Sharp Darts: Kids With Contracts | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: Kids With Contracts

For better or for worse, Columbia's student-run record label is actually run by students.


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The music industry has changed a lot since 1982, when Polygram chairman Irwin Steinberg and Down Beat publisher Chuck Suber started AEMMP Records, a student-run label at Columbia College that doubles as a music-business prep course. (At the time Suber was also head of the graduate half of the college's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management Program, which gave AEMMP its name.) The majors were monoliths that seemed like they'd stand forever, and the biggest threat they faced was home taping.

AEMMP (pronounced "amp") relied on artists who came to it—the label didn't have scouts or much money to spend, but it did assume manufacturing costs for the music it released. Instructors walked students through the process of promoting and distributing each album (the label didn't do much more than that for its signings) in what amounted to a training-wheels tutorial in the prevailing business model of the day.

When Kimo Williams took over AEMMP Records two years ago, it still had those training wheels on—like the great majority of student-run labels at colleges across the country. (Perhaps the best known, Drexel University's MAD Dragon Records, which has a national distribution deal with Ryko and recently took the Redwalls off Capitol's hands, is closely overseen by faculty and industry veterans.) He decided that Columbia's program, like the music industry itself, was in need of some radical new ideas. The classic record-label narrative, where genius A and R guys and saturation marketing turn a handful of artists into megastars whose platinum sales underwrite all kinds of extravagances (remember "fruit and flowers" budgets?), is a thing of the past. With the advent of the digital-delivery paradigm, labels can't even count on the continued existence of the CD.

Williams's radical new idea: Put the kids in charge. Without old-timers leading them by the hand, they'd be free to reimagine the biz. "When I became the coordinator," he says, "I thought it was important to find a way to interconnect the curriculum that is Columbia College to the record label—in other words, the record label has an accountant, it has a PR department, it has a production department. If we make the record label in the middle and have all these other classes connect to them, we should be able to do all the things a record label does." The old AEMMP, with its limited responsibilities and faculty safety net, was in Williams's opinion "not a real record label." But the new AEMMP, with its student managers, student engineers, and student publicists, gets a lot closer.

"Some record labels in an academic environment can only do so much," he says. "Like they're only involved in touring, or they'll sign an act and that act will really only work under the guidance of the instructor. The worst thing I can do is to save them. I always give them advice—I'll give them some insight based on my experiences—but then I say, 'However, it's your decision to make.' Right now the consequences are an A, B, C, or D. Outside of academia the consequences are jobs, life, and family. So I want them to experience that decision-making process and the repercussions now."

At AEMMP the students do everything, including find and sign the artists, produce and promote their records, design the cover art, and handle the budget. "Believe it or not," Williams says, laughing, "they make bad decisions."

The undergraduates recently made a particularly bad one. Every semester the label signs two artists—the grad students and undergrads each pick one—and then works with them through the creation and release of an album. This spring the undergrads picked local country-rock singer Lisa Perry, who Williams describes as "a girl with a guitar." He suggested that they might want to go for somebody more marketable, but they signed Perry anyway and tried to give her an extreme pop makeover. "They had the songs they wanted her to sing," says Williams. "They were going to change her clothing, do the Jewel thing where suddenly she goes from folk to sex goddess. It was not the right decision, but I let them make the decision."

Neither Perry nor AEMMP was happy with the result, and they parted ways last month, before her album was done. When the program has its industry night and showcase at Reggie's Music Joint on Thursday, as part of the warm-up to Columbia's Manifest Urban Arts Festival (see Theater), only the grad students will have an act on the bill—local electro-pop songwriter Brice Woodall.

That the Perry fiasco could even happen, says undergraduate Lauren Hoffman, is part of the program's strength. The process she and her classmates have gone through—licensing Perry's cover songs, hiring studio musicians to play them—was more involved than anything the old AEMMP would've done. (In light of that, all the students will pass the class—it takes outright dereliction of duty to fail.) "They kind of throw us into the situation," Hoffman says, "but really that's what an internship should be—usually you're just going to get coffee. You might make some good contacts, but you're not actually experiencing any of those things and allowed to make your own mistakes."

The autonomy AEMMP offers its student staff encourages the one thing the music business needs most right now—creativity. Williams talks in glowing terms of a former AEMMP student who's hearing impaired and has attracted some serious investment to develop an online service to connect deaf people with the music business. And after our interview he was heading to his Record Industry Think Tank class to hear student presentations, one of which was about an elaborate system to enhance the release of Woodall's album Sine Wave Sea, which will be sold mostly as a download through a student-designed Web site. The details weren't firmed up, but it will likely involve issuing bar codes to people who buy the record online, which can then be scanned at Woodall's shows to enable extra downloadable content.

"I'm waiting to see how the hell it's going to do," Williams says. Untested ideas are welcome, he insists, "as long as they can justify it. There's no way us older guys are going to go, 'No, that won't work.'"

These days taking a class designed to prepare you for a job in the music industry is a lot like taking cooking lessons during a famine, and the students know it. Andrew Gompers, student manager of the grad program, admits that it's a volatile time for the business. "But at the same time," he says, "I'm kind of looking forward to where it might go."

"I don't see it so much as a negative thing," says undergrad Zach Milus, who manages Woodall on the side. "It's constantly new ideas. Nothing's too weird or out there."

"We just need to experiment," says Hoffman. "We need to go out there and try things and see what the users want. I think unfortunately a lot of heads of record labels are scared of that. But students from Columbia and all across the country are going to come out and go, 'We have a whole completely different idea here of what people want and what people need.' I think we're going to keep moving in those directions where we start doing things that the faculty never thought we were going to do. They do kind of leave it in our hands." She pauses, then adds wryly, "As long as we don't mess it up too much."v

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at

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