships. The more you do for others, the more it comes back for you in your career."
For more information, visit www.hrrecords.com.
Tens of thousands of Berklee College alumni have collectively sold more than 100 million records worldwide since the school was founded in 1945 by pianist and MIT-educated architect Lawrence Berk. (His son, Lee Berk, is currently president.) Located in the heart of Boston's Back Bay, Berklee is the world's largest independent music college and is considered a premier institution for studying jazz, rock, and other contemporary music. Some Berklee highlights:
The school has the highest percentage of international undergraduates of any US college, with more than 33 percent representing 70 countries. They come mostly from Japan, Korea, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.
Prominent alumni: Grammy-winning musicians Melissa Etheridge, Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby, and Paula Cole. Also singer Aimee Mann, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist/singer Diana Krall, and artist Julianna Hatfield.
Four-year degrees. A bachelor of music is offered in performance, jazz, composition, film scoring, and songwriting. (General courses such as English and science are also required for a degree.)
Berklee has more than 3,000 full-time students, 24.4 percent of whom are women.
The 1,200-seat Berklee Performance Center hosts more than 130 concerts by faculty and student annually. The school has 220 acoustic pianos.