Inside Pogo Records Recording Studio in downtown Champaign sit vintage microphones, speakers and stereo equipment that look like they could have been used during one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.
Memorabilia of Jim Henson’s Muppets lines tabletops and a fake cup of spilled coffee lays on top of a box filled with switches, dials and meters.
High above it all, completing a collecting of quirky playthings, a statue of Beethoven’s head gazes over the studio where 13 student bands from the University of Illinois spent their weekends recording Green St. Records’ Playlisted last February.
Green St. Records is not a record label in the conventional sense-there’s no contracts, no full-length albums. It is the brainchild of four University of Illinois students who wanted to help student musicians get their name out and their tracks heard. Playlisted is GSR’s second annual compilation of the best bands on campus.
“The most important thing to us is spreading the great music a lot of people don’t know about,” said Jason Drucker, president of marketing at GSR and one of the four founders. Josh Morton, president of public relations, Jonathan S. Rozen, president of advertising and Aaron Rosenthal, president of artists and repertoire, share the same vision.
“We want to create a musical representation of the student body,” said Rosenthal.
GSR gives all students involved experience in every aspect of recording a professional album-the four presidents and a staff of 30 students run every facet of the operation including recording, marketing and promoting an album of the same quality a major record label would produce.
“Bands do it for exposure and the experience. Same as the students on the staff. That’s what it’s about for all of us-getting real world experience,” said Drucker.
Each fall, GSR auditions bands-at least one-fourth of the members must be a student-to have one song on the annual compilation.
GSR scouts local bars, checks out open mics, hangs out at house parties and flyers the hell out of campus asking “Want to be on a record label?” to attract new talent.
“We have a staff of 34, and come fall, we turn into one big recruiting machine,” said Drucker.
The sound quality of the submission doesn’t matter. GSR understands that most bands don’t have the resources to make a high-quality recording of their music-the goal of the organization is provide musicians with a recording of the utmost quality they can use to promote themselves.
“Sound quality is out the window when looking at musicians. We’re looking for actual music quality,” said Morton.
The process of picking the bands that will be included on the album begins at the end of the fall semester. The entire staff gets together and listens to every song submitted. In order to compile a diverse collection of musical styles, staffers are asked to put their personal taste aside while evaluating.
“We try to stay really objective in everything we listen to. There are so many styles out there. This is a compilation CD of student music-we want to make sure we’re not discriminating on personal taste,” said Morton.
When a band is accepted, they get studio time in a professional studio, a professional photo shoot, two managers and a publicist to help them along the way-all for free.
As a registered student organization at the university, GSR is funded half by the Student Organization Resource Fee (SORF) and half by their own efforts selling T-shirts and holding benefit shows, among other endeavors. This year, GSR is sponsored by local businesses, which allowed them to offer each band eight hours of recording time, almost triple the three hours each band got last year.
“[Green St. Records does more] than put out a comp, it’s giving people recording time,” says Craig Jacobson of Ambitious Pie Party, one of the bands on Playlisted.
The compilation is entirely recorded and produced with Mark Rubel at Pogo Records Recording Studio.
“Mark is fantastic as a producer. Being a musician himself, it’s great to get into the studio with him and watch him work with the bands,” said Morton.
Rubel prefers to record the tracks live, with every instrument being played together and the vocals sung at the same time.
“That’s how the band’s used to playing. That’s how they generate their flow, their vibe … there’s something about the excitement of singing while you’re playing and the togetherness that the music has when they’re performed at the same time,” said Rubel.
Rubel said recording live helps generate an energy and excitement to the record that isn’t always apparent when each track is recorded individually.
“It never really feels like music to me when you do it that way, it just feels like what it is, which is a manufactured, simulated musical product,” Rubel said.
Rubel, who also teaches at Parkland College and Millikan University, uses the props in his studio to provide a conducive environment for the band to record a track that truly shows what they’re capable of. Depending on the style of the music, he’ll shut off the lights and work by candlelight, as he did with The Elanors, or string up bright, fun bulbs as he did with Ambitious Pie Party.
“He makes it easy to go in and do the song and make it sound better than it ever did before,” said Ryan Groff of elsinore, a GSR band that was also nominated for the “Best Roots/Americana Band” at the recent WPGU/Buzz Local Music Awards.
For most GSR artists, this was their first opportunity to record in a professional studio-most student musicians can’t afford to on their own.
“To be able to record in a professional studio with a professional producer was an eye-opening experience; you can do a lot more with the track. All the other recording I’ve done was in a basement, or homemade, studio,” says Agent Mos, another Playlisted artist.
GSR wants Playlisted to be on par in every aspect with what a real label would produce. The album is heavily advertised, as are the shows GSR books for its artists. GSR also gives business advice, such as the most cost-effective way to make shirts or better ways to promote themselves.
“A lot of bands are good on stage but don’t know how to promote themselves,” said Rozen. “One of the things we’re best at is promoting live shows.”
Being a part of GSR made many of the artists’ names more familiar in the Champaign-Urbana community. Agent Mos and elsinore both have received more recognition since being a part of GSR.
“Being a label gives you a tie-in all the sudden. We can say to other bands or booking agents, ‘You might not have heard of us, but we’re on Green St. Records,'” said Groff. “It’s a huge asset.”
“It’s an interesting experience to walk down the street and see your face on a poster,” said Agent Mos. “It’s humbling.”
Just as there is no cost for artists to be on the compilation, there is no charge for people to listen to it-that would defeat the purpose.
“Once you make something even one dollar, that one person who is undecided about listening to it is probably going to make the decision not to,” said Morton.
Playlisted will be available at either of the two release shows this weekend-one at The Canopy Club and one at the Highdive-where every artist on the compilation will perform. GSR is planning an acoustic music series on the Quad to distribute the album, which will also be available to download at Greenstrecords.com. You can order it from Parasolrecords.com too. GSR encourages people to download, burn and pass along Playlisted to their friends.
“We want people to take the CD, dig it, play it, put it on your iPod. This is the best playlist of student music you can possibly find,” said Morton.
On Saturday, The Ending, Sincerely Calvin, The Lifeline, Bullet Called Life, and elsinore will appear at The Canopy for the first night of the release party. Sunday, it’s Agent Mos, Missing the Point, the Elanors, i:scintilla, DJ Zirafa, Triple Whip, Ambitious Pie Party at the Highdive. Both shows are $5. More info is available all year at greenstrecords.com