Photos By Erica Fisher
Austin Holmes can’t sing— well, at least not today.
He sits slouched over in a thick navy pea coat and listens to Dylan Rocke strum the chords to Beyoncé’s XO on a cherry-red Gibson SG. Holmes’ all-blue apparel—Syracuse baseball cap, track pants, and running shoes—reflects his somber demeanor. The color is drained from his face and grimace reflects a physical ailment. Holmes’ eyes shut from either falling deeper into the rhythm of the song—one that overwhelms him with emotion every time he hears it —or because of a desperate need for sleep. He loses eye contact through the small glass window with Rocke, who stands alone in the live room. Every couple minutes Holmes chokes a muffled cough into his left elbow. Kfff. He sniffles and pops a cough drop in his mouth.
After Rocke finishes the simple three chord progression, he walks back into the control room of the Live End/Dead End studio. The small recording studio that can only be entered through a small kitchen area sits in back of the Belfer Laboratory,the stone building hidden between Bird Library and the Goldstein Faculty Center, adjacent to the popular pre/post-bar outdoor bathroom stall. Hundreds of futuristic small grey pyramids sit on the front wall of the studio to improve acoustics in the small room that resembles a post-Kirk Star Trek command center. In the front, near the window that peers into the live room where the music is made sits the centerpiece: a Mac computer surrounded by hundreds of knobs and buttons—all with the capability to distort or, in most cases, destroy a track with one click or turn.
Holmes and Rocke spend countless hours and multiple days arranging, recording, rerecording, and sometimes deleting the backing tracks for Holmes’ album, My Blue Coin Collection—or at least that’s what he calls it this week. The title is inspired by a large plastic Crayola crayon shaped coin collector Holmes got for a present when he was young and has kept his entire life. He says like experiences, all the coins he drops into the large blue object have meanings—good and bad. The Motown meets 90s R&B EP, set to drop next fall, not only marks the first album for the sophomore theatre major, but is one of the most anticipated releases for the Syracuse University Recordings record label.
Syracuse University Recordings—or SUR to the 14 students involved—is an all-student-run record label and part of the class Music Industry: 320 with songwriter, recording artist, and adjunct professor Bob Halligan Jr. The group meets every Monday and Wednesday in Crouse 308. They discuss everything from distribution costs—the amount of money they pay for the manufacturing of CDs and what they charge artists—to what type of cd case they want to use for the next project—cardboard sleeve, should it have a spine, maybe vinyl. Even a few member review a recently created 70s themed Spotify playlist.
MUI: 320 started 13 years ago in an effort to provide students real-world experience and record and promote School of Music performance groups. One of the label’s more notable albums was a compilation of SU fight songs and the alma mater. Since then, they produced records that range from a Ramones cover album, which was never released due to licensing problems to Native Orange, a 13 track album of Brazilian folk songs record by Samba Laranja, the SU Brazilian Ensemble. Five years ago the label started to record pop music and expanded to include independent student artists and groups. SUR contacted Holmes, who is best described as the musical lovechild of John Legend and Matt Corby in October after he won SU Idol and asked him to join the label. “They help me a lot with the whole image. How I look when I sing and what songs I pick,” Holmes says. Usually artists come and audition in front of the class. The group votes and if they accept an artist, they will help them form an image, record music, produce EPs and CDs, market them, and even help book shows.” SUR most recently worked with Holmes on his YouTube channel. SUR offered Holmes advice on how to pick songs, technical support to help improve the overall quality of his videos and brought in musicians to accompany him. Holmes' video performance of the mashup of “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5 and Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” has over 1400 hits.
While the class has a music industry prefix, about ten of the students are actually enrolled in Setnor or study music industry. There is Zuly Beltre, the communications design major, Ryan Pierson, the industrial and interactive design major, Danat Habtemariam, the marketing major—the list goes on and on. While all of the students in class may not study music or want to pursue a career in the record industry, they all love music and most are musicians themselves. General Manager Ethan Bates is a cellist, Marketing/Public Relations Manager Max Puglisi is a singer/songwriter and SUR recording artist, Pierson is a rapper, and sound engineer musical renaissance man Dylan Rocke is a guitarist.
Bates joined the group after his best friend and jam session partner Puglisi wanted to get his music recorded and auditioned for SUR sophomore year. At first Puglisi wasn’t signed as an artist, but the two were encouraged to join the class. According to Halligan the pair even attended meetings before they were officially enrolled in the class. Bates started as the social media coordinator and two years later, basically runs the group. Puglisi is now one of the label’s artists, is in charge of social media and even performed on live on Channel 9’s Bridge Street morning program a couple of weeks ago.
Habtemariam heard about SUR through a friend who was apart of the class. “It sounded interesting to me. I've always had a strong interest and love for music and the music industry,” Habtemariam says. Besides getting credit to fuel her love of music Habtermariam plans to use the experiences and skills acquired with SUR to help jump-start a career in marketing/promoting musicians. Besides finishing Holmes’ and a couple other artists EPs and recruiting a few new artists, the group prepared for their annual artist showcase held on April 24 at 8 p.m. in the Jabberwocky Café. Holmes was joined by Puglisi, a non-hat wearing, more rock version Jason Marz singer/songwriter/Norah Jones style singer/songwriter with a range similar to Stevie Nicks, and an artist from SUR’s sister label Marshall Street Records another student run label in Setnor.
The class sits around the rectangular tables pushed together to accommodate the large group, four students type away on their laptops while Pierson colors in one of his new illustrations for Wolfe’s next project. A few of the students discuss the optimal way to mic a cello for the groups’ upcoming recording session for Holmes’ album. To use two pencil condensers in front of the cello or just rely on the standard studio mic, that is the question. The soft melody of a baroque or romantic period piano piece seeps into the large off-white room through the door left open a jar. People chat, laugh, and show each other projects they have been working on over the weekend.
“This group has a lot of fun. They are excited about what they are doing and learning. I have to kick them out of the class everyday because the professor for the next class is waiting outside,” Halligan says. Bates updates the group about the day’s agenda and SUR’s new student org recognition from the student association. “Max and I attended the Monday meeting and we didn’t get credit for it cause there was no place to sign in.” Bates says. “No wonder you’re not smiling today,” Halligan replies.
After the group admires some new illustrations and design work for the up coming albums and a more serious discussion about digital music sales and the creation of a SUR pay pal account to directly collect online profits, the class breaks up for small group discussions. Bates says the majority of the label’s work happens in meetings, but because of light atmosphere and camaraderie between classmates, distractions can easily derail meetings. At the large group of tables Puglisi, Beltre, and Pierson talk about the poster design for the upcoming showcase. They debate how to layout the artists images on the poster—horizontally or vertically. Bates, Rocke and Natalie Echols, Manager of Legal and Journalistic Affairs head to a table on the other side of the room near the tall windows that look down on campus to complete another simulation to ensure SUR remains a recognized student organization—RSO.
“Getting recognition of SUR as a student organization was huge project.” Bates says. “We went through the application process in March and still have to attend SA meetings to solidify our RSO standing.” In March SUR and Marshall Street Records finished the arduous process of becoming a RSO. The group, who is recognized as the conglomerate Orange Music Group (OMG), was originally denied by the committee, but successful on appeal. The group’s original constitution lacked information about the specifics of selling albums and the committee wanted to ensure none of the members of the group did not personally receive money from selling of other artists’ albums. The label splits profits with the artists and the proceeds get reinvested in the label’s future ventures. The recognition allows the label to receive funding from SA, table in Schine, rent out larger spaces for concerts, and freely hang posters around campus.
In a couple of weeks, all of the seniors like Puglisi and Bates, who have been involved with SUR for over two years, will be leaving and a new generation will take over the reigns. “I’m sad leaving, but hope this excited group of people hold onto the excitement and keep these interesting projects going,” Bates says. Bates plans to dedicate all his time to his band the Blue Light Bandits based in Boston and is looking at job opportunities at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music—the one John Mayer dropped out of.
One of Bates favorite moments came last semester when he, Puglisi, and Jon Kane, another member of SUR currently abroad spent the entire day in the studio working on SUR artist Jenna Fields album. Fields, the singer/songwriter who sounds like a more American guitar-wielding Kate Nash, lives in New York City this semester, but still works with the label. The quartet spent the day hanging out, laughing, talking, and of course played some music.
“It felt like I was living a musician’s life,” Bates says. We were doing a bunch of different jobs, but it didn’t feel like work.” In the same studio Bates spent the entire day playing music with his best friends only to be kicked out because the studio closed at night, Holmes and Rocke sit alone listening to the tracks. They discuss tempo, range, and style of each arrangement. Rocke plays two or three different versions of fills for the backing track of XO. He walks back in. “Do you want to try and sing?” Rocke asks.
“Oh no, not today,” Holmes replies, referring to his cold. “It might hurt your voice,” Rocke says. “We can do it on Monday.”