Fifteen students, two renowned music producers and four band members filled MacEwan University’s state-of-the-art recording studio in February 2018 to record Nature Of’s upcoming album, The Mean. The local Edmonton band came out ahead of the other 100-plus entries in a contest run by the university's record label, Bent River Records. The prize? Access to the recording studio and promotional assistance from the only active university label in the country.
But the four band members aren’t the only winners in this scenario – learning opportunities for students in the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications have them taking just as much away from the experience.
Filling the back of the studio over several sessions that February were students in Assistant Professor Paul Johnston’s MUSC 467: Recording Studio Production course. As Paul and special guest producer Marcus Paquin worked with the band, students got first-hand experience of taking on a big recording project – studio setup, a producer’s role and how to make a band feel comfortable so they can record a great product. And eventually students took turns behind the console.
“Sitting in front of the controls and taking over the computer while the band was recording was super freaky – all that goes through your mind is ‘Don’t mess it up!’” says Patrick Froese, a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music program. “But being part of making a record that will actually be released was a really awesome experience and a chance to see the kind of pressure you need to be able to work under if you want to pursue a career in recording.”
The 2019 Bent River Records management team, which includes faculty and students (left to right): Kristjan Buckingham, Rose Ginther, Erin Yamabe, Emily Gryba, Emilie Dufour, Paul Johnston and Odessa Ashbey.
The class experience is just one example of the many ways students take part in the innovative learning lab project that is Bent River Records. Students are integrated directly into the label’s management team as staff members, interns and practicum students, working with artists, managing the label’s online presence, handling licensing and distribution, and doing in-house graphic design.
That’s really just the beginning, says Paul. The label is also working with different disciplines to build more experiences for students into curriculum. Forty students in Assistant Professor Constanza Pacher’s DESN 330: Typography II course, for example, take part in a competition to design an album cover. This year, the design students worked on the cover of Nature Of’s soon-to-be released vinyl album – and the artists chose the winner.
“It’s a real-world situation where the artist is the client,” says Paul. “When Constanza surveyed her students, this was their favourite project of the year.”
Bent River is also working with other faculties, including the School of Business, where there is incredible potential to address the changing nature of the recording industry.
“Seeing all the elements – from the business side to planning and recording to post-production and design – come together is the most rewarding part of working with the label”, says Bent River staff member and fourth-year music student Emily Gryba. “Following a project from beginning to end and working with the artists is so valuable. I did an internship in Nashville last summer, which was amazing, and I think being selected for that had a lot to do with the experience I’ve had at Bent River Records. I could really see where I fit into the industry, and I’ve even had a job offer as a result. It’s amazing, really.”