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Small Town Records reaches out with jam sessions

A few minutes before 8 p.m. Thursday evening, a small congregation had formed around the door of Small Town Records. Guitar cases and keyboards leaned against the walls, their owners patiently awaiting the chance to put them to use. It was explained that no one present had a key to the studio; the only person who did was running a bit late—and understandably so, as the student-run record label is housed in the bowels of the Bryan Center, behind more than a few right turns and double doors. I’m lucky I found my own way there.

But once president Serges Himbaza arrived, key in hand, it wasn’t long before a variation on Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” emerged from the studio. For over an hour, some of Duke’s most talented musicians proceeded to settle on a riff, jam over it and build it to a crescendo before moving on to the next tune.

Small Town Records hosts these open jam sessions one Thursday each month. Himbaza, who worked with the studio for two and a half years as a signed artist and producer before becoming president as a senior, said the sessions have been happening for as long as he can remember. For the students who attend them, the jam sessions provide an opportunity to make spontaneous music or simply to take a break from hours of studying.

“The first goal is like, let’s get people in a room and just vibe and start playing music because it’s an awesome release,” Himbaza said. “The second goal is to make people realize just how many other musicians there are on campus.”

This year marks the label’s tenth anniversary, in which time it has grown in influence and exposure on campus. In the past couple months alone, the number of people working with the studio has more than doubled, an influx Himbaza credited to a concerted effort by the label to advertise and attract new members.

“I think over the years Small Town has become more and more outward facing,” Himbaza said. “Initially, it was, like, kind of niche, and you’d find a core, niche group of people who sort of knew about the label and stuff like that, but I think this year we’ve made it a real priority to really reach out and try to invest in different musical communities, to try and bring more and more people to the table.”

First-year Martin Muenster is one such new member, training as a producer for the studio. He said he hoped to become a signed artist with STR, a goal shared by many at Thursday’s jam session. The process to become a signed artist is a competitive one, though, provoking the common refrain: “Maybe this will be the year.”

For those who make it through the rounds of electronic submissions and live auditions, however, the rewards are great: signed artists receive a budget, business management, marketing and a full production team, joining a hallowed league of musicians that in the past has included Mike Posner and Delta Rae.

When asked about the current artists working with STR, one in particular has Himbaza excited: Freely Live, whose new album he cites as one of the strongest to come from the label. Duke Coffeehouse will host an album release party for the neo-gospel group Oct. 21.

“They’re gonna rock the house,” Himbaza said. “I think you don’t have to be within the gospel community to think it’s a dope album. It’s got so much accessibility.”

Applications for this year’s round of signed artists are due Oct. 12 through a form on STR’s website. The selection process will culminate with a live audition show Nov. 4 at the Coffeehouse. For the first time, Himbaza explained, crowd response will factor into choosing the new artists, allowing the Duke community to take part in deciding the direction of the label—another extension of Small Town’s outreach effort.

In recent years, Duke has undergone an arts renaissance of sorts, shown in movements like #artstigators and an increased focus on arts programming. Small Town Records has shared in this growth and occupies a unique place within Duke’s arts community.

“We have something here that’s really impactful and really meets a need within the Duke community, which is: I'm creative,” Himbaza said, “I have this aspect. I have that aspect. I have the business aspect, I have the creative aspect, I’m a songwriter that doesn’t play an instrument, I’m a singer that doesn’t write songs. ... Not a lot of things allow that many people to have a stake in a project, and I think [Small Town] Records and the process of making music is unique in that way.”

He explained that the music industry presents the perfect intersection between the entrepreneurial, business-minded side of Duke and the creative one. Even for students who play no instruments, STR offers a multitude of opportunities, whether as a business manager, a marketing representative or a music producer. The label aims to foster a sense of community for anyone who appreciates music, and events like jam sessions and listening parties (one for Bon Iver’s new album “22, A Million” is in the works) achieve just that.

As Thursday’s jam session wound down, students began to unplug their amps, retire their drumsticks and repack their guitars; on this final night before fall break, midterms were still in full force and studying awaited many. But the last ninety minutes had been a welcome diversion, a needed release and a chance to bond, collaborate and create.

“There’s two sides of Small Town: There’s the logistics and business side, and then we do this,” senior Wilson Brace, vice president of music and production, said. “And, at some point, we press ‘record.’”

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