Sitting on the patio at Grilly's, a restaurant in Mill Valley, California, Josh Davis, a.k.a. DJ Shadow, and his cohorts, Tom Shimura, a.k.a. Lyrics Born, and Lateef Daumont, are reminiscing about their days as undergraduate record moguls. "We wanted to learn from the ground up," says Lyrics. "We wanted to find out what it was like to press up records."
This was back in '91, when Shadow and Lyrics were communications majors at the University of California at Davis. Along with rapper Lateef and two other pals, Xavier Mosley, a.k.a. Chief Xcel, and Jeff Chang, they were part of a multiracial crew that congregated around the campus radio station, KDVS. With money drawn on credit-card accounts and from part-time jobs, parental generosity and student loans, they founded SoleSides Records and began releasing their own singles.
"Things started cranking up in late '93 – we were leaving school to tour for weeks on end, so I was DJ'ing at night and then borrowing some computer to fax a paper in," Shadow says of his first European tour. "And, you know, the keyboard in Germany is backward, so all the letters are in different places."
The hard work paid off. The SoleSides sound – filled with dense beats, obscure samples and intelligent rapping – caught the ear of James Lavelle, head of Britain's influential Mo Wax label. Lavelle began licensing SoleSides' releases in Europe and Japan in 1994, and his relationship with London Records helped spawn the 1996 major-label release of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, which sold more than 150,000 copies in the U.S.
But if SoleSides (which now exists in a new incarnation called Quannum Projects) is best known for spearheading the current renaissance of independent hip-hop, it also represents the vanguard of another movement: the shoestring entrepreneurship of starting your own record label in college.
"I think forming our own label prepared us to take it to the next level," says Lyrics. "Now I know how distribution works, manufacturing, merchandising – the whole thing."
EVER SINCE MICK JAGGER helped to start the Rolling Stones as a student at the London School of Economics, college has been a breeding ground for rock bands, rock critics and DJs. But with a few notable exceptions – Elektra, begun by St. John's College undergrad Jac Holzman in 1950, and Def Jam, formed in Rick Rubin's NYU dorm room in 1984 – college hasn't produced many notable record labels. Lately that has changed. Across an economically flush America, college kids are pooling money saved from summer jobs and carved out of student loans to put out records from bands they moshed to at a frat party or discovered on an MP3 file someone shot their way across the Internet.
"As soon as alternative broke into the mainstream [in the early Nineties], college radio needed something to play," says Joshua Bloom, whose one-man radio promotions and publicity firm, Fanatic Promotion, handles about twenty labels, the majority of them college-based. "Most of them want to play stuff that no one else is playing, so that creates a demand for smaller bands who never would have thought of putting out a record on their own and people who never would have thought of starting their own labels."
The first wave of campus labels started in 1992, when college kids swept up in alternativemania started pressing their own seven-inch vinyl singles. But most of today's kids have found out that it's nearly as easy to burn their own full-length CDs. "I think the biggest reason for the proliferation of college-age labels is that CD-manufacturing prices are so cheap now," says Ben Goldberg, who started his own label, Ba Da Bing!, when he was an undergrad at Vassar and now works as a publicist at the New York label Matador. "You can burn CDs with your own computer, and large manufacturers can't compete with that unless they lower their prices. When I started making records in 1995, it cost one dollar for a raw CD. The last CD I made, I paid fifty-two cents for each raw CD. That's less than three times the cost of a seven-inch [single] for ten times as much music. And there are a lot more people who'll buy a CD than a single."
Though the financial stakes aren't anything like those at a major-label record company, Bloom says that they're nothing to scoff at: "I don't think anyone's in it because they think they're gonna get rich. But if a label like [Indiana University-based] Secretly Canadian could sell between five and ten thousand of everything they came up with, that's what they'd be doing for a living."
The way Bloom does the math, a label that releases two albums a month and sells an average of 7,000 copies of each can gross $1.2 million a year. None of Bloom's labels is close to that level of success, but he thinks that a few of them – the University of Texas-based Peek-a-Boo, the University of Georgia-based Kindercore, Secretly Canadian – have the potential. "One of the reasons I charge these labels so little for promotion," he says, "is because down the road there's going to be plenty of money for everyone."
TRAVIS HIGDON LIKES TO CALL his living room the Peek-a-Boo Industries Corporate Complex. Two blocks from the University of Texas at Austin, sitting on a not-very-corporate-looking couch, Higdon explains the origins of Peek-a-Boo Records. Back in 1995, Higdon was a junior at UT, playing in his first band, the 1-4-5S. Nobody else in Austin much liked the band's amateurish garage rock, but Higdon wanted to save the quartet's music for posterity. "A friend of ours had a 4-track, and he recorded us for free," he says. With $500 saved from taking photographs for the student yearbook and from working at a local coffee shop, Higdon pressed 400 copies of the six-song EP, Unsafe, at 45 rpm. "We ran off the sleeves at Kinko's," Higdon says. "We cut them out ourselves and were up all night folding them."
Higdon, a slight, handsome twenty-six-year-old, admits that at that point, simple fortune took over: "I sent one copy to a local radio station, one to the fanzine Maximumrocknroll and one to Estrus Records, my favorite garage-rock label. That was all the promotion I did. But it turned out Maximumrocknroll gave it a rave review, and I started getting all these orders from Japan and Europe and all over the place. I never intended for any of this to happen. It just kind of fell in my lap."
When the initial pressing sold out, Higdon made some more, eventually selling about 1,200 copies. "We wound up making money – maybe a few hundred dollars," he says. "And that's what turned my head around. I realized, 'This is incredibly easy; I didn't put in any work, and there's all this money coming in. I should put out records for my friends' bands that are better than us. Maybe they'd do even better.'"
Higdon continued taking classes as an advertising major and releasing singles by little-known Texan bands. "It got to the point where I wasn't losing money," he explains. "I was almost breaking even, and I was like, 'Well, I'll just do this and see what happens.'"
With a $10,000 bank loan, Higdon sank his entire net worth into his first CD, Silver Scooter's The Other Palm Springs, which debuted in 1997 at Number Four on College Music Journal's Most Added charts, just behind Björk and Southern Culture on the Skids. The record sold 3,000 copies, Higdon paid off his loan, and recently his bank offered to extend his line of credit to $20,000. "So," Higdon says, "the loan is all paid off, I'm not paying interest on anything, I've got a new loan, and I'm all ready to put out another record."
ACCORDING TO THE U.S. Department of Education, the classic picture of a four-year undergrad experience amid the leafy environs of a research university is far from the norm. Most college students take their education in less-traditional ways. Julio "Gold Toes" Sanchez, who attends the College of San Mateo, in Northern California, is one such student. Driving through the streets of San Francisco in his brown Acura, catcalling the girls dressed down for the unusual 100-plus-degree summer heat, the twenty-five-year-old co-owner of Black-N-Brown Entertainment shouts over the booming sounds of his label's latest work in progress, the gangstarap collection 18 Wit a Bullet. Sanchez is negotiating with Big Pun to get a track by the East Coast rapper for the album, which he's hoping will sell even better than Black-N-Brown's first compilation, this year's 17 Reasons. That record, featuring Bay Area rappers like San Quinn, Mac Dre and B-Legit, has sold a remarkable 50,000 copies. Riding shotgun is Sanchez's adopted brother, twenty-seven-year-old Sean Greene, one of the label's four co-owners. Black-N-Brown is named for their relationship. "Y'know, like, I'm Mexican, and Sean is black, so that's where it comes from," says Sanchez. Both men have seen – well, caused – their share of trouble. Greene is recently out of prison, after serving nine months for what was not his first assault conviction. Sanchez is under house arrest for what wasn't his first firearms conviction. These days, Sanchez is allowed out of the house to go to class or to the office, and he has taken advantage of the strictures: "House arrest has given me a chance. I'm going to college now – I'm taking up business law."
Though Sanchez admits he "might not get a college diploma in four years like your average Joe," he's excited about the screenwriting class he'll take this semester. Citing rap mogul Master P as his inspiration, Sanchez has plans to make his own film. He also intends to take Introduction to the Internet and Micro-computers next semester, to help step up promotion of Black-N-Brown Records. "Right now we got girls we know who know how to work [the computers]," Sanchez says. "We tell them what we need done and they do it. But we gonna learn by the end of this year – we gonna work it."
When Chris Swanson was in high school in Fargo, North Dakota, he wanted free records so badly that he signed up for both the BMG and the Columbia House record clubs. But that wasn't enough, so he signed up again, this time under different names. That still wasn't enough, so he came up with a new plan: He'd take advantage of one club's offer to "sign up a friend and get free music" by persuading fifty of his classmates to join. "I acquired 500 or 600 tapes and listened to all of them," Swanson brags. "And all of them were free."
Just like when he was a kid, Swanson and his partners in the Secretly Canadian label – his younger brother Ben and buddies Jonathan "J.C." Cargill and Eric Weddle – have arranged their lives so that they're surrounded by music. Chris and Ben, undergrads at Indiana University, are clerks at CD Exchange, a used-record store off campus; J.C., an IU alum, works at the university's Archive of Traditional Music, whose gymnasium-size vault houses one of the largest collections of ethno-musicological recordings in the world. And Eric, the "aesthetic conscience" of the quartet, works at the college radio station.
All four are the purest examples of musicus fanaticus geekus you could imagine.
Secretly Canadian's foundations, laid in the dorm cafeteria where Chris and J.C. once worked, bear this out.
"We were sitting there in our white gloves and hairnets, sorting silverware, and we started talking about bands," remembers J.C.
"I was sticking some crap down the disposal, and you were like, 'Hey, so, uh, what type of music you like?'" says Chris to J.C. "And I was like, 'What do you listen to?' and you said, 'This band called the Grifters.' And I thought you were trying to play hardcore, so I was like, 'The Grifters, huh? So which album do you like – One Sock Missing or Crappin' You Negative?' I felt pretty tough after that."
At times, the label just seems like a way for four college guys to yap about bands while pretending it's a business lunch. "The other day," says J.C., sitting in Taiko, a sushi restaurant across the street from Bloomington's town square, "Ben and Chris had this huge argument about Tchaikovsky –"
"Stravinsky," interjects Ben. "Chris was saying Brian Wilson is more interesting than Stravinsky –"
"You were saying Stravinsky is more interesting," argues Chris. "I was saying you can't make that argument."
Ben, who was a music-composition major before deciding that the music department was "really evil" and switching to ethnomusicology, probably could make that argument. But he'd rather square the circle by signing up a local artist who sounds like Brian Wilson and Stravinsky. Secretly Canadian's roster is wildly eclectic, ranging from the math rock of IU grads Ativin to the morose song fragments of the label's best-selling act (and fellow CD Exchange clerk), Jason Molina, a.k.a. Songs: Ohia.
Making a living in the record biz would be great, and at this point, Secretly Canadian is financially self-sustaining. But at least for the foreseeable future, the label is more a "superhob-by" than a career. "There's a band in town that's really good," Chris says, "that's looking to go on the major-label path, and they wanted to do a record with us first, just to get a record out. There's nothing wrong with that – if I could make music and get a steady paycheck, that would be great. But what I love about this label is building a stable of artists who can support each other. I want there to be a sense of community between us and the artists. It's not like, 'We're the label; you're the artist.' We're in it together."
That's a charming ambition, and its modest scale must seem familiar to Chris. In a sense, he's still trying to get fifty kids to join a record club so he can listen to a lot of free music.