There is likely not a person who mowed the lawn or vacuumed the house or did other mindless work without having “How to Save a Life” stuck in their head on at least one of those Saturday mornings in 2005. That September marked The Fray’s debut.
But just a few months earlier, The Fray was just a group of promising college students finishing their spring semester at the University of Colorado-Denver, and they had submitted a demo of their music to CAM Records, the university’s student-run label. By the time CAM’s compilation, Colorado Cuts, was released in November, How to Save a Life was on its way to eventually topping Coldplay’s X&Y as the best-selling album of all time. Rightfully, CAM still lists The Fray as one of its own.
CAM Records is one of now over 150 schools with student-run record labels. Some are classes, others clubs. But they don’t operate as such. They run the full record-label gamut with A&R, marketing, branding, concert booking, recording, throwing release parties, even launching international artists into the U.S. scene for the first time. Below are six other student labels with standout programs.
Columbia College Chicago
If Columbia’s AEMMP Records; were an English class, it would be churning out recordings like five-paragraph essays. In 2014, it dropped seven albums—and one of those, Chilled and Fulfilled;, was written, recorded, mixed, and mastered in the English-paper equivalent of night-before crunch time: four days. Three of its most recent December releases include: An EP titled On My Soul ; from Sidewalk Kal, an R&B artist with slow, deliberate beats and a rap that fluctuates between loosely subdued and aggressively gripping. A split EP ; from The Papers and The Just Luckies, the former a percussion-heavy folk trio with group-effort vocals and the latter an unplugged female duo, driven by frequent bouts of ukulele and tambourine. And thirdly, alt hip-hop artist Cae Jones’ EP, Too Uncool;, a collection of songs on a spectrum containing freaky fast raps and snippety snare on one end and a drifting voice carried by slow guitar melodies on the other.
Along with spiffy aesthetic promo pics, the Blue Ridge Mountains yield quite a bit of blues and folk too—and Split Rail Records has capitalized. Tucked in the hills of Boone, North Carolina, Split Rail boasts eight performing artists and one signed, featured artist—who, most recently, is the twangy singer-songwriter Kennedy Fitzsimmons. The label’s performing artists—which have ranged from a bluesy, Jack and Meg White-inspired rock duo (Someday Rumble) to a “gypsy folk jam grass” four-piece (Bootstrap Slick)—put on shows at a host of events, and not just at concert venues. Once a month, Split Rail partners with Chick-fil-A and transforms the fast-food restaurant into a cozy coffeehouse for an acoustic showcase. And for the first time this fall, Split Rail hosted a 5K run, themed “Music Moves My Sole” and stocked with mini concerts. Nothing like some live music to get you moving before you collapse near Mile 3.
Since its inception in 2004, MAD Dragon Records has racked up almost as many titles as it has figurative trophies. Frankly, there is a lot of bragging to be done. The label has received 35 nominations from the Independent Music Awards for various releases and has been twice awarded the College Label of the Year. Music from its artists has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. And that music comes not just from Drexel musicians or hyper-local obscure indie dudes trying to get noticed, but—in its 2012 Making Moves series, at least—from bands like A Great Big Pile of Leaves and Motion City Soundtrack. (One MCS song on the 7” release from MAD Dragon, called “Severance,” is a song I put on repeat almost more than “L.G. FUAD” in 2005.) MAD’s most recent release is a 15-track, mixed-genre compilation, Chronicle of Sound: 2014.
New York University
Village Records used to do things the old way: make records, on physical copies. Up until a couple years ago. Now, it’s all A&R and promotion, using the tools wrought by the digital age. And not just promotion for New York-local acts, but even global rising talent. Each fall, the label collaborates with CMJ for the series “CMJ Sessions @ NYU,” a recording stint with an international artist trying to break into the U.S. scene. This year it was Christian Tiger School, an electronic duo from Cape Town, South Africa, which blends dreamy synth with outdoorsy ambiance. Additionally, Village Records took on the electro-pop, self-described “future soul” duo Broken Luxury, from Brooklyn, which relies on improv to drive its experimental, vocals-heavy collabs.
Record-label competition is nothing if not between two of them on one college campus. At least they have their niches: Marshall Street Records, in addition to the several bands and artists it supports, releases a compilation of electronica, called ElectroCuse, each year, while Syracuse University Recordings hosts an annual showcase for its artists. This fall, there were 10—all of whom are students and mainly singer-songwriters. Sometimes, bands signed with MSR will even attend the showcase. At least the competition is friendly.
Berklee College of Music
And then there are the colleges that are very ambitious and instead have three record labels on one campus. That’s Berklee. The newest, launched in October 2013, is birnCORE Records, which releases digital-only recordings of live shows; past artists include Nashville singer-songwriter Brooke Waggoner and the Manchester, U.K.-based singer-songwriter Jessica Hoop. Heavy Rotation Records promotes Berklee-local artists—which occasionally means special exposure opportunities at SXSW, Lollapalooza, and CMJ—and puts out an annual compilation record, Dorm Sessions, each spring. Lastly, Jazz Revelation Records supports jazz musicians across the globe and releases a compilation at the end of each school year. Its latest, Upswing, included a vibraphonist named Vid Jamnik—from Slovenia.