Wild Oak branches out
Chico State’s recording arts students put together a CD and throw a great concert
As the crowd bounces to driving, stop-start rock performed by local power-punk quartet Indecisive Youth, band guitarist Nick launches himself from the top of his amp, accurately incarnating the evening’s excitement.
And rightly so.
In many ways this concert is a landmark event. Not only is the bleach-blond guitarist’s own band featured on the bill, but so are fellow Chico bands like the quirky and tuneful seven-piece The Craze, the rhythmic, hip-hopping El Diablo and, in what surprisingly turns out to be its last official appearance anywhere, jam band Electric Circus.
All four groups have been brought together this night to promote the release of Four Corners, the first pop music recording on the Chico State University Music Department’s new label Wild Oak Records. But, more important perhaps, the evening marks the culminating achievement for students in instructor Paul Friedlander’s “Record Industry” course.
Three days before the concert, I was sitting in the conference room in Chico State’s Performing Arts Center with Friedlander and five of his students. Immediately, I was struck by the level of camaraderie. They come across like people who have been through a lot together and have subsequently learned to depend on each other, as well as on themselves. They all seem serious about what they’ve accomplished, but they also temper their soberness with an honest modicum of humor.
Andi Sheely, an attractive 20-something with wire-rim glasses and long blonde hair, explained how she came to enroll in the music industry program.
“A friend of mine straight out of high school went to Chico State,” she said. Sheely had previously organized small music “festivals” around the San Diego area. But her friend had some interesting information about the curriculum at Chico State.
“She called me up and was telling me about the music industry program. I was so excited [about the prospect]—that I could actually bring back knowledge and make a career out of what I liked doing.”
Her fellow students pretty much echoed her excitement.
According to instructor Friedlander, the enthusiasm of the students made the program possible. Friedlander sports a beard and just a trace of a New York accent. He’s a thin, amiable man who looks to be in his early 50s.
“Our students wanted something in the program that was more than just two classes,” Friedlander said.
Previously, one of the objects of industry classes was to set up out-of-area internships with record labels, both major and otherwise, so students could obtain first-hand experience. Then, on Oct. 16, 1997, Friedlander’s students hit upon a very sensible idea.
“We were talking about practical experiences, talking about internships and those kinds of things,” Friedlander remembered. “And the students said, ‘Well, instead of doing internships and going out of Chico, let’s do it here! Let’s do a record company!’
“So it started as the students’ brilliant idea,” Friedlander said. “We began in the fall of ‘97, and by the end of last year we were the largest program in the Western United States. We have grown along with the Recording Arts Program [at Chico State], which has been around for about a dozen years. Now we are the largest combined program in the Western U.S. In fact, we are the fifth-largest music industry program in the nation.”
The name, “Wild Oak Records,” came from the valley oak trees that populate much of Butte County. “The original logo had a tree that was blowing in these gale-force winds, so it was ‘Wild,'” Friedlander explained.
Wild Oak Records’ first release was a spoken-word recording, gleaned from an on-campus recording industry event staged in the fall of 1997. “It was a two-CD set,” Friedlander said. “It was leading figures in the music industry, and what we did was record the conference and release it. Our second release came in ‘98 or ‘99, and that was the Chico Symphony Orchestra CD. It was Beethoven’s Seventh and a Mozart choral piece.”
Four Corners is the label’s second music CD.
“What finally released us to these moments of joy that we have in our hands,” said Friedlander, referring to the CDs, “is that the university finally was able to see that this was a really viable educational experience, and so we have a budget! And when we have a budget, instead of selling water and doing car washes and bake sales the way all good nonprofit institutions do, we are able to say ‘Well, we can afford to press these records; now let’s go out and look for the best music we can find.’ And that’s what the students did. And so magnificently.”
The class issued an announcement asking for press kits and recorded samples of music from bands interested in taking part in the project. The tracks and groups were then selected not only by whether the students liked the music, but also by whether the bands could be successfully marketed locally. Every aspect was taken into consideration, just as at any major label.
The students then divided into groups, each assigned a specific task. Scott Tipton, an angular- featured young man with blond hair, was head of the group that drew up the contracts with the bands.
“It was like a five-page contract,” Tipton explained. “It states basically that we don’t own the track, the band maintains copyright and they will perform one night [at the Friday night CD release show].”
“Also,” Friedlander added, “[the students] found and negotiated with production, with the pressing plant, which is in Virginia. You’ll notice if there are any gray hairs on Scott’s head at all, it was from dealing with those deadlines. We were coming on it from a very rushed perspective.”
The team ordered an initial 1,000 copies and also managed another small but significant coup: The deal they made allows the CD to be listed on Amazon.com. And one track from the album will be provided as a sample to national radio companies, which could garner some attention on college campuses across the country.
When asked where he sees himself a few years from now, Tipton said he’s not sure if he’ll be in the music industry. He has, however, discovered a keen interest in legal matters as a result of his experiences in the course. Perhaps, Tipton mused, he’ll look into law school.
Rounding out the group I spoke with were Katie Perry, who was in charge of the Wild Oak Newsletter, Cassie Conder, who led the public relations team and dealt with local media, and Ryan Sanders, who had a hand in sonic matters on the CD and also operated the soundboard the night of the concert.
Perhaps concert organizer and coordinator Sheely sums the experience up best for the entire group when she says: "I don’t want to be a rock star, but I love music."