Posted October 29, 2010

Temple’ Bell Tower records is a hit for students seeking music industry experience

Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University
Students in Temple's "Advanced Topics of Media and Telecommunications" class hone their engineering skills while working on real-life projects developed for the university's record label, Bell Tower Music.

Learning the ropes from an industry insider is an experience Temple students enjoy across the university — a successful entrepreneur teaches Fox students, a renowned sculptor works with Tyler students and an Inquirer reporter trains journalism students. There’s no better way to uncover valuable bits on where the jobs are and how to get hired.

Such access is even more critical when the students are aspiring to work in an area as chaotic as the music industry, a field that has undergone radical change since it became possible to download music for free online.

Enter Aaron Luis Levinson and Bell Tower Music. The Grammy-winning music producer teaches "Advanced Topics of Media and Telecommunications," a School of Communications and Theater course focused on music production and recording. Levinson took a concept that had been brewing for years — a Temple-based record label — and forced it into reality with the help of Jack Klotz, Jr., assistant professor of broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media (BTMM).

Last semester Bell Tower Music (BTM) bore its first fruits outside of the classroom. The label signed Danny Janklow, a gifted jazz saxophonist and Boyer College of Music and Dance student, and Sonni Shine and the Underwater Sounds. Shine's bass player, Ken Shumski, is a BTMM alumnus. The label also redesigned its website and started YouTube and iTunes channels, giving it the ability to distribute music worldwide.

Bell Tower Music offers the same services as any commercial label — recording, production, distribution and promotion — but is unique in its focus on finding talent in the Temple community.

“We’re always on the lookout for Temple artists,” said Levinson. “There is a premium placed on talent found in our own backyard.”

Each semester, new students work at the label as part of the class. They benefit from the accomplishments of their predecessors and leave behind their own contributions for their successors — exactly as Levinson and Klotz have planned it. While last year the label centered on signing and recording its first artists, this year’s push is on building the label’s brand.

“One of our goals this semester is to build the image of and word-of-mouth about BTM,” said senior BTMM student Sasha White.

White and classmate Matthew Smith recently landed a show on Temple’s radio station, WHIP, called the Bell Tower Music Hour, which they will use to promote the label and its artists as well as seek out new talent. Fellow classmate Susannah Welbeck, who works at WHIP, helped open the door. The coup exemplifies what makes BTM work so well: each student in the class brings unique expertise and interests and together they go the extra mile.

“We meet up after class and do things on our own time. We make sure we stay connected,” said Jenn Lacko, a senior BTMM student.

It’s one of the advantages of signing with BTM: the collective creative might of an entire class focused on an artist’s success. Plus, unlike a commercial label, BTM offers the kind of environment where artists can take more creative chances, explains Klotz, who likens the label to an incubator.

During a recent class, more electricity was coming from the students than was feeding the equipment in the recording studio, which occupies space on the first floor of Annenberg Hall. The group is clearly jazzed to be learning from and working with an industry veteran. Even better, they get to do real work for a real business with real challenges and rewards.

“This is so much more valuable than writing a paper or reading a textbook,” said White. “We’re doing stuff we want to be doing in the future. If we’re going into this industry, we have to know what it’s like to really be there.