Don’t Flunk Me Records: Where JC Students Sign, Produce and Promote Local Artists

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Bryan Fructuoso

“Don’t Flunk me Records” production team finalizes edits for a video interview the marketing team will use to promote the label’s Fall 2022 artist, G.Rob Jamz.

Bryan Fructuoso, Reporter

Ever wondered how to start a record label?

Well, students in Music 70A have your answer:

“Take Jake’s class.”

“Jake’s class” is Santa Rosa Junior College’s Digital Media: Audio program, which illuminates what it means to work in the music business by letting students operate “Don’t Flunk Me Records,” a student-run record label.

Established in Fall 2021 as a two-semester class, Don’t Flunk Me Records is experiential learning at its core, letting SRJC students experience running a record label through every step of the production process, from scouting potential clients to recording music for an album.

“Nothing will replace actual experience more than being out in the trenches of the music business,” said digital media instructor Mike Starkey. “We provide a safe, inexpensive, high-quality learning environment where students can try things out with relatively low risk.”

Musician, recording engineer and music recording instructor Jake Stillman had the idea to create a student-led record
label after seeing a hole in students’ understanding of the music industry.

“We do a great job teaching technical skills, but what we don’t do a great job at is getting people an understanding of how the business works and how to leverage those technical skills in the real world,” Stillman said.

The two-semester track requires students to take two courses: Music 70A in the fall and Music 70B in the spring.

Located in SRJC’s Petaluma campus recording studio, students learn the ins and outs of how a record label works, including how to produce an album, how to analyze industry business mod- els and how to market and distribute promotional content.

“My favorite part of working at a community college is that it makes these programs available and accessible to everyone. I know of many artists who either got into heavy debt, lost their way or simply changed their minds and would have appreciated the opportunities we now offer,” Starkey said.

Students work in teams. The production team is in charge of recording and editing the album, the marketing team

promotes the artist on social media, the public relations team pitches the re- cordings to radio stations and blogs, and the business team maintains the labels’ files and records.

Starkey, who supports Stillman with logistics, scheduling and communications with students in other digital media programs, says music industry employers look for job candidates with a solid fundamental knowledge in technical skills, including recording basics, signal flow and microphone placement.

But they also look for people who have a great set of soft skills, such as adaptability and critical thinking, two characteristics Stillman tries to foster in his class.

“There’s two things that will bring down any project: poor communication and poor organization,” Starkey said.

Stillman agrees. “Even if you have a good technical understanding of the equipment used, it doesn’t mean you’re the best candidate to hire. Record labels look for people who are professional, who are on time, have good communication skills — an essential soft skill that we don’t focus on developing in programs,” he said.

The label’s goal is to provide support to local artists, while also providing students with vital music business knowledge and real world, hands-on experience.

Although, during Fall 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, the label faced challenges. From low enrollment to artists getting COVID and delaying projects, the label had a rough start.

“Getting going was a hurdle,” Stillman said. “No one really knew about the class, people didn’t want to be on Zoom because they were sick of Zoom, but they also didn’t want to come in person because of COVID.”

But in the end, Stillman’s students pushed through; they managed to sign local alternative rock band, Columba Livia, and released their first single, “As We Go.”

“Everything that has gone into developing the back end of our record label was done by students who were also dealing with the pandemic,” Stillman said. “Everybody put in a lot of work. Students felt invested in the success of the enterprise.”

Student Juan Venegas hopes to become an audio engineer. He took music production classes at Mendocino College in Ukiah and completed internships involving music production but felt there was more to learn.

“I saw the programs that the JC offered and rather than spending a lot of money at a university, I decided to come here. It’s really accessible,” Venegas said. “It’s become my favorite class. I think any- body who’s interested in music, making music or the music business, this is definitely the class to be in, for sure. One hundred percent,” he said.

Taking the course helped student Louis Davis Jr., who loves to produce his own music, release his recent album, “Un- conventional Loui 2.”

“The knowledge I’ve gotten from this class helped me make personal decisions about my personal projects,” Davis said. “We’re a student-run label, but it doesn’t feel that way. There is a level of professionalism here and a lot of work is put into it.”

Every fall semester one artist signs with “Don’t Flunk Me Records.” Local artists submit applications for a chance to sign with the label; all applications are reviewed by students. This year, the label selected soulful singer and rapper G.Rob Jamz.

“Having the opportunity to work with Don’t Flunk Me Records opened me up to a lot of more ideas and networking with more people. That’s just the gift of it, you know,” the Cotati-based artist said.

“I think it’s super cool that a program like this exists. I wish there was some- thing like this for everybody because it’s a cool opportunity.”

The students see it too.

“Our digital media program has grown into an amazing environment of hands-on learning and real-world experiences taught by multiple highly skilled faculty that I believe rivals any private programs and schools,” Starkey said.

To submit an artist’s application for consideration, visit www.dfmrecords.com or for more information on the Digital Media: Audio program visit www.digitalmedia.santarosa.edu.