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College Issue: Hit Patrol

How do you get into the music business? Do the local promotion.

UNC, Chapel Hill

The Old Well, a landmark of UNC, Chapel Hill in winter.

Piriya Photography/Getty

IN SUMMER BURKE’S ideal world, she would be running her own record label and radio station. As it is, the twenty-one-year-old is a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is actually not a bad place to be for someone who dreams about records. With local bands like Superchunk, Polvo, Metal Flake Mother and Dillon Fence getting national press, Chapel Hill is being touted as the next Seattle, or as Burkes puts it, “the next indie mecca.” Burkes devotes a lot of energy to spreading the faith: writing for the entertainment section of the school paper, working as a DJ at the campus radio station, running sound for local shows. Oh, yes – Burkes, a voice major, also sings in a band.

It’s a Sunday evening in November, and Burkes is watching Greg Humphreys, Dillon Fence’s lead singer, play a solo set at the Cat’s Cradle, a popular campus haunt that’s shaping up as Chapel Hill’s CBGB. Most of the guys who work at the Cradle know Burkes – but only as an ardent supporter of the town’s music scene, she stresses, with a disdainful nod to a group of preening young women making goo-goo eyes at Humphreys. (“Why do girls do that?” she says. “I just wanna shake ’em!”) Clad in jeans and a casual jacket and tossing her long hair with tomboyish insouciance, Burkes gets a hearty welcome from several local musicians who will play their own sets later that night. They know she’s there to hear the music, not to check out the cute blond guitarist. They also know that in addition to her many school-affiliated activities, Burkes works as a field rep-resentative for EMI Record Group.

EMI is only one of several major labels that use students like Burkes to help promote their records. CBS Records, now Sony, started the first program for “college reps” in the early Seventies; other majors currently hiring students include PolyGram, BMG and Capitol. College reps are the slave-labor force of the industry: Usually handling two or more states, they hype artists to college newspapers, radio stations and record stores. For an EMI rep like Burkes, that could mean putting up an Arrested Development display in the record store down the block or phoning a radio station in Kentucky to see if the new EMF album is getting airplay. “It’s hard to do in between classes,” she says. “It’s like, you get a lunch break, and you run to a pay phone, call some radio stations.” The pay is low, but the potential to make those elusive music-biz contacts is high, and the perks range from getting free records to meeting musicians. “I don’t think we’re underpaid,” says Burkes, who earns eighty-five dollars a week for her efforts, fifteen of which is intended for expenses. “There are plenty of people who would do this for free. It’s a great way to make connections.”

Record companies typically recruit reps through college newspapers. As a sophomore, Burkes spotted an ad in UNC’s paper, The Daily Tar Heel, reading, “Major label seeks local representative.” Although she hadn’t considered pursuing a career in record promotions, the idea of getting to work with and support artists directly was intriguing. Dealing with the folks who push and play the records, she admits, was less appealing initially; the thought of making a pitch to a radio programmer or going to New York to meet an EMI exec made the normally ebullient student a little uneasy. “That’s ’cause I really hate to schmooze,” Burkes says. “But now I’m learning how – this sounds pitiful, but I’m learning how to schmooze enough to get by. A few months ago, if I would have gone to EMI’s main offices, I wouldn’t have made a good impression. But now I feel comfortable around those people.”

So comfortable, in fact, that when Burkes got to visit the New York office last year, she marched into the office of executive vice-president Fred Davis and presented him with a cassette tape of Metal Flake Mother. “I waited for him to get off the phone, and I told him all about how Chapel Hill is the next Seattle, blah blah blah,” Burkes says.” ‘Cause this band, they’re such artists that they don’t care about marketing themselves – which is cool, but they’re so great! They should be exposed to the masses!” When Burkes told others around the office about this impromptu meeting, they were aghast. “I said his name, Fred Davis, and it was like I’d said E.F. Hutton – clink! It was just so funny.”

Burkes is responsible for covering four states – North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee – although field sizes vary from program to program. Sony assigns about forty students to relatively small areas throughout the country, while PolyGram operates out of nine larger fields that are each covered by two reps. Some indie labels are getting hip to the idea, too: Dan Gill, director of retail promotions at Chapel Hill’s Mammoth Records – home to Dillon Fence and former Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield – has college reps stationed in St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas. “They concentrate on retail for now,” he says. “The most I can do is make a phone call to see if a record’s in stock, but reps can go out to the stores and make sure they’re available and selling. And when a band comes into town to play, the reps put up posters and ask retailers if they want to be put on the guest list.”

Like most students who rep for larger record companies, Burkes juggles these responsibilities with others. “Radio’s the main thing for us; we have to call stations every week to make sure albums are getting played,” she says. “College and independent press are also important – especially when there’s a show coming to town and you want to get it listed in the calendar of one of the local papers.” In addition, major-label reps are often asked to make travel arrangements for visiting artists – a feature that Gill, who just started using students this past July, hopes eventually to incorporate into his program: “I’d like our reps to be able to greet bands when they arrive in town, make hotel reservations and find places for them to eat, make sure they get to interviews.”

For many reps, the desired payoff for all this work is a real job in the music business. Burkes, who plans on graduating at the end of her junior year and has her eye on a long trip to England, may try to parlay her association with EMI into a position with the British label Creation Records. “My boss is really tight with their president,” she says. “If it weren’t for my connection to EMI, I wouldn’t be able to even think about working for them.” If that doesn’t work out, Burkes, who is considering getting into artist development or tour management – “I wouldn’t want to be a regional promoter, to sit on the phone all day long” – has been told that she’ll be up for a job with EMI Records in England.

Alyson Shapero, 26, a former CBS rep who now directs Sony’s college program, is cautiously optimistic about post-graduation prospects for students like Burkes. “We’re here to develop talent, to train kids,” Shapero says, “and our company is very dedicated to the program. I look for an organized person, a person who’s smart and creative, a person who’s passionate about music and eager to learn. And hopefully – though it’s never a given, I can never make promises – I’ll be able to place that person in the company.”

ON A RAINY NIGHT in December, Hilary Lerner-Shaev, 25, is watching the new Jesus Jones video. Not in her bedroom or her parents’ den, where most pop-music enthusiasts in their teens and twenties would view it, but in a private New York City studio. In this wood-paneled room, several industry insiders have gathered to sip wine, sample pâté and get a sneak preview of a video that civilians won’t be able to see for another month. Lerner-Shaev confers with a group of thirtysomething suits, her business associates, and chats up guests representing MTV and popular radio stations. For EMI Records’ young senior director of alternative and video promotions, it’s all in an evening’s work.

Afterward, Lerner-Shaev reflects on her precocious success. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I wanted to be a lawyer or maybe a journalist.” Then, as a freshman at Duke University, in North Carolina, Lerner-Shaev read an article about college-rep programs: “I thought it sounded like the coolest thing in the world.” By her sophomore year, she had landed a position repping for CBS. For the next two and a half years, Lerner-Shaev hounded college media and retailers in the Carolinas. It was her duty to make sure the new Fishbone record was in stock everywhere, to hang up posters for the new Waterboys album, to phone radio stations and find out if Midnight Oil was in heavy rotation.

“I worked my ass off,” says Lerner-Shaev. “And I loved it. There’s something about being young and naive, where you don’t look at the job as a chore. You think: ‘I’ve got two states to cover – I’m gonna wreak havoc! I’m not just gonna mail this record to that radio station in Columbia, South Carolina; I’m gonna get in my car, drive six hours and deliver it in person!’ ” Lerner-Shaev’s enthusiasm was rewarded when, upon graduating in 1989, she was immediately hired to head up two promotion departments for a new major label, SBK, in New York City. At the age of twenty-two, Lerner-Shaev went from pitching to college journalists and radio programmers to dealing with MTV, VH-1 and major-market adult-contemporary radio stations.

Two years later, when SBK and Chrysalis Records merged with EMI, Lerner-Shaev was put in charge of alternative-music and video promotions for the new EMI family. She was also put in charge of a new EMI college-rep program, which now employs thirteen students, including Summer Burkes.

Like Burkes, Lerner-Shaev projects equal parts ambition and adulation when she talks about working with artists. The young executive echoes the young student in professing her all-consuming love of music and insisting that for her the biggest perk of repping was helping to break fledgling acts. “I had to promote Sinéad O’Connor’s first record, The Lion and the Cobra, since her label was distributed by CBS at the time,” says Lerner-Shaev. “I remember the day my record shipment came in. I opened the box and put the record on my turntable – I didn’t even own a CD player then. And I just sat there by myself, staring at this picture of this bald woman and listening to her and thinking that this was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard in my life.”

Most gratifying for Lerner-Shaev, she says, was working with Indigo Girls and Living Colour at the times those bands were breaking. Living Colour was especially popular in her region, and whenever the band members would come to town, Lerner-Shaev would drive them to interviews and photo opportunities. “When I went to my first MTV awards, after getting the SBK job, Living Colour was in the audience,” she says. “And I went up to Corey Glover and Vernon Reid” – the lead singer and guitarist – “and they were like ‘Hey, what’s up?’ “

Cherise Gambino, a senior at the State University of New York at Buffalo, has been repping for Sony for two years, and she agrees that when it comes to acknowledging the importance of college marketing, rock & roll bands never forget. “We worked Pearl Jam at the college-radio level for months before they broke,” says Gambino, 22. “After they became huge, I had a chance to go backstage at Lollapalooza in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and meet the guys in the band. Eddie Vedder and the rest of the guys were very appreciative.” With good reason. Gambino maintains that Sony’s college department helped sell a good portion of the initial 500,000 copies of Pearl Jam’s breakthrough album, Ten.

“Reps have the advantage of getting a taste of all different aspects of record-company publicity and promotion while they’re still in school,” says Gambino’s boss, Alyson Shapero, who repped for CBS while attending Michigan State University in the late Eighties. “This past year, our reps have even come up with ideas for national campaigns that we’ve used. And they have direct contact with bands when they tour; they take them to radio and newspaper interviews. They’re hands-on.” Peter Mullen, who supervises PolyGram’s college reps, stresses that direct contact with record buyers is another key element of the program: “There’s a lot of phone work for them, but there’s also a lot of face to face that they can do in their own back yards. They’re our reality check, really; they get the real vibe on our records.”

Because of other recent mergers, Mullen, like Lerner-Shaev, can assign reps to promote artists on several labels. Students repping for PolyGram handle acts on A&M, Mercury, Motown and the independent labels Morgan Creek and Megaforce, in addition to projects of the PolyGram Label Group and PolyGram Classics and Jazz. For Mullen, dealing with diverse rosters means not having to relegate his reps to the left-of-center guitar rock most often associated with college radio. “Our reps’ top-focus projects can include any genre of music,” he says. “Because the way our college profiles are put together, the reps know where jazz opportunities are at radio, where rap opportunities are, even where classical opportunities are. What we’re trying to do, essentially, is not just wall in the college-rep program in the alternative arena.”

Lerner-Shaev supports the theory that reps should be open-minded about the music they promote. “When I was repping, I would get ten copies of every rock record that came out to distribute,” she says. “The focus of my job was to work with acts like Fishbone and Suicidal Tendencies. But when a new Warrant album came out, instead of saying, ‘Forget it; I’m the cool college-music person,’ I would think, ‘I’ve got this station WKNC – in Raleigh, at North Carolina State – that only plays this sort of … hair music.’ ”

There was also this Folkways project CBS assigned to its reps – like, a bunch of covers by all these really old folk artists,” Lerner-Shaev says. “I’m sure there were some reps that went out to a record store the day before their reports were due, put up a display, took a picture, wrote some bull about radio giveaways they did, xeroxed the report and sent it to the company. Those of us who were more into what we did started working on the project the minute we found out about it.”

According to Lerner-Shaev, even these less glamorous aspects of repping can bring considerable satisfaction: “To get an article in a local paper, and then go into a little record store and find out that because of that article, a record sold twelve copies that week when it had only sold one the week before – you think, ‘Cool, I did something.’ I think the way you look at it, especially when you first get into it, is that you’re trying to make somebody famous. So you run around trying to make somebody famous, and you have a great time doing it.”

Carrie McLaren, a senior at UNC at Chapel Hill, offers a less enthusiastic take on repping. McLaren, 23, heard about Sony’s rep program while doing a summer internship at Creative Loafing, an alternative newsweekly based in Florida. She applied – as a lark, she says – and was tapped after a Sony representative put in a call to the music director of WXYC, the campus radio station, where McLaren works as a jock. Like her fellow UNC undergrad and WXYC DJ Burkes, McLaren is passionate about music but was originally a little wary of the industry that markets it. McLaren, however, couldn’t reconcile her fiery idealism with the work she had to do.

“My boss was great,” says McLaren, a good-humored young woman whose soft-spoken manner belies her intensity. “I have no complaints about Alyson. The job itself just wasn’t for me. The music business is for businesspeople and marketing people. It isn’t, in my opinion, for people who give a damn about music I had figured that at least the other college reps would be into music – and I’m sure there are some who are; it’s a mistake to generalize. But when I went to the New Music Seminar, which I had been pretty psyched about, I met other reps, and often, to spark conversation, I’d ask them where they were from and ask if they liked such and such – you know, a band from their town. ‘Huh? Who’s that?’ You know what I mean?”

Burkes agrees: “I think that a lot of people working in the music industry are in it first because they have business savvy or good PR skills and then because they like music.”

That’s the Catch-22 of repping, according to Nils Bernstein, a publicist for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records – the celebrated indie label that gave Geffen, and the world, Nirvana. “A lot of the kids who want to rep, ironically, aren’t into the bands on the major labels that offer these programs,” he says. Bernstein admits that Sub Pop, like most other independent companies, can’t use field representatives because it simply doesn’t have fields: “We cover the whole country out of one office, basically.” And even those indies that are starting to use reps, such as Mammoth Records, don’t – can’t, really – offer pro-grams as established or visible as those offered by the majors.

But for McLaren, who’d rather listen to Robert Johnson than, say, the La’s, Sony’s roster wasn’t the problem. “A lot of what’s called alternative music bores me, anyway,” she says. “I mean, the Spin Doctors and Pearl Jam were considered alternative until the college department ‘broke’ them, and I couldn’t care less about those bands. I had to throw a party for the Spin Doctors, and the company gave me a hundred bucks and told me to do it in some frat bar, because the Spin Doctors were supposed to appeal to frat-like crowds. I mean, if college music should be defined as anything, it should be as music that is challenging, that makes you think.” McLaren was disap-pointed that she wasn’t encouraged to promote Sony’s Bluesmasters or Contemporary Jazz Masters series. “The orders came from so high above in the company that even my direct boss couldn’t decide what our priorities should be. The businessmen just didn’t think that the reissues would sell with college students. Worrying about money, you see, takes all the fun out of it.”

For Burkes, getting the opportunity to involve herself in the music industry as a rep means getting the opportunity to make a small contribution to the lessthan-ideal world. “Music is my life,” she says, “and I’d love to be able to let artists know that record companies aren’t all terribly evil, you know?”

BACK IN THE mid-Seventies, a group of buddies at Syracuse University decided to get into the music business. Harvey, Dan, John and Phil had worked for the campus radio station, WAER, and were interested in various aspects of the music media. Had it been ten or twenty years later, these bright-eyed young rock fans might well have auditioned for VJ slots. At this time, alas, MTV was but a twinkle in some aspiring media honcho’s eye (John’s, as it turns out, but more about that in a moment). So the four friends decided to rep for record labels – Phil for A&M, the others for CBS.

Today, Harvey Leeds, class of ’75, is vice-president of AOR promotion for Epic Records, a division of Sony. Dan Neer, class of ’77, is a disc jockey for WNEW-FM, New York’s original album-rock-oriented radio station, and the owner of his own production company for syndicated radio shows. John Sykes, ’77, cofounded MTV in the early Eighties and is now executive vice-president of talent acquisition and marketing for EMI Music Publishing. And Phil Quartararo, who graduated in December ’77, is president of Virgin Records.

One might expect these alumni of the college-rep program would by now be too jaded to reflect fondly on their first encounters with celebrities. Yet Sykes can’t suppress a boyish grin as he tells of the time he and Herbie Hancock wound up pushing Sykes’s Toyota up a hill in a foot of snow on the day Hancock performed in Syracuse. Or how members of the Clash turned up their noses at his little car when Sykes had to pick up the group at the local airport. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m just a kid, this is all I have,’ ” Sykes says, laughing. “And one of the guys in the band said, ‘Listen, I don’t care what you’ve heard about us – we always get a limo.’ ”

While Quartararo was a rep, he was invited by A&M’s head of artist development to see an unknown English band called the Police play a gig in Buffalo. “It was horrendous out, cold and snowy and miserable. And these three guys” – Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers – “pull up in a beat-up turquoise station wagon and set up their gear in this bar. It was their first American date, and there were four people there to see it – the label executive, the club owner, the bartender and myself.”

Leeds and Neer repped for CBS during the period when Bruce Springsteen’s star was rising – “a very magical time,” Leeds says. Neer wound up winning two national promotion contests that CBS sponsored for its reps. “I got Baskin-Robbins to do this ‘Tenth Avenue Freezeout’ ice-cream promotion,” he says. “I was the ultimate Springsteen fan. When Bruce came to Oswego” – a town in upstate New York that fell within Neer’s field – “I got about twenty tickets so that I could bring every-body in the press. I was the disciple of Bruce.”

Oddly enough, Leeds had had to persuade Neer to apply for the job. “I love music, and that’s why I got into it,” says Neer, “but I wanted to be a disc jockey all along.” Although he dropped out of the program after a year, he says, “I think that any time you can get involved in an internship-type program, it’s a good thing, because the competition for jobs in the music industry right now – and at radio stations and in the media – is furious.”

Leeds agrees that the learning-on-the-job aspect of the rep program is a key factor. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet who graduate college and want to get into the record industry,” he says, “and you ask them what they did in college, and they tell you, ‘I went to college.’ When I was in college, my friends and I lived the record and radio business – that was our entire existence; going to class was secondary. We learned about the business from the street and the dirt up, big time.” Sykes, to whom Neer passed the CBS baton, also values the street smarts that reps are in a prime position to develop. “College reps get to be out there – in the record stores, at the radio stations, backstage at shows. They’re not insulated in some ivory tower, xeroxing memos; they can really smell, touch and feel the record business. If you want to be a doctor, you go to med school; if you want to be a lawyer, you go to law school. The college-rep program is the closest thing our industry has to a farm system.

“I’m amazed more labels don’t have elaborate rep systems,” Sykes adds. “In fact, when budget cutbacks occurred a few years ago, they were the first to go.” (MCA, for example, has discontinued its rep program.) “That was extremely shortsighted on the part of the industry. The artists that college kids are listening to today are the mainstream stars of tomorrow. Look at Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., U2 – you could go through a whole list. There should be more full-blown rep programs.”

Barry Levine, vice-president of marketing for the BMG Distribution Group, which handles the Arista and RCA labels, is proud of his efforts toward this end. A former CBS rep, Levine went from directing the CBS program to developing a small one for Arista, which was eventually folded into a larger one for BMG. “I can’t speak for other current programs, but we try to involve reps in every aspect of the business, including sales and distribution, before they graduate,” Levine says. “A college rep will actually go out on the road with one of our regular sales reps for a day and experience what it’s like to sell an account. And our president knows the names of all of our reps, as do the other executives. They’re part of the system.”

And that system is an ever-evolving one, as Sykes points out. “Believe me, the music business is going through a huge change right now,” he says. “We’re looking past the baby boomers to a whole new generation of young people – a gen-eration with different ideas and pressures than those of us in our thirties and forties. And there’s no better way to understand those ideas than to deal with the young people who are living and breathing those pressures. And to find those young people, you look to the college-rep programs.”

In This Article: college, Coverwall, Radio, record label

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