Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Wednesday, March, 23, 2011
– by Annamarya Scaccia
Darren Walters knows DIY.
The 40-year-old Drexel University professor co-founded the legendary, Wilmington-based indie record label Jade Tree 20 years ago with nothing but ambition, idealism, restlessness, and limited funds. And since its 1991 inception, Jade Tree has procured a solid roster of boldly talented acts in the post-hardcore/noise/straight edge/emo/punk/melo-core family tree (check it: Cap’n Jazz, Kid Dynamite, Jets to Brazil, The Promise Ring, and Alkaline Trio, just to name a few).
The Wilmington resident is invoking the same DIY ethos with Bantic Media, the student-run artist development company/class in Drexel’s music industry program he started over two years ago and now oversees. But, unlike Jade Tree, Bantic’s mission is not as narrowed. In fact, its services reach well beyond the scope of a standard record label, touching on not only album releases, but touring support, film premieres, and release parties. It’s open to musicians, videographers, filmmakers, merchandisers, and event planners alike–wherever there is a relative, fillable need. And, so far in its short existence, Bantic has put its golden stamp on three blossoming (in their own right) artists: The Loved Ones‘ Dave Hause, who, at the start of his solo career, released a three-track 7-inch through Bantic in 2010 (the company’s first project); Philly’s smutty girl garage outfit Slutever, who’s releasing a limited edition 7-inch, Pretend to be Nice on March 29; and former Deli Band of the Month, When I Was 12, who’s releasing their indie twee-pop inspired limited 7-inch, “Eponymous” on Record Store Day, April 16. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bantic is in talks with some filmmakers about “doing interesting things,” and outreach efforts to artists about potential merchandising and music will begin in the next month. So there’s a bright future on the horizon for this student-run, Walters-led entity. We had a chance to chat with Walters about Bantic Media, what sets it apart from other artist development companies, and why pickles are just inherently awesome.
The Deli: How did Bantic Media get started?
Darren Walters: Bantic was simply established as a class that was going to deal with marketing of digital-based products. After a couple of terms of that being the case, a bunch of professors and myself got the idea that, really, this was not something that was working out. Number one, there was no reason that [Drexel’s Mad Dragon record label] couldn’t do digital releases and, in addition to that, there was a growing need for our students to be involved in more than releasing records–i.e. the record label could release records physically and digitally, and why couldn’t there be an entity on campus that could work with anything and on anything. That’s where the genesis of Bantic came into being. Originally, our mission statement was kind of like, “OK, we don’t know what we’re gonna do but our mission is going to be to do something different. Now we just have to figure out what exactly that is. We’re gonna be the future of the music industry. Let’s get a bunch of kids and we’ll put them in a classroom and we’ll start from there. Let’s see what we’ll come up with,” but with the idea that where there was gonna be no confinement on that. When you’re working in an university situation typically, there can be a lot of barriers. With this class, while it wasn’t an elective or anything, we kind of stripped it back and said to the students who were in the first generation so to speak, “We don’t know where we’re gonna end up, so let’s put our collective heads together and figure out.” It came about that we should be open-ended enough to work with musicians, photographers, videographers, filmmakers, merchandisers, event planners, whatever…We didn’t want to tie ourselves to anything.
Our first [project] if you will, keeping in mind that we’re not a record label, was…my friend Dave Hause, who is frontman for the Loved Ones. He was starting on his solo career and I said, “Listen Dave, we’re not really sure what we’re getting into but I know you’re about to embark on a solo career, so how ’bout this? Since you don’t have that much of an image outside of the Loved Ones, why don’t you come into the class and the class & I will try and figure out a way to get you out there.” It started off really slow. We have a lot of things at our fingertips here at Drexel. We have a recording studio. We have the ability to do film & video and so on. Eventually, we hit upon the idea to do a 7-inch with Dave Hause that we recorded here at Drexel with Drexel students, and that Bantic would do the marketing, promotion, all the outreach [and] social media. In addition to that, we helped organize a record release [party]. That just kind of took on a life of its own. That’s when we knew that this is still structured enough but loose enough for us to really still define loosely what we want to do. That was the bulk of our 2009/2010.
This year, we came back into the school…and we decided to try and connect more with the student body, so we put an outreach. During that process, we decided that we would work with not only one student artist, but two. We got such a huge response from the students. Not really surprised but I guess unbeknownst to not only the professors but, really, the students themselves. There was more of a wealth of talent on campus than we thought. You would think that, at an university, where there’s a music industry program, they’d be aware that their peers were in bands. But that wasn’t really the case. So until we put the call out and my students started bringing demos in the class, we really weren’t aware of how many good artists we had. Long story short, we narrowed it down to two: Slutever and When I Was 12. We decided for both of them, because of where they were at in their careers, to release limited edition 7-inches. The pro of that was it was very manageable for the class, especially given the time constraints [of] a 10-week potential [student] turnover. The con is we don’t want to give the outside world the idea that we’re just a record label. These are our second and third 7-inches but it’s another process of us continuing to get our feet wet because, in essence, Bantic itself is relatively brand new. It was an overwhelming response to work with student bands and again, for the types of bands, let’s say if there were a metal band, vinyl 7-inch format might not have been something we’d work with…The structure can be a little strange because we’re housed in an university but we’re also trying to run a business at the same time.
TD: Since this is a student-run company/class, how is it organized?
DW: [As director of Bantic], I’m assigning jobs to individuals. I got students who are product managers, who, at the beginning of the term, they’re assigned [specific tasks]. Their job is to make sure this When I Was 12 7-inch comes to fruition at the end of these 10-weeks. Just like you might do if you were a project manager, or product manager rather, at a record label. In addition to that, other students are gonna be in charge of everything from writing the press releases, making sure there’s outreach to blogs, outreach to other press, outreach to radio stations, setting up in-stores, shipping the records, getting the artwork completed and all those types of opportunities. My job, again, is to make sure their guided through that process. I don’t mean hand-holding. That’s the other thing that makes this really a unique experience. If a product manager doesn’t pull this off, the record doesn’t come out, which can also get a little bit tricky because, again, you’re running a business. Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean we need to make money. That would be great if records sold, if people were interested in the artists and the products that we work on. The idea here is that education comes first. However, part of that is these students need to stand up on their own and make these things live or die on what they do. We have a really unique situation happening.
TD: So it seems the Bantic Media class is a very hands-on way of teaching students the work they may enter after into after graduating rather than traditional textbook and lecture lessons.
DW: Correct. We have traditional so-to-speak classes. For instance, I teach E-Commerce and the Music Industry or I teach marketing classes. In those, they’re not as much hands-on. I try to integrate those hands-on experiences into those classes as much as I can. So if I’m doing a marketing class, I try and work with students to create press materials, for them to work on one-sheets, for them to work on bios, for them to work on as much of that stuff as possible, and make it a little hands-on. But those are core classes that these students have to take. So not everyone is a writer or wants to be a writer or has any interest in doing that. Presumably, if you take one of these entity classes, you’re really looking at being in that world, working at a label, working a publishing company, working at a marketing company, or working at a place akin to something like that where you’re gonna go out and interact with people. The other thing is too, in this day and age with email, not a lot of students want to go on the phone. It’s not second nature to them. So just to get on the phone and say, “Hi, would you like to interview this artist?” or “Hey, can you play this track?” or “Can you check this record out?”, that’s not something that is familiar to them. I can speak for myself and some of the other professors, a lot of the exercises that we give them are generally exercises where we want know, “Well did you make outreach to WXPN? Prove it to me. What did you do? Did you go down there with the record and say, ‘Hey, can you play this record?'” because they’re right around the corner.
TD: It’s a great concept. You’re readying them for the real world, no different than, let’s say, a student-run newspaper.
DW: One of the cool things too about this year with us working with two primarily student-based in Bantic is that this has really clicked with these students in the music industry program because they’re seeing that, in a sense, they got a chance to make it. By that I mean, it’s always great to be recognized by not just your peers, but certainly by your professors as well. They got two bands who before were, I don’t want to say just doing their own thing in obscurity, but now the student body and beyond, certainly, understands what we’ve got going on and has paying attention to the artists, and sees that, “OK, so look at what happened. They latched on to When I Was 12 and Slutever, and now, look, they have 16 students working on these records, doing all these things, and it’s tremendously helping their careers.” Slutever [headed] down to SXSW to play, and both Slutever and When I Was 12 have a variety of shows in the area coming up including record release shows [and] some in-stores. Could they have done that on their own? I’m not saying they couldn’t but any band starting off, depending on where you are, you gotta have a certain amount go-get-’em-ness and so forth, and, yea, sometimes people don’t know where to start. I’d like to think we’ve given them both a little shot in the arm.
TD: Since Bantic is not a record label, does it act like a middle ground for bands until they sign to a label if they so choose?
DW: This is the great thing…Our thing is that we’re the one-stop innovative solution for strategic artistic initatives across multiple platforms. We create unique, creative projects that are tailored whatever the artist needs. In all three projects that we’ve dealt with so far, it’s been simple–I don’t even want to say simple but for me, because that’s what I did, starting out 20+ years ago, was putting out 7-inches, so I say simple because it’s like, “Ah, finally, something back to my roots”–but simple 7-inches. But the idea is, Bantic is more of a laboratory. Yea, it looks and feels sometimes like it could be a record label, and if When I Was 12 or Slutever were to say, “You know, it’s great everything you did for us and the way that you worked on the 7-inch and all that happened around it was great. Would you be interested in releasing a full-length from us?”, I don’t know that we would say no to that because we’re not a record label, and that’s the great thing. Because we’re undefined to a certain degree, doesn’t mean that we would or would not do anything. We’re not saying that we found a particular solution to the future of the music industry. It’s more that this is a class where students and myself can just get into a lab and say, “OK, where can we take an idea where we got a band who wants to write music strictly for films? Can we match them with a filmmaker?” Come up with an innovative event and pull that off. That’s not strictly music industry but that’s also the way the music industry is going, as well. The music industry is not just about putting out a record anymore, so that’s where Bantic comes into play. It’s about all these other things and we’re trying to make outreach to those things.
TD: Would you say the future of Bantic is evolving, that there is the chance to do bigger things not necessarily if you choose as much as, right now, the option is there to expand in that way?
DW: Exactly. Exactly. First of all, we don’t want to get in over our heads. Everything is wide open to us but when you say that, you almost invite something too big to come along. But you’re right. We’re open to working on a wide variety of potential products, and, again, things that I don’t we could imagine or really put into words at this point because they’re unique scenarios. It’s more about not necessarily what does the future hold, but what sort of things can we take utilizing the building blocks that we know about in the current industry and what we know and suspect about the future of the industry, and, again, realize we also have to bridge the gap between music and television and film and merchandising and marketing, and so forth…We’re trying to encompass all of that.
TD: You brought up the point about metal not necessarily working on vinyl. Does that signal that Bantic will focus on just certain types of genres, at least with the records side or will you work with anything?
DW: Anything. For my own label [Jade Tree], the criteria has always been the things that I like and people I can enjoy working with in the way that I can, meaning that I don’t work for myself in my role at Drexel University and my role at Bantic. I try to extend that to a certain degree to Bantic in that we agree that we want to try and work with at least one student artist to some capacity. And, again, that might not literally mean musical artist. It might mean something else for each school. Beyond that, anything that’s going to make sense and is reasonable within our scope and our timeframe. There are some other things that apply because we’re a huge corporation and we’re a university, but beyond that, there’s no “We’re not gonna do this.” This is the “We can always do this if it makes sense.”
TD: How will Bantic set itself apart from other artist development companies and media marketing firms in the Philadelphia area?
DW: I think it’s fairly simple to large degree because we don’t have to make a profit, there’s really no worry. Of course, we want to have a positive name. I don’t want to see the students fail. I don’t want the projects to fail. But because there’s not a profit motive, we like to think that we can be more adventurous than other people. We can afford to take risks that probably other companies can just simply not afford to take. The resources at a place like Drexel has, [like] the audio & visual facilities and the design studios, as well as all the professionals we have here puts us right at the fingertips of so many talented individuals. All the [Bantic 7-inches] were recorded here for nothing because students worked on those records. They get their experience. They get their names on these records but it’s, again, of no cost to us. Potentially, with many of the other projects we might think of, we can come with elements that may be part of any program that we might develop. It just might just be cost effective because it may not cost us anything or very little to produce…We also have a constant creative turnover. I’ve been in the business since 18-years-old and, just being in touch with younger individuals, it’s always great to have contact with these students. They’re still, of course, being refined but they’ve got great ideas. Once you learn to take them for what they are and respect their ideas and, again, once you’re in an environment where you’re actually giving them responsibility, and you could see who’s taking initiative and how they perform, and you take that into consideration, and you see that pay off, you realize you don’t have a diamond in the rough, you’ve got somebody who’s now ready to go out in the world and perform. But you got them right there. You got them before they go to a competing company. That’s a great asset. The young invigorated individual while they’re fresh before they’ve gone out in the real world and are crushed. [Laughs]
TD: Since there isn’t a profit motive, does that mean artists do not have to pay a services fee to Bantic?
DW: At the time, we’re not taking fees for our services. That’s always subject to change because it’s fair to say that, although there are students in the class and it’s their class, so they’re working on these projects for free, for credit, it would be nice to be the students who are not [enrolled] in that class who are involved with us…But, again, because profit is not our motive [and] education is the main motive, we don’t need charge at this point in time.
TD: What is your favorite thing to get at the deli?
DW: [Laughs] You know what, this is actually an easy answer. Pickles! I love pickles.
DW: Dude, I just had a fried pickle yesterday but that’s not at the deli. But, pickles, of course. A nice…pickle.