The UNC-Chapel Hill campus isn't exactly bustling late on a Sunday morning. It's a few minutes after noon, and, out of sight, one assumes students are either sleeping off Saturday night or parked on the couch in their pajamas until the demands of a new week beckon. But inside the aging brick building that is Hill Hall, the school's music center, people are gathering.
Students filter one by one into a classroom, the long hallway outside carrying the occasional echo of a violin being bowed in some unseen practice room. The classroom's golden haze collides drearily with the sleet that's falling outside, and a dormant piano and a whiteboard littered with jumbled characters occupy a far corner.
Each week, nearly a dozen students convene in this classroom to discuss Vinyl Records, an extracurricular project that happens to be a fully functional record label they operate on their own. Around an array of tables assembled into a U, the students have titles—a booking agent, a producer, a guitarist named Ryan Dowdy, who's a member of one of the label's first bands, Lafcadio. They're waiting when, finally, Vinyl's co-founder, Clarence "Tripp" Gobble, arrives. Everyone straightens slightly.
Gobble is tall and lanky with a curly mane of blond hair. Dressed in a navy hooded sweatshirt decorated with a Phish logo, Gobble, 20, looks an unlikely candidate to be the head of a business. But without much small talk, he opens his laptop, scans it for the first item on today's agenda and begins the meeting. Topic by topic, Gobble leads the group, moving from financial questions to when the label's first three releases—due at the end of month—will be available on Amazon and iTunes. Sure, they might be students with closely cropped mops of hair or necks wrapped with single-colored scarves, with a leader named Tripp who seems slightly uneasy with the spotlight. But make no mistake: Vinyl Records—well-funded by a university grant and highly organized through meetings just like this one—runs like the business it is, and it's ready to spread the music it hears on its campus.
Vinyl Records began to take shape in the summer of 2007 when co-founder and Chapel Hill native Allen Mask became frustrated by college bands having to reinvent the wheel just to play a show or put out a record. From buying expensive equipment to wading into self-management, he saw young musicians spend too much time worrying about their business rather than their art. Today, dressed in a black overcoat, Mask—towering, and speaking in a deep baritone—acts well beyond his 20 years. He's calm, assured and reflective, recalling Vinyl's origin as if remembering something that happened a decade ago.
Having returned from a summer semester at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Mask told Gobble he'd like to start "a college- or university-based music incubator program." The idea would put every step in students' hands, from writing business plans to obtaining grants to recruiting talent that could mix, produce, write, record, promote and program. It would function almost like an athletic team's farm system or vocational training at a technical school, building bands and feeding them, like employees after graduation, to something bigger. "In a perfect world, these artists will get what they need from us and somebody who's at a higher-up label will sign them and release their next album," says Gobble.
So, armed with an interesting concept and no experience in the music business above playing in bands or working at a music venue, Gobble and Mask began, as they put it, "flying by the seat of our pants." They investigated the history of major labels like Trojan, Stax and Columbia and met with Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan, who shared the story of his label, from his employee structure down to the specifics of getting a record pressed. If Mask and Gobble didn't understand something—intellectual property law seemed a particular obstacle—they made enough calls to get a clue.
Logistics falling into place, Mask and Gobble began looking for bands. With flyers, blog posts and e-mails to campus listservs, they called for bands with at least one UNC affiliate to apply to the label. An initial field of 30 was reduced to 10, of which six were selected by Vinyl as finalists based on live performances. The bands faced off at an on-campus showcase last fall, followed by a three-day online student vote to determine the best. Lafcadio, Lake Inferior and Apollo landed the record deals.
"It's the whole idea of serving the university and everything being a kind of voting-based system—seeing what the students end up deciding," says Gobble, who estimates 20 percent of the student body voted in the initial showcase. The label will use the format once again in the spring to add a fourth artist.
Gobble views the system as a challenge to the student body. In other words, they picked the bands, so now they should back them: "They wanted a hip-hop artist, they wanted an indie-pop kind of group, and they wanted a folk-rock kind of thing," he says. "We'll see what that ends up meaning this spring in terms of how they respond ... Are they going to support them? Are [they] going to buy their album?"
Vinyl hopes the student body reacts favorably, especially since UNC paid for the label's launch. The Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative, a program of the Kenan Institute that's supported new businesses from a coffee company to several Web sites, awarded the label a mostly debt-free $25,000 grant that has gone toward pressing discs (despite the name, the music isn't slated for wax treatment quite yet) and putting on concerts. For labels, start-up costs can be overwhelming.
"You definitely need a little money saved up [to start a label]," says Paul Finn, a Carrboro resident who's launching his Odessa Records with three local records this spring. "Even if you spend as little as possible, manufacturing alone can be relatively expensive. And there's so much more to it than manufacturing."
Student-run labels aren't common, but they're not unprecedented. Drexel University recently launched the student-run MAD Dragon Records, a similar program that has seen high success but doesn't require its artists to be connected to the school. Matt Poindexter, who works as the label's publicist, feels most institutions avoid this kind of thing because they're afraid to commit to popular music.
"It's not academic music," he says. "It's not like schools recording Bach concertos."
For the foreseeable future, Vinyl Records will be a not-for-profit business. Their goals are less about the bottom line, especially given the record industry's falling profit margins across the board. When asked how success will be measured, Mask says, "Mindshare is market share." Gobble agrees that getting people's attention will be important, adding that he'd like to develop a curriculum based on the experience and take it to other schools.
With matriculation looming each May (the majority of its staffers are now juniors), turnover is a hurdle the group has yet to cross. The plan is to address structural issues in the spring, but almost everyone in the organization agrees it will take getting freshman involved right away to build experience, with the co-founders remaining on in some sort of advisory role.
But, for now, Vinyl's workers are excitedly looking at the immediate future: On Jan. 30, the label will celebrate its first three records with a release party at Local 506. No matter how full the floor is or how many records they sell, they think it's been money well spent and, according to Poindexter, an invaluable experience.
"If we were at a regular record label, we would just be a lot of college students," he says, "being interns, getting coffee, returning e-mails to distributors." For now at least, they're their own bosses.
Vinyl Records' entire roster—Lafcadio, Lake Inferior and Apollo—plays a release show at Local 506 Friday, Jan. 30. Music starts at 8:30 p.m., and the show is free.