February 19-25, 2004
Enter the Dragon
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Drexel gets students into the record biz.
Every day someone starts a record label and sinks time, money, significant other's money and passion into a mix of commerce and aesthetics. Outside of the criticism of music journalist pricks, rarely are they graded on these efforts.
Drexel University's College of Media Arts & Design (CoMAD) and its music industry program have, since June 2003, offered students a real-time look into the reality of the biz with its student-managed MAD Dragon Records and Studio. Under Marcy Rauer Wagman and Dr. Barry Atticks, students take courses in music business administration, digital-studio technology and directed music education (a.k.a. playing the damn music). It's very hands-on. They have to sell their CDs -- the first compilation, Unleashed, is released this week -- through the hopefully money-making MAD Dragon label and studio. They can sweat sales, moan about download dilemmas, fuck over fellow students and learn how to oil the PR machine all before flipping their graduation caps into the air.
"We know business is a necessary evil because of this program," says Ben Weldon, 22. He sings with the band Polymer and served as producer for several Unleashed acts. "Artists too often shy away from business to stay pure," he says. "We don't kid ourselves to believe all we need is good music."
MAD Dragon started when Jonathan Estrin, dean of CoMAD and a Hollywood scriptwriting/producing veteran, came to Drexel in 2000 with notions of re-envisioning the media-oriented university for the new century. "I gave them a slogan: "Go MAD.'" says Estrin. "Be creative. Our majors -- fashion, architecture, photography, graphic design -- all emphasize a creative problem-solving approach."
Estrin hired Atticks, a Broadway music engineer, to redesign Drexel's music curriculum. "We discovered schools that have music programs made students choose, before they started, between "creative' or "business' tracks," says Estrin. "Barry and I had been in the entertainment business and knew you had to have both things for a chance at a viable career. We gave students recording technology and a foundation in business as it relates to the music world. So much business, that if you stay for an extra year, you can get an MBA."
Weldon, a fifth-year graduating student from Doylestown, came to Drexel in 1999. "Before Barry and Estrin, the program and its technology weren't stellar. If I wanted to study performance I would've gone to U of Arts."
When Weldon became a sophomore, Atticks arrived at Drexel, teaching ProTools technology to a class of eight. "We were enthralled by the changes," says Weldon.
Under Estrin, the possibilities for a unique applied arts program blossomed. He encouraged Atticks to plan boldly -- to raise money, to build.
When Atticks designed the curriculum, it became obvious they would need a recording studio. To acquire the necessary G4s and recording equipment, they were going to need cash, about $250,000. Academic benefactor Marcia Robbins Wilf (an angel, according to Estrin) heard about CoMAD's plans and immediately fell in love with the music program. She and Drexel split the difference on construction and equipment costs.
So Estrin and co. had a curriculum and a studio. Next they'd need someone to teach industry law, preach songwriting royalties, find ways of distribution in an age of downloads and aid students in running their own label. The search brought Estrin to Wagman, a singer, songwriter -- she wrote "I'm Not Your Man" for Tommy Conwell -- and entertainment lawyer.
"My mission became to not only well-equip studios, but well-equip students with knowledge they need to succeed," says Wagman, who came on board as an assistant professor in 2002. "That means enlisting real-world approaches to everything we teach, courses arranged so students grow and learn within each area at the same pace as they do other areas so to constantly integrate respective knowledge bases with one another."
Along with focusing on promotion, contracts and demographics, she instilled "recording industry operations" -- the class built for MAD Dragon Records -- with one mantra: education, innovation and reinvention of the music industry for the 21st century.
MAD Dragon is based on a principle that labels should become partners with the artists signed. This involves the "talent" in the risk-taking aspects of the business.
"Do new labels lose all up-front capital invested? Most of the time," says Wagman. "We don't believe it has to be that way." She believes MAD Dragon can produce and distribute music at a lower cost via nontraditional methods, including innovative publicity techniques and the Internet's marketing power.
One new business model is based on complaints consumers have about CDs. "Most listeners say they only like one to three songs on a CD, yet have to pay for 12," says Wagman. That's the idea behind "Three by Three," a MAD project where three artists in one particular genre release three songs for a nine-song CD. Then these bands play out together for "instant packaging." They learn how to sell one record in different niche markets.
Unleashed is their first shot, a compilation of psychedelic soul (Peace of Music Collective), hardcore lite (Stereo Generation) and shiny, alterna-pop (Polymer, Alphabet Army). Songs were selected from 60 submissions, chosen for performance and target demographics.
Though each band is a distinct entity -- Polymer just handed a CD to Sony A&R -- students produce, engineer and play on each other's tracks. They also watch out for each other like managers. "Every gig we've played, we've been paid for," says Weldon. "Our fellow students in the program make sure of that."
They know there are limits placed on them by the faculty. "It's our label, but their parameters," laughs Weldon of what sounds like the real corporate world. "But we're MAD Dragon. If we screw it up, we have to fix it."
But how do you teach success as well as failure (a feeling that, as artists, Estrin and Wagman have surely felt)?
"We wanted the label to be a for-profit business, with profits going to support the program and studio's operating budgets," says Estrin. "If they don't make money, they won't have money. Just like the real world. If it doesn't work, the students will have to change the business model. It's up to them to make it work. It's their laboratory, their chance to prove their business skills. We believed in it and nurtured it, and now it is the hottest program in the university."
For more information, check www.maddragonrecords.com or call 215-895-6403.