Student record label finding its groove

By | March 20, 2008 at 2:06 AM

When the Redwalls recently performed on David Letterman’s “Late Show,” it wasn’t just a boost for the indie rock band trying to make a name for itself. It was also a point of pride for the band’s label – student-run MAD Dragon Records at Drexel University. “Everyone around the country could see something that we were working on,” said junior Amanda Melczer, 20.

At a school more known for engineering and technology, Drexel’s music industry program is an emerging gem. It’s one of the most selective programs at the Philadelphia university, with close to 600 applications for 54 freshman seats, school officials said.

What makes the program unusual is a deal with Ryko Distribution that MAD Dragon chief executive officer Marcy Rauer Wagman helped secure in 2005. While other college-run labels sell mostly locally or through Web sites, Drexel’s artists get their CDs in stores across the country, from mom-and-pop shops to Best Buy.

“When we got the deal with Ryko, that definitely put us on the map nationally,” said senior Christianna LaBuz, 22. “People started taking us a little more seriously.”

MAD Dragon’s latest release, the Swimmers’ album “Fighting Trees,” came out March 4 and the label expects to put out a CD by rootsy musicians Hoots and Hellmouth in June.

Drexel’s program, which gives students real-world experience and a bachelor’s degree in “music industry,” has about 220 students – almost double the number when MAD Dragon was born in 2003.

MAD Dragon President Terry Tompkins, who previously worked for two major record labels, monitors their work during class, asking for reports on everything from artists’ airplay to in-store appearances to displays and posters.

The label’s big coup was signing the Redwalls, a group of promising Chicago rockers that had been dropped by Capitol Records. MAD Dragon released the band’s self-titled CD in October and filmed a video for the single “Modern Diet.”

“We started to gravitate toward what they were doing … because of the college market aspect,” said band tour manager Ronald “Rono” Polito. “Who better to get that message out there than the kids themselves?”

MAD Dragon takes its name from the university’s Media, Art and Design college plus the university mascot. The venture was started with $250,000 five years ago, but school officials won’t reveal its current budget.

Even at a time when more people are forgoing physical CDs to download songs, MAD Dragon’s distribution deal is important, said Randy Derebegian, who works with the label at Ryko Distribution.

Small-label bands are constantly touring and doing in-store appearances, Derebegian said, making the physical availability of CDs very important.

“When a touring band plays throughout the country … they want to be able to go into a store and see their CD there,” he said.

Derebegian said he didn’t even realize some of his MAD Dragon contacts were students when he first started dealing with the label, and was impressed enough to hire one after he graduated. Polito, the Redwalls’ manager, agreed the students work hard but added that “they’re still in a learning curve.”

Everyone is still learning, said Wagman, an industry veteran. Noting the label’s new D3 Digital Music unit, she said the program has to evolve as the music business changes.

“(It’s) the most dynamic time that I can remember,” she said. “It’s so fascinating right now to be at the edge of this wild, wild west.”

LaBuz, a student who headed the label’s related booking agency, said the experience at MAD Dragon has been invaluable. Her work led to an internship at a booking agency in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she’ll return for a full-time job after graduating in June.

“I’ve always loved turning my friends onto new music, which is why being a booking agent … seemed natural,” she said. “I feel like in my 3 1/2 years at Drexel, I’ve gotten 15 years of industry experience.”

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