DECATUR - For the leader of a student band, such as Millikin junior Chad Bell, successfully releasing an independent album can be a huge undertaking.
Studio time, editing work, CD printing and art, distribution and advertising are expenses groups such as Bell's dari simply can't scrape together the funding to pull off effectively.
In the music industry, record labels pay these expenses to allow groups to produce the best album possible, but most labels wouldn't work with small groups such as dari, who have been together for less than a year.
Until now. With a brand-new program, Millikin University has asked, "Why can't your college be your record label?"
Not only will Millikin's Blue Box Records function as the record label for student bands such as dari and The Great Waltz, the label itself is a class for Millikin students to gain real, firsthand experience about the music business and how a label functions. This includes every step, from scouting and signing bands to coordinating production and promotion of their records.
The class itself is an extension of the university's existing First Step Records, which pioneered the "record label class" concept while working with university ensembles and symphonies, with recordings sold on the First Step Records Web site.
Blue Box Records significantly expands this plan to commercial music by working with local bands that are not part of the class, offering a valuable service to the local music community, while at the same time, giving experience to students.
"I was hired here two years ago, with part of my charge being to re-energize and rethink the record label with the kids, and this is what we came up with," said Matthew Talbott, the faculty adviser for Blue Box Records. "We said, 'Let's start doing some rock music and work with bands; let's do the music that you guys love to listen to.'
"We love the work that we do with classical ensembles, but we did want an opportunity to spread our wings and work with something new."
Members of the First Step Records class, which also contains Blue Box Records, are music industry studies majors. The one-hour class meets several times per week but operates as a business, with different responsibilities delegated to students.
"I've got students whose job it is to make sure the albums get on iTunes, and others whose job it is to make sure the manufacturing gets done and the artwork gets done, and others are making sure the contracts get signed," Talbott said. "It's their job to make this into a functioning record label. I basically say, 'Go find bands that you like, and sign them to our label.' "
Talbott's students didn't have to look far for interested bands. Both of the inaugural bands, dari and The Great Waltz, are made up of Millikin students, although the label will not limit itself to students of the university. Talbott said he foresees a day when Blue Box would represent local artists who have no affiliation with Millikin.
Indie pop-rock quintet dari formed in July and began working with Blue Box in the winter. Fairly young, junior Chad Bell is the oldest member. The rest of the group is composed of vocalist Josh Kotras, guitar player Jake Widenhofer, bass player Adam Cunningham and drummer Sean McDonald. They credit Blue Box with giving them the boost they needed to put together their first album.
"I would say we could have done it independently, but it wouldn't have been the same quality," Bell said. "We were able to hire a professional artist for the cover design that we definitely would not have been able to afford otherwise. Plus we have access to a fantastic studio."
Both bands have made use of Talbott's Great Western Record Recorders studio in Tolono, citing access to equipment not available to them at Millikin's recording studio, Millitracks.
"We did some recording in March in Tolono," Bell said. "(Talbott) wanted us to get a full recording experience someplace we hadn't been before to better replicate what it will be like recording as an indie band someday. I think it was a really valuable experience."
Since its inception, dari has played gigs around the Decatur area, in addition to appearances in Champaign venues such as The Canopy Club. They plan to build into full-fledged touring within the next few years, as their current status as students limits their ability to travel.
The plan is for dari's album to be made available during the first week of Millikin's next semester. Bell said the band hopes to use the CD release as part of freshman orientation.
"We hope that by targeting freshman listeners directly, we can build awareness and show that Millikin is putting out good commercial groups," Bell said.
Dari's album will not be the first Blue Box Records product, however. Power folk group The Great Waltz will release their debut EP, "River City HardCore," as the inaugural album from the label.
Talbott said that as the Blue Box label becomes better known, screening for bands undoubtedly will become more rigorous.
"We have to know that they are a functioning band and like their music," he said. "We have to ask, is the band good? Are they going to stay together for a while or are they going to break up the day after the record comes out? Are they going to tour? What are they going to do when members graduate? We knew that dari and The Great Waltz were pretty serious about what they were doing, so we hand-picked them and said, 'You guys seem ready to rock.' "
First Step Records is a one-semester class, but Talbott believes it can grow and should become a structured sequence of classes that explores different aspects of the music business.
Already it is a class that will be radically different every semester for students working on Blue Box Records, as different bands will be represented in different stages of development. Ultimately, Talbott and his students are still learning how to expand the class, and it is hard to say who benefits more from the experience: the students or the bands.
"Look at it from the kid's point of view who are running this label," Talbott said. "What do they need to learn? They need to find out how the music business really works. If they're interested in a career in PR and marketing in the music business, then what better way to learn than by having a learning laboratory that offers them experience in doing PR for a real band? They need to learn accounting principles, and what better way than by running a real business with real income and expenses?"
Talbott encouraged local bands serious about making music to contact First Step Records.
"I think we'd like it to be a big deal and desirable to be on Blue Box Records because of a reputation for quality," he said.
Chad Bell and dari, meanwhile, continue to fine-tune their album and prepare to take the band to the next level.
"I think we've gotten some good experience for the future in what working with a label will be like," Bell said. "They gave us the jump-start we needed to make the album happen."