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MacEwan University launches record label

Music professor founded Bent River Records to offer hands-on experience to students.

By SALMA MAHGOUB | MAY 02 2017
Paul Johnston. Photo courtesy of Bent River Records.

As a long-time recording producer and engineer, Paul Johnston knows how difficult it can be for artists to run an independent record label. But when he started as head of the recording arts program at MacEwan University’s music department in 2014, he saw an opportunity for the institution to launch one of its own. This spring, the Juno Award-winning Mr. Johnston saw that vision through to the launch of Bent River Records.

One of Canada’s few university-run record labels, Bent River is managed by faculty, graduates and students who produce, distribute and promote the work of recording artists.

“The programs of study at MacEwan complement a record label a lot,” says Mr. Johnston, referring to the university’s jazz and contemporary music program. “Including this in the curriculum of these programs offers a unique learning experience.”

As part of that learning experience, the label’s management team hired six MacEwan graduates to organize the label’s launch and promotional material. Music students participate in the label’s recording sessions, while students in the arts and cultural management program work on press releases and social media updates for the label during their practicum. Mr. Johnston also plans to hold a contest for a Bent River logo.

The label officially launched on April 6, and has already released albums by Acid Bunny, Mallory Chipman and the Obsessions Octet, Canadian jazz artists with ties to MacEwan and McGill University (where Mr. Johnston earned degrees in jazz performance and sound recording).

“The artists are really comfortable that we don’t want any intellectual property of their material,” says Mr. Johnston, adding that the label is based on a crowdfunding model through which profits from digital album and CD sales are split evenly between the artists and the label.

The Obsessions Octet at a sound check. Photo courtesy of Bent River Records.

Running a label is not common among Canadian universities, but Mr. Johnston hopes to see that change as more major recording artists take university teaching jobs and early-career musicians seek out formal training with these institutions. For some musicians, universities have become networking hubs – a role that universities can leverage into active, teaching-based record labels.

“The networking is really important,” Mr. Johnston says. “If I was a student coming out of high school and I saw that a really cool band was associated with a university and that [its] record was made there, that would be a huge calling card for me to go to that university.”

There can be some administrative challenges to getting a university label started, says Mr. Johnston, including developing a production and recording curriculum if it’s not already part of existing music programs. But he says the exceptional learning opportunities that come with it should drive the motivation for the idea. “My biggest advice is just to do it.”

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