Student-Run Record Labels Offer Way Into Music Industry

A growing number of colleges have hands-on programs

Rather than just offering students career-oriented internships in the music business, many colleges are taking a more hands-on approach.

Colleges such as Northeast College of Communications and Berklee College of Music (both in Boston) and Columbia College in Chicago all have a common objective: to give students a taste of what happens in a major recording studio. The ultimate goal is to get a job in the recording industry upon graduation.

"In some respects, they are seeing more of what a record company would do, because most record companies aren't this hands-on," says Barry Marshall, faculty adviser to Northeast's label.

Bill Crabtree, chair of the recording arts department at Northeast College, says that students play multiple roles - from engineering, producing, and playing in the band to promoting and distributing the product.

"The students do the legwork and come up with many ideas and choose the direction of the label. But it would be irresponsible of us as educators to say, 'Do whatever.' We try to give them some guidance to where we think things should go so that they have the best possibility of success."

Last semester, students at Northeast College could be found in the studios supervising and managing their own bands for the school's label, Naked Ear Records. This semester, a new crop of students will be marketing the label's debut release, "Naked Ear Sessions Volume I," as well as searching for more acts to appear on the label's next CD.

"The recording session that we run here is very similar to a recording session in a real business studio," says student Aaron Shadwell, who worked with Missing Joe, a band on the new CD. "You're dealing with everything you are going to deal with in real life."

Local, diverse musicians

The college music labels offer an eclectic mix of music (jazz, rock, pop, alternative) and feature mostly local bands. Naked Ear Records and Heavy Rotation Records (Berklee) both feature Boston-based artists. Columbia College's - Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Program (AEMMP), which is the most-established label of the three - features mostly Chicago-based artists. They not only have a student-run label, but they also sponsor an annual convention for independent labels and offer workshops on how to run your own record label.

Depending on the label, between 1,000 and 3,000 CDs are produced for promotional and distribution purposes.

And who decides to put it on the shelf in record stores? One person is Jill Paolini, a local consignment buyer for Tower Records in Boston, who says, "Everybody has the right to sell their stuff. I feel I really don't have a choice; I give everyone the go-ahead. Who am I to say that a certain band is no good?"

Since these bands aren't well-known, she says that in the future Tower may hook them up to listening stations in the store.

Persistence in distributing

But Sky Traughber, assistant professor of music-business management and faculty adviser to the label at Berklee College, says students must be persistent. He has worked for Motown Records and in the promotion and product management departments at CBS.

"Follow-up is very important," Mr. Traughber says. "The students had distributed the product but found that it wasn't on the shelf. You have to go back and remind them to put it out there."

Although no hard data exist on how many student record labels there are, most experts say the numbers are small but growing. Many recording-industry organizations (such as the Music Educators National Conference and the National Association of Music Merchants) weren't even aware that student-run record labels exist.

Paul Sacksman, publisher of Musician Magazine, says the reason is that the labels don't have much impact in the marketplace. "[The students] are being stunted a little bit, because if they ever do move on to a record company, how will they know how to support their retail sale? They are not going to get that experience, but they will get some production and financial experience. Most bands have a tough time in the distribution area and are sometimes forced to sell from the stage."

"I don't care if the CD earns money or not," says Dennis Rich, chairman of the program at Columbia College. "We give the group a start-up fee and generally it breaks even or makes a small profit. One of the things we want students to learn is to have a better understanding between a record label and an artist."

Peter Montgomery, a member of the Irresponsibles (one of the bands featured on Naked Ear's new release), says he hopes to reap benefits from the label. "The thing with music is that everything is networking. One step leads to another. What's great about this label is that there is free studio time. I'll do anything to get the name out there."

If a college decides to start a student-run record label, Mr. Rich says it should explore the opportunity carefully.

"The reason it's worked for us is that we are in a major urban area and have a very large talent pool," he says. "It's important that students are offered a real experience in a real-life setting. Otherwise, it might not be worth it."

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