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Education & Training

Behind the Music: At Heavy Rotation Records, Students Are Label Execs

by Stephen Brophy

For the past 11 years, Jeff Dorenfeld has been guiding Berklee students in very hands-on projects through the various stages of producing and marketing recorded music. Each year has produced a much-sought-after CD compilation under the label, Heavy Rotation Records. The CD was usually celebrated with a live concert at Berklee Performance Center.

This year, things were slightly different. Rather than having the CD available at the Feb. 9 concert for distribution, it will be released later this spring. The concept is also a little different this year. As in the past, various Berklee and local performers auditioned to be included on the CD and in the concert. But this time each performer or group was challenged to come up with two songs from two artists related by influence—for instance U2 and Joy Division or Green Day and Hüsker Dü.

The concert and recording feature Julia Easterlin (Radiohead, Pixies), David Pramik featuring Johnny Duke (U2, Joy Division), The Berklee String Metal Ensemble (Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine), Pinn Panelle (REM, Mission of Burma), The Boston Boys featuring Emily Elbert (Green Day, Husker Du), and Da’Rayia (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gang of Four). An added wrinkle is that each artist performs their covers in their own style. So, for instance, the Green Day and Hüsker Dü songs will be delivered in bluegrass versions.

The Fenway News interviewed Dorenfeld a couple of days before the concert to talk about what’s involved in pulling this all together. “The students oversee all of the label’s functions,” he told us, “including marketing, sales, web development, media and accounting.” He was pleased that this year’s recording would be produced in a studio using a Fort Apache board.  Fort Apache Studios, legendary for its work over the years with groups like the Pixies, Radiohead, the Throwing Muses, Elliot Smith, and Warren Zevon,  started up in Roxbury in 1985 and moved to Cambridge a few years later; its current incarnation is in Bellows Falls, Vermont.  The final mix of the album might be done there.

“We used to do dorm sessions and take demos and master those and release it. We’re moving to download cards for this next record, working with RightsFlow, a licensing an royalties service provider. RightsFlow also offers LimeLight, a way for artists who want to cover songs to secure licenses.

“The whole ideas is helping students,” Dorenfeld continued. My job is finding interested people who want to be a part of this and match them up. In this changing environment, artists have to see their work more as branding, look for sponsorships and the like. How they monetize their art is different. Not so many record companies will invest in them as they used to. Now artists have to find different ways to build audiences.”

Dorenfeld grew up near San Francisco, and came of age attending concerts at the Fillmore, where he eventually found his first work. He later went on tour with performers like Sammy Hagar and Ozzie Osbourne, and managed Boston when it reconvened. His first experience at Berklee was being a guest speaker in a class about managing bands in the mid-1990s; he made the transition to teaching soon after.

“Every day when I leave the building I am amazed at how lucky I am. I felt fortunate to be in the business, and now I feel the same way about teaching it. I’m also glad that I didn’t start teaching any earlier, because I might not have valued it so much. I’m passionate about the business and so are my students. When I’m grading them I’m grading myself. Teaching is about connecting—the students and I turn the classroom into a place we can see the future with.”

Dorenfeld’s students agree with him. “I learned how to roll with the punches because not everything is going to go your way when organizing a concert,” says Cecily Valdez. “But you have to know how to think on your fix and come up with solutions fast. I am a perfectionist, and in the past I let things get to me because they weren’t perfect and organized. But as I’ve grown and worked on this project I have learned to just go with it and make it work.”

Another student, Alex Wright, adds “This project has allowed me to prepare and execute aspects of running a record label without worrying about making mistakes. While many of the tasks we are assigned are done independently or in student teams, the guidance from professor Dorenfeld leads us to answers when we are stuck or behind. Once in the professional world, I will be able to tackle similar tasks without the mistakes and delays of doing it for the first time.”

This story also appears on p. 7 of the March print edition. It was updated on Feb. 28 to correct two errors regarding where the album will be recorded and when Dorenfeld first addressed a Berklee class.

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