The New College Try: Why Labels Are Reviving Campus Reps in the Streaming Era
As the industry rebounds, music companies are bringing their school-representative programs back from the dead to top the streaming charts -- and recruit future leaders.
Last fall, a select group of New York college students received copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm in the mail and convened weeks later at a speakeasy in Manhattan's East Village to discuss the 1945 novella over jerk chicken wings.
The book club's unlikely leaders: songwriting duo Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, whose questions provoked a 90-minute conversation about politics, religion, race and domestic violence. Cake pops decorated with the logo of Kelly and Harmony's independent record label, Weirdo Workshop, were served, and The Shindellas -- a girl group signed to their label -- opened the night with a few songs. Among the students were college representatives for music marketing firm In2une -- one of several music companies that are aggressively growing their ranks on campus -- and they left poised to spread the word about the educational evening.
"We get a chance to pitch our music without being too pitchy," says Kelly of the college-rep-filled book club meetings, the latest of which was hosted in January by Julie Pilat, global operations manager for Beats 1, in Los Angeles.
Amid rapid record-business growth driven by on-demand streaming, the industry is reviving its college-rep programs, both to promote its tunes and to cultivate future executives who can take the reins as the old guard retires. Rather than enlisting English majors to hand out flyers and stickers, companies are now leaning on social media-savvy students who can help them both identify and market talent to the young listeners that stream music most.
"These students are going to redefine what we do in the industry in the very near future," says Todd Goodwin, senior vp college, lifestyle and experiential marketing for Universal Music Group (UMG). "There's going to be a day when a manager, agent, artist and label executive are all sitting at the same table -- and they'll all come from here."
While the industry has had college reps for decades -- Sony Music's program has been around for 50 years -- these units shriveled after record sales began to tank from their peak in 2000, and in some cases fell by the wayside completely. But now, as they crank out more music to capitalize on streaming's growth, the major labels are "hiring more, they're signing more artists, they're paying more," says music-business attorney Tim Mandelbaum.
On his first day heading UMG's college program in 2015, Goodwin realized that he had zero employees. So he hired a film student, and kept hiring until more than 100 reps were on the payroll, creating content. One filmed a video with singer Grace Mitchell on her favorite places in her hometown of Portland, Ore.; others helped set up a benefit for impoverished Detroit kids starring 2 Chainz and Lil Yachty; New York University students held a "master class" Q&A with rapper and G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T that drew 400 students. Goodwin also has them team up to tackle industry problems at an annual conference in Los Angeles. "This demographic is driving the streaming business right now," says Goodwin, who worked as a $75-a-week Columbia Records rep while at Texas State University in 1999, liaising with local club DJs.
To promote "Broken," a single by recently signed Sony trio lovely.the.band, University of Colorado-Denver student Samantha Marrujo took a time-lapse photo of her own artwork and used the image for a promotional meme; she also adapted an album-cover image of Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson's Dams of the West side project to other backgrounds for a social media campaign. "Alongside our hourly rate, we get a couple of hundred bucks per month for expenses -- you can use that however you want to help promote the artist," says Marrujo, 21, a senior music-business major and a Sony rep since October 2017. "They ask us whether students are using a certain app or how other students are finding music, if we think a certain campaign would be effective toward a younger audience."
In2une's 40 reps use their own social media voices to promote campaigns by acts like Major Lazer and Lindsey Stirling; one student communicates exclusively in fire and thumbs-up emoji. Says In2une senior vp marketing and promotion Lori Rischer, "Some [artists] feel it's their secret weapon."