As a high-school sophomore, now first-year Jay Albright sold his video games and consoles to pay for music production equipment. The Atlanta native had indulged his love of beat-mixing for years, but it wasn’t until his late teens that he began to take himself seriously as an artist. In the end, his financial gamble paid off: Small Town Records, Duke’s student-run label, signed Albright, who raps under the pseudonym MAUI. STR also signed hip-hop duo FLONERS and Cliff Gilman, country-folk songwriter and senior, last month. 

Prospective STR artists faced a rigorous, multi-step audition process. After several dozen hopefuls submitted music samples at the beginning of the semester, the label whittled down the contestants to about 15 artists, who then performed live in studio. A second round of cuts resulted in seven contenders, who wooed crowds in a live show at the Devil’s Krafthouse on Oct. 18. Three of these finalists received offers. 

STR staff said they intentionally selected artists in a wide range of genres and paid particular attention to audience reception at the Krafthouse show. First-year Alexa Burnston, who manages Julie Williams, label artist and senior, stressed the importance of stage presence, noting that Albright’s easy confidence made him an obvious choice to sign. 

“It seemed like a lot of people who weren’t initially there to see him got really into his performance,” Burnston said of his reception at the public audition show, noting that other artists packed the crowd with their friends. 

Albright said that once offered a spot on the label, the decision to sign with STR was easy.

“Everything you want as an artist, they give to you,” he said.

This includes studio production, marketing and booking, and even a house band to accompany artists who aren’t instrumentalists. 

Burnston has also been impressed by the opportunities that STR offers students. Noting that interest in STR motivated her to attend Duke, she hasn’t been disappointed: The first-hand experience she’s gained, she said, has affirmed her interest in a music-business career and spurred her to consider applying for a Program II examining opera’s role in society. 

For Albright, too, the interaction between art and knowledge has been a hallmark of his first semester at Duke. He emphasized that, while he hopes to pursue rap professionally after graduation, his Duke education has served to both fulfill him personally and provide fodder for his music. 

“Even Econ is changing how I look at life in general,” he said, also mentioning that he had recently recorded a track with a Middle Eastern artist he met through his Arabic course. 

Albright expects his release schedule, like those of STR’s other new artists, to be heavy. His management team has already planned several drop dates, and he’s been posting short raps each Monday on his official Instagram account. STR staff also wrote online that the FLONERS, who have three singles already on Spotify, expect to debut more soon, and that Gilman’s first album is in production. 

But the hard work ahead of him hasn’t dampened Albright’s optimism. He said he views music as a means of processing his emotions, pointing to an album he released last summer as an exploration of the feelings of social ostracism he experienced at his private high school. And he’s excited to share his work with a wider audience. 

Most of all, he feels his music is relatable.

“Anything I say probably applies to you as well,” he said.