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Drexel Starts Student-Run Record Label

Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. have nothing to worry about, but a university known more for churning out engineers than hit music is starting its own record label.

Drexel University’s MAD Dragon Records expects to put out its first CD – a compilation of eight or nine bands – next year. The student-run label will be an integral part of Drexel’s fledgling music industry program, which in only three years has grown from eight students to more than 150.

Students will be in charge of artist development, production, recording, marketing, contracts and distribution, while MAD Dragon musicians – also students – will get royalties from the sale of CDs and singles, public performances, and licensing and soundtrack deals.

Drexel officials say the label will help them compete with established top-tier music programs while giving students real-world experience.

“They are going to run into the same roadblocks that everybody else does, but while in school they’ll learn how to move around the roadblocks and succeed,” said Marcy Rauer Wagman, an assistant professor who helps oversee the record label.

Wagman knows of what she speaks: She’s an entertainment lawyer, former lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll band called High Treason, and a successful songwriter and producer whose credits include Tommy Conwell’s chart-topping hit “I’m Not Your Man.”

A&R executive David Stamm said MAD Dragon should serve its students well.

“It sounds like they are not getting into the business, they are IN the business,” said Stamm, who works at Jive Records, home of Britney Spears, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. “Starting an independent label is the best way of cutting their teeth in the music business.”

Among the biggest obstacles, Wagman said, will be setting up a distribution network and getting radio airplay for the first single.

The music, however, seems to be taking care of itself. At a recording session in Drexel’s basement studio, musician Dan Huie effortlessly played a mellow rhythm guitar part, while a student producer and engineer worked a digital editing board. A video camera trained on the board gave other students a bird’s-eye view of the action.

Huie, a graduating senior, is part of the duo Dan and Evelyn, whose song “New Identity” will be included on the label’s first CD. Wagman had put them together in a songwriting class last fall; the result is a collaboration that reflects Huie’s jazz leanings and vocalist Evelyn Keene’s soul and gospel background.

Huie, of North Wales, Pa., said the record label will give budding Drexel artists exposure they wouldn’t have otherwise received. “Let’s say the song goes somewhere,” said Huie, a biomedical engineering major planning a music career. “We didn’t have to put a dime into it.”

Drexel students picked all the music for the debut CD, listening to about 180 songs submitted by 60 bands before choosing an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, R&B, punk and other genres. By including so many disparate tracks, the students hope to appeal to a wider audience.

Drexel has invested $250,000 in MAD Dragon, whose first name is derived from the acronym for the College of Media Arts & Design; “Dragon” is the university’s mascot.

“Drexel has the resources to fund the artists, unlike independent record labels just starting out,” said junior Jennifer Lewandowski of Baltimore, who heads the label’s legal and business affairs department.

Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Music Industry will satisfy part of their course requirements by working on the record label. The curriculum also includes courses on music theory and history, marketing, management, law, songwriting and recording. Students who stay a fifth year can get an MBA as well as their bachelor’s in Music Industry.

MAD Dragon isn’t unique. Other student-run record labels include ‘Cane Records at the University of Miami, Acklen Records at Nashville’s Belmont University, HOOT Recordings at Florida Atlantic University and Heavy Rotation Records at Berklee College of Music.

Since Drexel’s music program is relatively new, none of its graduates have achieved industry prominence. But established programs are proving their worth. Boston’s Berklee, for example, has graduated an array of industry heavyweights and famous artists, including producer Quincy Jones, singer Melissa Etheridge, Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen, longtime Atlantic Records house producer Arif Mardin, and Albhy Galuten, a producer and senior vice president at Universal Music Group.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom, and (MAD Dragon) sounds like another flower. Any entity that wants to invest time, money and energy in the music business, it’s a great thing for the business,” said Danny Goldberg, who was chief of the Mercury, Warner Brothers and Atlantic Records labels before starting independent Artemis Records four years ago.

Billy Prince, the recording studio manager at Belmont University, said the biggest obstacle to a college label’s success is student turnover.

“By the time somebody really learns the process and becomes adept at it, they graduate,” he said.

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