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Feature Thu Apr 01 2010
"This place smells like bacon."
Although seemingly inauspicious words, this would prove to be the last utterance of the band Japanther before they left the SXSW showcase they were scheduled to headline. Heads down, avoiding eye contact, they made their way out of the venue with gear in hand, off to the van to continue their tour. Left behind was the entire staff of the label who'd organized the showcase, who had brought them on for star power, who had re-arranged their running order so that they could open instead of close, and who'd also been trying to get one of the other showcase bands to show up early with a drum kit due to Japanther's lack of one. But even with the would-be opener gone and the temperature having dropped some 30 degrees outside, the students chose to carry on and make the best of it. They had a label to run — not to mention their professor had come along as well, and this would probably factor into the grade.
As directly quoted from the Columbia College handbook, "Columbia's Arts, Entertainment, & Media Management Program or AEMMP is a student run, small independent record label in conjunction with the Decision Making Music Business course. AEMMP RECORDS is Columbia College's student-managed, not-for-profit record company. AEMMP (Arts, Entertainment & Media Management Program) Records was founded in 1982 by Irwin Steinberg, then chairman of Polygram Records, and Chuck Suber, then publisher of Down Beat magazine and director of the graduate program AEMM department." While the listing goes on to describe the activities of the class and previous albums it has released, the course is sufficiently different from its roots to ignore the previous overview (as well as the artists it didn't quite launch into eternal fame). Although active since its inception, the label had a renaissance of sorts about two years ago, when the school decided it needed to revamp the program. The school turned to Justin Sinkovich — co-founder of music-blog pioneer Epitonic.com, label manager for Southern Records, and online promotion manager at Touch n' Go Records, and musician — to help revitalize the label.
"Removing the 'reset' button was my big change," says Sinkovich. "The summer session of the class would help fix the program, and make it more of a capstone class — something where we can work with real artists instead of just three months of someone's very first album." Under the new rules, the class could be taken three times successively for an entire year. Furthermore, the class could start over the summer session — students signed up for the class could begin in October or May, just as the previous school year ended. With students leaving at a staggered rate, the class could consistently be available to its artists, never have to restart from square one, and finally be able to manage the bands as a true label. To get things started, the class released a compilation last year with several Chicagoland artists on it to moderate success. From those candidates, the students talked to and eventually signed their first two exclusive artists: Pet Lions and Big Science. The students would now be involved with their promotion, PR, business development and booking. Real bands now considered them their real label.
Ashley Brown is the head of public relations for AEMMP. She is a senior from Fort Wayne, wears a leather jacket and boots ("not real leather!" she says) and used to book basement shows in Indy. Poised and confident, does not pause for ums or have any notable tics — a consummate professional who happens to be an undergrad. Ashley is my contact in the class — she leads me to the classroom (today's classroom — the class has no permanent space) and introduces me to the class. While both of their bands have EPs coming out this year, the focus today is elsewhere. This class will be one of their final sessions before their showcase at SXSW Music Festival — which they will all be attending.
The class sits in the round, most students with a laptop in front of them. While the occasional Facebook page is open, the students are also flicking through emails with bookers and festival contacts. While one might think a music label class as a great elective to replace Business Statistics and kick your feet up, the class shows no trace of such slacker mentality. AEMMP Records has a waiting list - they act as their own filter to make sure students coming in are serious about the work. "Old students come back to visit, new students come by before they're even accepted — there's a lot of excitement," says Sinkovich. "The students know a lot of the good candidates already." After the adjustment in set time for Japanther is (supposedly) taken care of, the students move on to one last new topic: signing a hip-hop artist.
Calid Bowen is a tall, serious-faced man with thin dreadlocks and a quiet manner from Columbus. Justin, teaching him in a different Music Management class, convinced him to join the program in the spring. The AR people who manage Big Science and Pet Lions (the label's two current acts) are getting ready to hand the reins off of bands they've managed from the moment they were signed to co-directors familiar with the work. Calid is in the process of signing the label's first hip-hop act. He has made a slideshow presentation of potential signees — bullet points sum the plus/minuses of the band, and YouTube clips give a taste of the music. He is realistic about the indie-rock nature of the class — at one point, one student asks "What does juke mean?" But the class weighs other options — do they have any connection to Columbia? Will they mesh well with our current roster? Calid has some choices to make once they're done with SXSW.
With their supposed headliner having skipped town, the AEMMP Records twitter account politely sums the situation: "You missed Japanther but we still have greats acts up next! @AEMMPRecords at District 301!" The food sponsor (arranged by the students) provides food for the label and for the first couple hundred guests, as well as their large ten-gallon-hat-wearing armadillo mascot to mingle in the crowd. Big Science proves to be a big hit, and the initial crowd does not diminish through the lesser-known acts. Local Austin band Canvas Waiting had been posting flyers for the show ahead of time, and some University of Texas girls who'd come to see them walked away with Pet Lions CDs and smiles on their faces. Big Science headed off back to Chicago via a mini-tour (that AEMMP helped book as well).
The students mingled with the music elite, and met the diverse faces of Perez Hilton, Rolling Stone scribe Christopher Weingarten, and GWAR. They got to plan a party, deal with last minute disasters, and see it through to success and exposure for their bands. But after a long plane ride and a longer spring break nap, they'll return to a classroom in Chicago, and to the realities of student life. And in a few months, some of them may never work in the music industry again. But their teacher hopes they've learned something that can be applied beyond music. "This class teaches everyone how to make production schedules, how to make decisions in large groups, how to execute a master plan while juggling personalities — all while dealing with real money," says Sinkovich. "There have been some major balls dropped along the way. But it's better to learn from their mistakes here than at the first job." While these fledgling label execs won't be returning to Austin next year with AEMMP, chances are high that some of them will return as well-seasoned rookies with that lucky first job.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.