Local musicians and music students work in harmony at WVU’s student-run record label.
➼ It’s difficult out there for a working musician. You have to deal with getting gigs, getting press for those gigs, getting paid, building an audience both in-person and on social media, navigating the brain-numbing world of bookkeeping and taxes, and sorting out personality conflicts in your band. Oh, and you have to somehow find time and energy to create new material and practice.
Josh Swiger knows what it’s like. He has been a fixture of the Morgantown music scene for more than two decades, running Blues Alley Studios and playing in several bands. One group, The New Relics, hit the Billboard country charts in 2010 with the song “Beautiful.” Swiger is now a graduate teaching assistant in WVU’s music industry program, which was created to help students understand the business side of the music business. “Just because you can play an instrument doesn’t mean you can build a good career,” he says.
Swiger is also general manager of Mon Hills Records, the university’s student-run record label. Started four years ago by music industry program director Darko Velichkovski, the label is a way for students to apply what they learn about contracts, copyright law, graphic design, music publishing, public relations, and recording technology to the city’s vibrant music scene. In turn, Morgantown musicians get local access to a record label with a depth of resources typically found in major music towns.
Although the 40 students who work for Mon Hills usually stick to their specialties—accounting, graphic design, public relations, recording—Swiger says everyone is on the lookout for the label’s next artist. “They might be at a club, see an artist, and say, ‘Hey, I think this might work.’”
Unlike most small labels, Mon Hills isn’t limited to one particular style of music. Its roster currently includes pop artist Katie Sims, modern rockabilly band Ryan Cain & The Ables, and Broadway-opera-pop vocalist Marissa Bailey. The label plans to release Whiskey Stains, the first full-length album by Morgantown country singer–songwriter Jeremy Wayne, in October. Wayne has been working on the project for most of the year, cutting tracks at WVU’s recording studio with local musicians. “They really gave me a lot of artistic freedom,” Wayne says of Mon Hills. “It was really important for me, with the genre I’m recording in, for it to be entirely my material.”
At the same time, he’s been happy to turn over control of other aspects of the record-making process. Public relations, graphic design, recording technology, legal expertise—services that even established independent labels struggle to pay for, Mon Hills has at its collective fingertips. “I know how much work I’m putting into it on my own. If I had to focus on trying to produce this album by myself, it would be a nightmare,” Wayne says.
Students get plenty from the deal, too. Swiger says working musicians teach students how difficult it can be to build a career in music—but that it’s not unachievable. “You may not have 100,000 fans. But if you have 1,000 who give you $100 a year, you’ve made $100,000,” Swiger says. monhillsrecords.com
photos courtesy of Mon Hills Records