To the uninitiated, the concert looked like a regular night at Cafe 939 as Jesca Hoop—the Manchester, England-based indie performer who has an almost ethereal presence—transfixed the audience with her quirky, norm-bending, rule-defying lyrics. What wasn’t obvious was that the show was an album-in-the-making. Upstairs, engineers in the Berklee Internet Radio Network (BIRN) studios recorded the concert and streamed it live on the BIRN. The captured audio will be mixed by Berklee alumnus Aaron Bastinelli and cut into an album to be released by Berklee Internet Radio Network Cooperative Recordings, or birnCORE.
Opening for Hoop was Cocoa Jackson Lane featuring Jess Harlen, whose performance will also be made into an album to be mixed by a student engineer.
Berklee’s new independent record label, which in the last year has been quietly signing an impressive roster of established artists, celebrated its launch that night, October 17. That same day,Brooke Waggoner’s Sing to Me (Live in Boston), which was recorded at Waggoner's concert in April, was offered to fans, five days before birnCORE officially released the album. The label's next release,Club d'Elf's Fire in the Brain (Live at Berklee), will drop on November 19.
The brainchild of electronic production and design professor Stephen Croes, the label has evolved in stages over a few years. Under Croes’s leadership, the BIRN production studio was revamped and upgraded.
The next step was to develop a contract for artists, an agreement by which Berklee can multitrack record and make an album; under the contract, Berklee owns the recording and splits the profits 50/50 with the artist. All the albums will be recorded by students and mixed by students or alumni.
The label tested out the process during an artist-in-residence visit from recording engineer George Massenburg when the alumni jazz trio the Matadors performed for a recording session. The sound was so good that it made sense to use for a first pass at an album, recalls Tony Brown, special projects manager for the Professional Writing and Music Technology Division and operations manager for the BIRN and birnCORE. Now, birnCORE is poised to cut its fourth and fifth albums.
The label shows how far the BIRN has come since its inception in 2006. A few years later, the radio station began broadcasting shows live, and later, recording shows and making them available for artists’ promotional use.
“We went from just broadcasting the shows and interviewing bands to broadcasting and recording and giving bands a copy of their show, to where we are now—producing albums,” says Brown.
The albums are available for digital download for less than $10 and they are posted on the birnCORE website as well as through online stores throughout the world, such as iTunes and Amazon, via the Orchard, birnCORE’s distributor.
To at least cover its costs, birnCORE’s business model calls for approaching artists like Waggoner and Club d’Elf, who were booked for Cafe 939 and already have a loyal following.
“There are a lot of great people coming through,” says Brown. “It’s just a matter of reaching out and asking if they’re interested in doing a record.”
For the birnCORE release show, the label booked Hoop and Harlen’s band.
“One thing that’s really surprised us is that we’ve been able to get this level of talented people to sign with us,” Brown says. Hoop toured as a background vocalist for Peter Gabriel and Waggoner played piano on Jack White’s debut solo album and toured with him as part of an all-female back-up group. “These are people who are really highly regarded.”
Students Get Real World Label Experience
In addition to putting out records for established artists, birnCORE offers Berklee students a chance to work on a record label, similar to student-run enterprises Jazz Revelation Records and Heavy Rotation Records, which feature student artists.
“This allows Berklee to participate in the music industry on a day-to-day basis,” Brown says. “It will give them a true taste of the music industry.”
Indeed, MP&E major Ryan Walsh was the recording, mixing, and editing engineer for the Club d’Elf album. He spent a good portion of last summer working alongside the band’s frontman and alumnus Mike Rivard '85, who served as the album’s producer.
“This experience was intense,” Walsh says, noting that it went beyond anything he’d experienced in his job as the BIRN’s studio manager. “Mike really pushed me during the process. He definitely had an expectation of what this record was going to be, and he would not settle for anything less. Mike and I were constantly listening to my mixes, taking notes, meeting multiple times a week, and remixing. It was exhausting, but I learned that I needed to take Mike's expectations and make them my own.”
Walsh knows he’ll take these lessons with him after he leaves Berklee. “The most important lesson of all was to make the record sound great and to not settle for anything else.”
Walsh, who will have several commercial album credits to his name before he graduates in May, doesn't take the opportunity for granted and also sees the value of what birnCORE is offering to artists. “The main goal is the music and showcasing fantastic artists in a live setting. Live music has such an energy to it that I feel is captured beautifully on these records."
Another student is getting a taste of the business end of birnCORE. An intern for the label, music business/management major Cara McCarthy is getting experience with everything from A&R to digital download cards. She’s pulling lessons from her time studying abroad last spring at Berklee’s Valencia campus, during which she attended the music business tradeshow Midem, and her internship last summer at Red Music, the artist development and music distribution division of Sony.
“To have this on my resume is amazing,” says McCarthy. “If I’m going to try to work in the music industry, this is the best experience. Building this from the ground up and being involved in every small detail of it gives me a better understanding of what a record label is.”
As birnCORE paves the way for long-term goals like making enough money to support itself and representing itself at industry destinations such as SXSW and CMJ, students like McCarthy and Walsh are helping to shape what birnCORE is now—signing established artists and making albums.