'Cane Do

UM students launch a label, a band, and, just maybe, music-biz careers

The first year in the life of 'Cane Records -- the student-run record label based out of the University of Miami -- has been kind of like that of a baby: one long learning experience complete with tears, temper tantrums, and lots of late nights. After overcoming a number of setbacks 'Cane recently released its first album, Listen to Reason, by the UM student band treehouse. But as if growing pains were contagious, the band also has endured its share of headaches, drained by an unusually trying recording process and the loss of several members. However, now that the record is being distributed even as you read this, neither the band nor 'Cane is resting on its laurels. In fact, the trials of this labor of love have only begun.

One of only three student-run labels in the nation (the other two belong to Chicago's Columbia College and Baltimore's Loyola College), 'Cane Records has its own promotions, A&R, manufacturing, and distribution departments, providing an opportunity for students to gain work experience in the music business as well as enabling money-strapped local artists to produce their own CDs. It operates just like a professional record label. Well, sort of.

'Cane was formed last fall when Matthew Schwartz (now label president) and other students in UM's music industry program read about Columbia College's project. Along with department head Jim Progress, who serves as an adviser to 'Cane, they decided the school would be a perfect place for a similar student-run record company and pitched the idea to UM administrators. Then came the first hurdle: The School of Music, which oversees the label much like a holding company, could not provide funding. (While UM does not directly run 'Cane, the school approves all contracts, listens to final mixes, and has the last word in major decisions; after all, the university's name is attached to all releases.) Hot on the heels of the label's official beginning in April, the students went on a relentless campaign to come up with the $8000 needed to fund the first project.

Various sponsors came on board soon after. The Hard Rock Cafe (which hosted the label-launch and Listen to Reason record-release parties, as well as helping with publicity), Criteria Studios (which donated studio time), Spec's (which will distribute all 'Cane product), and Metheny Group Productions each has donated at least $1000 in cash or services, and their logos are included on all 'Cane materials. The Metheny Group, run by jazz-guitar-god Pat Metheny, surprised Schwartz with a check the day after the Hard Rock Cafe party. (Carl Roa, guitarist for treehouse, jokes that he finds the fact that Metheny will hear his band's CD "very scary.") Allegro Music donated the use of several acoustic guitars, valued at somewhere between $500 and $1000. Several parents ponied up between $100 and $500, and Signs to Go and Qualitex Graphics provided the 'Cane logo and business cards, respectively. None of the sponsors profit financially; instead they gain exposure and publicity as corporations that actively support education.

The students work 40-hour weeks without receiving a salary or course credit, although most of them do not labor year-round. (For example, the fundraising and production staffs already have done their parts for the treehouse project, while the sales, distribution, and promotions staffs are now gearing up.) There are currently about fifteen students working on the business end, but recording and production staff bring the total to about 30. Schwartz, vice president for promotions and fundraising Serona Elton, and vice president for sales and distribution John Winger are all grad students with some working experience in the record business, while many of the other students are undergrads who never have worked professionally in music.

All of the company's profits from sales of Listen to Reason will go toward producing 'Cane's next project. "Hopefully the label will keep generating [revenue] so that eventually it should become self-supportive," says the bubbly, fast-talking Elton. "The amount of money we'll raise will be just enough to fund the release for fall of 1995, and hopefully we won't have to do as much in the way of fundraising next year."

Elton point outs that despite the current financial travails, 'Cane eventually plans to produce more than one project per year, and pay or provide course credit for its students. But that's still far in the future. "The future depends on many variables," she explains. "How much money we earn is the major limiting factor and we're pretty strapped as it is."

While Listen to Reason and subsequent 'Cane releases will be available at all Spec's stores, the label is targeting college-campus bookstores ("We'll get them just when students are buying the books and the money happens to be flowing," says Elton craftily), as well as smaller, independent record shops. Elton adds that some of the major chains don't want to carry the CD because their competitor's logo is on the product.

"To some it's just one of four logos on the back and it's not that relevant," she notes. "But for those who see Spec's as the enemy, it might be." The CD also will be available at treehouse's shows, and in a creative turn 'Cane is targeting the choral and music departments of local high schools to use the CD as a way to raise funds. (The schools would make as much money per sale as record stores, and as an added benefit the university would promote itself to college-bound students.)

Simply releasing the CD was a miracle in itself, say the band's members. Most of the tracks were laid down at Gusman Studios on the university campus, where many of the student engineers periodically erased or forgot to record tracks during all-night sessions (final tracks and mixes were completed at Criteria). Now that the record is in stores, the band recognizes that their work isn't done. "The release is the initial bang," says guitarist Roa. "Hopefully [the enthusiasm] will spread."

Influenced by the Police, Peter Gabriel, and Pat Metheny, treehouse fuses jazz, rock, and classical music into a sound reminiscent of Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Named Best College Band by New Times in 1994's "Best of Miami" issue, treehouse was chosen unanimously for the initial 'Cane project by the label's board of directors from among a number of local bands.

Treehouse formed in late 1992 when vocalist Sam Jaffe (who looks a lot like -- and even sounds a bit like -- Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder) met Roa and drummer Scott Garapolo while walking by a classroom in which the two musicians were rehearsing with another player. Jaffe, who came to UM from Boston in 1992 to pursue a degree in voice, suggested they get a singer, and after playing a gig with Garapolo (the bespectacled Chicago-area drummer recently graduated with a degree in studio music and jazz), Jaffe joined the band. Roa, an intense and philosophical New Yorker who graduated from UM in 1990 as a studio music and jazz major after transferring from Boston's Berklee College of Music, was a core member of the now-defunct pop-jazz group Look Around (with John Fournier and Raul Midon, now both with Dos Almas).

Treehouse played out for the first time in the spring of 1993, and since that time has undergone a number of personnel changes. The original bassist freaked out after graduation, says Roa, and quit music to go back home and become a fireman. Last summer, on the same night a new bassist joined, the band's keyboardist dropped out after the conclusion of a West Coast tour (it included showcases at the Roxy and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles); treehouse recently lost yet another bassist after he graduated. The three remaining members -- Jaffe, Roa, and Garapolo -- are optimistic their luck will change with the release of the CD.

In an effort to expand its audience, which up to now has consisted mostly of UM students, treehouse plans to play lots of gigs locally in the coming months in support of Listen to Reason.

"With plenty of venues and loyal audiences, you don't even have to play every night to make a living," observes Roa. "But you can, because the venues and audience are there."

Garapolo agrees, noting that the band came back from L.A. disappointed with that scene. "The market here isn't saturated, it hasn't happened yet," he says. "It's on the rise."

Treehouse performs at 10:00 p.m. Thursday (tonight) at Banana's, 3131 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove, 442-8788; admission is free; and Friday at 10:00 p.m. at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501NE 2nd Ave. admission is three dollars. Call 757-1807.

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