KNOW YOUR SCENE: Darren Walters of MAD Dragon Music Group

Photos courtesy of Mad Dragon Music Group

“First and foremost, we are like this,” Darren Walters says as he begins to draw the organizational structure of the MAD Dragon Music Group on a notepad. The MAD Dragon Music Group is Drexel’s student run music group, and it consists of five different entities: MAD Dragon RecordsMAD Dragon Media, MAD Dragon Live, MAD Dragon Publishing, and MAD Dragon Artist Management. The music group provides real world experience for Drexel students in the Music Industry Program, but it also works on innovative projects with high-profile artists such as Hoots and Hellmouth and RJD2. Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Darren Walters, director of the MAD Dragon Music Group, to talk about the record label, its place in the Philadelphia community, and some of its exciting projects, both new and old.

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Darren Walters (front) with students and musicians in the study abroad progam in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Rock On Philly: You have lots of experience in the music industry, both through your work with Jade Tree and through your work as a producer. What is your role within MAD Dragon Records?

Darren Walters: I have two roles that are somewhat distinctly different. First, I am the director of the music group, which means that I oversee all of the groups. Then more specifically, I run the record label.

ROP: MAD Dragon Records is incredibly unique in that it is run by students. What is it like working with the future professionals of the music industry, and how does the music group enhance Drexel’s own Music Industry Program?

DW: First of all, the biggest benefit is that they [the students] actually get to work with something that is real and that is happening. The program does take place in a class, but it also takes place outside of class. It takes place in a dynamic situation where anything can happen. A band can break up; a record can be a failure; many things can happen, but what matters is how they manage that. And sometimes failure is the best thing that can happen on a project because it teaches people how to come back and how to be reflexive.

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Students in Mad Dragon Records class

ROP: Are all the artists who sign with the label affiliated with Drexel, or does the clientele consist of artists from all over?

DW: They can be from anywhere. One of our existing mandates is that we want to work with artists who are not just students in the program, but who are students at Drexel. That doesn’t always happen, but we really want to have a focus where we’re specifically trying to get new and emerging artists. A lot of times that can be the students, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be people from the community, and it can be people who are from California, or Alaska, or the UK, or wherever. So we’re really trying to work with anyone, anywhere, but we also want to work really tightly with the community as well.

We’ve really been encouraging students to go out and look for artists and bring them to the label, encouraging them to really be proactive. It’s important to learn the ropes, go out and talk to people, and get them to invest in what you’re doing. It’s learning business. There are some things that you just can’t be taught in a classroom. You can learn to communicate, but you can’t learn to get up your business acumen. Those years of being out in situations where you’re meeting artists, lawyers, and people who run venues are important because those contacts are the people you can count on when you need to ask, “Hey, what’s this good band,” or “What do you hear about this,” or “Do you know the person who plays guitar in this band,” or “Hey, who’s the manager for this artist.” You need to build up those connections, and if you’re not out there, it’s not going to happen.

ROP: The MAD Dragon Music Group has everything a developing artist could need, from MAD Dragon Records to the booking division to the publishing company. What does it take to be an artist on the label? What is the A&R process like for an aspiring musician, and is there a “MAD Dragon Records sound”?

DW: Absolutely not. There is nothing specific, and one of the reasons for that is I really want the students to express themselves. After all, the label is supposed to represent the student body. That’s not entirely possible, but what they’re doing is they’re bringing in not just someone that they think, “Well, this music is good.” They’ve got to bring in something that they think is attractive, that they think sounds good, but then they’ve also got to make a case for why we should work with it. Just because it sounds good – lots of music sounds good – but why should we be working with it? What about this project makes it unique? Sell it to us, and think about how and why are we going to sell it to the marketplace. They might not all agree on something because this is not the country, or the punk rock, or whatever division of the label; it’s everything. But if they can relax and open up their minds and think, “Ok, I may not know anything about death-metal, but if the person who does brings something in and says that there are reasons to work with this band, let’s go with it and see how it happens,” then it should make sense to work it.

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Students preparing the Making Moves box set

ROP: Philly is known for its soulful sound and notable artists. What influence has the city had on the label, given that it is tied to such a prominent Philadelphia college?

DW: It doesn’t necessarily have an influence on the way that the label is run, but Philly has an influence on me. I’m always harping on the students that there are plenty of places to see live music, plenty of artists out there, plenty of songwriters, plenty of venues. We have a lot going on in this community, so there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be working with a lot of artists from this community. We don’t have a, “We must be representative of Philadelphia,” mandate, but by default, we should be representative of Philadelphia because there is a plethora of activity in all kinds of genres here. And that includes the suburbs. When you throw all that stuff together, it’s like, my God.

We definitely are trying to do specific Philadelphia rooted projects, too. We have the archives of Sigma Sound Studios, and we’ve worked on a couple of projects that we’re not yet able to actually release. We’ve also just begun discussions on potentially doing something community based as well. Again, that’s all tied to the fact that there’s so much going on in Philadelphia, and we’re a big part of the community. Hopefully we’ll get there with a good project; we keep talking about some cool stuff.

ROP: The label is just over a decade old. How have the changes brought on by iTunes, Spotify, and social media affected how you run a label in the current music industry?

DW: Because of the different stuff that we do, it hasn’t had such a major impact. For MAD Dragon Records, the biggest impact has been more of a positive one because we’ve been one of those labels that gets a song from the catalogue on Spotify or something like that and people for some reason lock onto that song, that track, and it gets played thousands of times. So that’s been positive. It hasn’t necessarily played into a decrease in physical sales, but on that note, because of the size and kind of label that we are, we don’t keep a large quantity of physical stuff around, nor do we want to. Even when there was still some physical product around, the digital was the only thing really selling, so it hasn’t really had a negative impact. If anything, it has had a positive one, and I’m happy for that because it’s not the story that you often hear.

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Darla performs, featuring MDMG’s Ritchie Straus on drums

ROP: What was one of the most exciting / fulfilling experiences you have had as a part of the MAD Dragon Records team?

DW: For Record Store Day last year, we released RJD2’s Icebird on vinyl. RJD2 has his own label, Electrical Connections, but we said “Hey, is there any stuff that you have that’s not available on vinyl?” And he said that yeah, he had this Icebird record that he’d love to release with some bonus stuff, but he didn’t want to capitalize it. So we said, “Well what if we capitalize it?” In a time when vinyl was popular, he jumped on it. We made the vinyl for Record Store Day last year, and we pre-sold all of them. It was great for the artist and the label because we got to fulfill an objective in his catalogue (vinyl for a record that had never had vinyl), and for us it was great because we got to fulfill an objective of the students (work with a well-known artist).

Within the last year, that’s one of the most exciting projects we’ve done because it gave us a chance to do something cool and different, and it gave us a chance to do our first Record Store Day release. Also, it was great to have stores ask for more and have to say, “Well, we don’t have more.”

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JuTaun performs at Hollystock 2015 – Photo by Samantha Sweeney

 

ROP: What current projects are the students at the label most excited about for 2016?

DW: We have two artists, Johnny Popcorn and JuTaun, who both have records coming out by the end of this spring. We’ve also recently signed another band called The Dispersions. Lastly, MAD Dragon Media is helping to work on the Love on the Streets event on May 14th. Some Drexel bands as well as some MAD Dragon bands will be playing, so that will be very cool.

What do YOU think of Darren Walters and Mad Dragon Records? Tell us in the comments below!

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