17 December 2011

School Of Rock

IN the words of classic rockers AC/DC, it's a long way to the top if you want to rock'n'roll.

But now, a North Shore partnership between a top promotion company and a premier music technology school is helping artists make that journey a little shorter, regardless of genre.

A little more than a year ago, Maximum Music Group's Brian Watson agreed to teach some business and marketing courses at the Harbourside Institute of Technology. Maximum can boast literally dozens of awards, and the walls of Watson's office are graced with platinum records from his work with Janet Jackson, Lenny Kravitz and Smashing Pumpkins, among others.

"I've been in the business for 15 plus years," says Watson, "and I've always been a bit wary of these music schools that advertise 'You could produce the next hit record!' What I do is not rocket science - what they do in the studio is a little different. I went down there and saw the facility. The first thing I noticed was there weren't any awards on the wall even though Tony (Rudner) is an award-winning writer and producer. There was no swag to entice people or brainwash them about the glamour of the music industry. Every student had a computer terminal and the classes weren't any bigger than 12 people."

Watson was impressed by Harbourside's focus and the opportunities students had both to develop their projects using both professional software and a fully equipped recording studio.

"I saw these students coming in and creating music and then leaving and I said 'Wait a minute, we're kind of sitting on a gold mine here. We have the facilities, you have the students who are obviously a bit more serious and I kept hearing these projects, some great stuff.'" Watson recalls.

After chatting with some clients who attended Berklee College of Music in the U.S., Watson approached Rudner about starting a student-run record label, giving students the chance to take their work all the way from idea to market.

"I said 'Look, I have the infrastructure with EMI, we have the marketing stream, you have the talent, young emerging talent. Why don't we offer them, instead of just graduating with a certificate, let them produce and market a record and release and sell it and try to make money off it?'"

The first product was Hit Records' Sessions Vol. 1, a compilation of tracks ranging from rock to R&B to Christian gospel, all recorded, mastered and marketed by Harbourside students. Volume 2 is on its way. Being able to combine the technical and business sides of the industry gives aspiring producers a launchpad that other schools simply can't offer, says Watson.

"Like I said, I was always a bit jaded about these schools. I felt they took students' money, they told them 'You could do the next Nickelback record, here's how' and they concentrated on tips and tricks without letting them implement or actually try anything. You're left with a certificate and hopefully some knowledge. But there wasn't a lot of hands-on experience and you couldn't walk away and say 'I have a portfolio now.' Students at Harbourside can say 'I am a recording artist. I have a record out with Maximum/ EMI.' Well, they probably just mention EMI, but whatever.

That really excites me. We don't just sell a bag of wishes and good luck."

Not satisfied with studio recording, Watson brought the project to the public with Harbourside Nights, a series of live performances, also recorded for release.

"Some students said they're not ready enough to be on Sessions yet, but they also want to showcase. There's recording in studio, using ProTools, but it's a whole different ball of wax when you're trying to record something live. It can be a disaster," Watson laughs.

You can check out the results - Harbourside Nights 2 - at The Eagles Club, 170 West Third Street, at 8 p.m. Dec. 17.

"We wanted to keep it on the North Shore, we wanted to keep it indie, not at a club where you have to pay seven bucks a beer.

We wanted it to be really grassroots. And the students designed the poster and all the social media stuff."

Some of the seven acts aren't products of Harbourside, but are managed by Harbourside alumni, something that is very satisfying to Watson.

"The fact that the students are off and running and we're giving them an avenue to actually do what we're been preaching to them is really exciting, and it's a lot of fun," he says. "No one else is doing this in an indie way, but backed up with all the marketing and distribution channels. They've going to perform live, it'll be recorded, mixed and mastered and released on Hit Records. So it's a full 360-degree experience."

Along the way, students take in the nitty-gritty of the music industry, from songwriting agreements to SOCAN registration to obtaining a UPC for digital release.

In the face of all the gloomy talk about the music industry, says Watson, "I work hard to establish with students that it's the record industry that's hurting, not the music industry. If you look at how people are embracing music in the Cloud way, like with Grooveshark, it's not necessarily a fair share of the pie financially, but music is still being consumed. Illegal activities are on the decline because if we can super-serve, make music flow like water, the more people can use it the way they want to use it. It's up to us to figure out how to monetize the involvement around music, not just touring and merchandise. I'm a big fan of the long tail, especially for emerging artists. Don't just offer an album, offer an EP, offer a single, offer a remix, offer your lyrics on a nice downloadable PDF. The more you offer, the more they buy."

In Watson's eyes, the Harbourside collaboration just keeps spitting out new ideas. "I envision a little mini-Motown down there," he said. "There's so much more we could do."


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