Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vinyl Records: Music by students, for students

By Alex Gray

CHAPEL HILL -- The national record industry is undergoing big changes because of digitalization. But Vinyl Records, a nonprofit, student-run record label for student bands at UNC Chapel Hill, is coming on strong.

Vinyl Records, an official UNC student organization, operates out of a donated room in Hill Hall.

Student volunteers run it, providing services including music production and engineering; graphic design; event-booking, development and promotion; and fundraising.

In summer 2007, Allen Mask, now a senior journalism major and a music and entrepreneurship double-minor, developed the idea for Vinyl while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"What if we had a record label for students, and supported by students, to help create some kind of mechanism for student acts to get their music out?" Mask asked rhetorically. "You would have a 360-degree learning experience for everyone."

An enthusiastic Mask presented his idea to Jeff Dorenfeld, Berklee professor and former manager of Ozzy Osbourne, the famous rock singer. Dorenfeld laughed and called Mask's idea utopian.

But when Mask returned to UNC in fall 2007, he started to make Vinyl a reality.

Mask knew it would not be easy, so he contacted a friend at UNC, Tripp Gobble, to help.

"He (Mask) sent me a Facebook message shortly before school started that said, 'Big plans, hope you're down,'" Gobble said. Gobble, now a senior environmental studies major, wondered what Mask had in mind. When he found out, he liked the idea.

So over the next two years, Mask and Gobble wrote an official business plan, applied for several grants and pitched ideas to UNC staff and students.

"That was two years of blood, sweat and tears to get this thing going," Mask said.

The work paid off. In May 2008, Vinyl received a $25,000 grant from the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative Innovations Fund, sponsored by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. The entrepreneurial fund, launched in 2004, helps creative entrepreneurships get going.

Mask attributes Vinyl's funding success to the business plan.

"We ran it as a startup," Mask said. "Not a student organization but a business."

On a yearly budget of $7,500, Vinyl can produce three albums, operate the studio, maintain its Web site and do all the other tasks needed to run the business. Student government cannot give money for manufacturing albums and merchandise but provides fund-raising loans to support such activities. Sale of merchandise, typically at concerts, also goes toward operating costs, Gobble said.

Vinyl began buying equipment for its own studio, paying for its artists to record in other studios and recruiting new bands.

"We had already signed three bands when we got the grant," Gobble said. "With the money, we were able to get them moving along recording."

Vinyl has a community focus. All artists must apply and provide an audio sample. Gobble and Mask choose who gets to audition. Artists who pass auditions are featured in a battle-of-the-bands concert such as "September Showdown" and "February Faceoff." Students vote for their favorite band, and the winner gets signed.

Nasir Abbas, a senior communications studies major, is a member of Lake Inferior, one of Vinyl's artists.

"We were signed last fall after the September Showdown," Abbas said. Vinyl "allowed us to do a lot of things we wanted to do as a band."

"This past summer we did an East Coast tour they booked for us," Abbas said. "We got to play a couple nights in New York City, which was awesome. That's pretty much everything I wanted to do."

Vinyl "did not have everything installed in the studio yet," Abbas said, "so they paid for us to record in a studio in Raleigh." Lake Inferior's new album, an energetic indie-rock work, will be released Thursday.

Since Lake Inferior's recording, Vinyl has constructed its own studio in room 25, Hill Hall.


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