Student-run Switchback record label offers industry training
By Alex Strickland
The landing of the Gallagher Business Building’s main staircase is a long way from the D.C. offices of NPR Music and its renowned Tiny Desk Concert series, which has made an otherwise unremarkable workspace into one of the hottest gigs in the music world.
But for 10 minutes each Thursday, that landing — surrounded by a glowing stock ticker and perched above the Biz Buzz cafe — becomes UM’s own version of Tiny Desk.
“We’ve had as many as five musicians on the stairs at once,” says Mike Morelli, director of UM’s Entertainment Management program. “Rappers, bagpipers, guitarists, you name it.”
It’s not just for show. Some of the students in Morelli’s program are scouting for more than just a quick performance over lunch — they’re looking for artists to sign.
The words “record deal” might’ve been anachronistic just a few years ago, but today’s music industry is enjoying a massive resurgence in actual vinyl records alongside the business-model-busting streaming services that put almost every song ever sung at your fingertips. For students looking to get a taste of that full range — plus a lot more — there’s Switchback Records, a student-run label that gives UM students an opportunity to scour the valley for talent, sign artists, record, promote, distribute, book shows and everything else involved with taking a musician from “undiscovered” to “the next big thing.”
“It’s an amazing opportunity for students to be able to walk into a job interview and say, ‘I’ve taken on a project with an artist from start to finish,’” Morelli says. “Students are out there listening and looking at who plays in Missoula. Whose performance did they love?”
It’s about a lot more than music, as the current president of Switchback, second-year MBA student Hannah Doerner, can attest.
“As the graduate assistant for the Entertainment Management program, by default I was part of the development of Switchback from the beginning,” she says. “Aside from having Switchback parallel a lot of what I do in the UMEM office, it’s been a fantastic way to get hands-on experience in both developing a startup business and working in the music industry. It’s been a long process of setting up the framework in order to have Switchback Records function as a working business.”
That means Doerner’s duties range from administrative tasks related to the label’s official status as an Associated Students of UM club to managing students, maintaining relationships with contacts in Los Angeles and watching the bottom line. And, of course, there’s the music.
“After graduation I would love to continue working with developing artists who are passionate about their music but may not have the necessary business skills to further their careers without taking their focus away from creating music,” Doerner says.
One of the label’s first projects was working with a duo of Helena transplants memorably called Rotgut Whines. The label helped them strategize the launch of their first EP, including the development of marketing tactics, building an electronic press kit, booking gigs at music festivals and recording songs for sync-specific deals.
And because of UMEM’s wide network in the professional world, Switchback can offer bands like Rotgut Whines something you might not expect from its office in the basement of Gallagher: a chance to record songs by the King of Rock ’n’ Roll himself.
“We have a partnership through an industry adviser with a group called Media Horse that places songs in movies, on TV, things like that,” Morelli says. “Media Horse has rights to the Elvis catalog, so we’re identifying five or six artists to record Elvis songs, and they’re getting mixed and mastered in L.A.”
“One of our main goals is to give local musicians an avenue to be seen on a national scale,” Doerner says. “Our Elvis ‘Missoula to Memphis’ project has a ton of possibilities.”
And what if a local crooner hits it big for their version of “Blue Suede Shoes” thanks to Switchback? Well, everybody wins.
“The artists signing with Switchback are signing the most artist-friendly contracts in history,” Morelli says with a laugh. “It’s a 20/80 split for two years. After two years we only get to participate over $1 million.”
Missoula’s Music Scene
For a small college town in the Northern Rockies, Missoula has long punched above its weight when it comes to live music. Whether it was Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffet playing the famed Aber Day Kegger or the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney packing Washington-Grizzly Stadium (or, for that matter, countless acts stopping by the Top Hat or the Wilma over the years), Missoula is Montana’s own version of Music City. And that quantity and quality of acts provides students with some rare opportunities.
“I was at the first show at the new Kettlehouse Amphitheater and counted 13 students working the show that I’ve taught or will teach,” Morelli says. “To say nothing of students who walk into job interviews having worked rigging, sound or something similar for world-class acts.”
And because music venues are often theaters, bars, restaurants or event spaces, too, Morelli says that even opportunities that might not seem directly connected to the music business can pay dividends.
“One of my students was a bartender at the Top Hat and ended up touring with the Lil’ Smokies,” Morelli says. “One of our program’s founders calls him up with a chance to come out to Seattle and run the music at the Central Saloon.”
So what about the Spotifies and Pandoras that have upended the music business? How do you get a job at a record label when listeners can get your artists’ tracks — and everyone else’s — for free or cheap? Would you want to?
“I put in ‘Gregorian chant’ on my Pandora and eventually get some hard rock song,” Morelli says. “And guess what? I usually dig it.”
That’s because the sophisticated algorithms behind the mix know Morelli perhaps better than he knows himself. And they present an opportunity to craft what he calls the “perfect grad” for an employer like Ticketmaster, who knows the “live world” of entertainment and has the skills to parse the data that’s behind it.
On stage, on screen or spinning at 33 RPM, the world of entertainment is about finding a way to create a moment between artist and fan, no matter the medium.
“You’re not confined by physical space anymore,” Morelli says. “It’s an interesting business, and we’re trying to ride the crest of the wave.”
The Montana Mafia
So how does a UM grad get a foot in the door on the mean streets of Nashville, Los Angeles and New York? Look no further than the “Montana Mafia,” a collection of Big Sky Country natives who have fanned out across the entertainment industry and, after careers of hard work and hustle, find themselves in some of the country’s most sought-after corner offices.
Those connections include longtime Rolling Stones tour accountant Mike McGinley; Brian Knaff, chairman of TBN Entertainment; Keith Miller, senior VP at William Morris Agency; and Paradigm agent James Yelich. Not bad folks to know when you’re looking for a way to get in the door in a cutthroat industry. And many of these big names have given back by lecturing and sharing their expertise with UM Entertainment Management students.
For more on the Montana Mafia, check out a 2008 story in the Montanan magazine at http://bit.ly/2fhht8M. •