Until not long ago, if you were in a student band at Middlebury and wanted to practice, there was a series of steps you had to take before you could plug in your amp. First you had to reserve the only practice room on campus, which is in the Service Building under the smokestack, and before you showed up at the appointed time, you had to swing by the Public Safety office on South Main Street, show your student ID, and grab the key that would unlock the door at the Service Building. Meanwhile, your bandmates were probably shivering in the cold, cursing the process, wondering why they even bothered to be in a band in the first place, and gosh wasn’t it cold, and where were you with that key? Needless to say, not a lot of folks would choose to put themselves in this scenario.
Which is why the students in the Middlebury Musicians Guild—now called Middlebury Music United, or MMU—lobbied College administrators this fall to have keypad entry locks installed on the doors to both the practice room and the recording studio (across campus in the Freeman International Center) so that members of MMU could easily gain access to either space.
And this was only the beginning of a concerted effort by MMU to revive a flagging social culture built around live music at Middlebury. Since September, the group has acquired a slew of new equipment for the practice, performance, and recording of live music. It is providing resources for shows, planning a singer-songwriter workshop for students, and sending out weekly e-mails about live music events. It is beta testing an iPhone app created by students, called MMU on Air, that will map all the live music events on campus. It uses Twitter (@middmusic) to call attention to the live music scene. Its new website is a sort of Craigslist-meets-Match.com for student musicians. (For instance, if your band is looking for a female vocalist, you might find one on middmusic.com.) And MMU members are involved with this winter term’s MiddCORE course—students take on real challenges facing for-profit and social enterprises—by providing recorded music tracks that students in the class will endeavor to package and sell.
“When we got to Middlebury in the spring of 2010, there was no community of student musicians here,” says Parker Woodworth ’13.5, an MMU cofounder. “It was as if the music had just disappeared for us. So Mike [Gadomski] and I decided we needed to create a culture where student musicians will want to play music for its own sake, where playing music is not an obligation.”
“A complaint you hear all the time is that there’s no good way to meet new people here, and it’s because people don’t venture outside their close circle of friends,” adds Gadomski ’13.5.
“We are trying to create a middle ground around the music, so it’s not so hard to meet people,” says Woodworth. “Let’s say I am at a show where one of my friends is performing, and you’re at the same show because one of your friends is performing, too. Now we have something in common, something to talk about. It is much more conducive to meet people in a coffeehouse atmosphere than at a DJ party with the music blaring and people dancing.”
“Our job in MMU is to create fertile conditions so the music scene will grow on its own,” Gadomski explains. “We don’t want to be the ones presenting the shows. That’s MCAB’s job. (MCAB is the Middlebury College Activities Board.) But we can help make it happen by providing the infrastructure”—like user-friendly keypads instead of locked doors—“to encourage student-musicians here.”
Middlebury is, after all, where the band Dispatch got its start and where solo acts like Courtney Brocks ’01 and Anais Mitchell ’04 cut their teeth. It’s where the rock group Throw Like a Girl was touted in The Campus in 1998 as “Middlebury’s first girl art-core band and one hell of a live show.” So what has happened to live music at Middlebury? Theories abound, but there’s general agreement about the primary cause of the decline: Middlebury students work so hard in and out of the classroom that they barely have time for more than one other major pursuit; and since there was no formal effort to support live music, students preferred activities with fewer obstacles.
Another reason for the decline of student-generated music is the shift toward live DJs and solo production (think: Apple’s GarageBand) and away from jam sessions and performing bands. That shift is something that musician Matt Bonner ’91 understands well. “The music scene when I was a student was like night and day from what it is now,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there were always three or four well-known bands on campus, meaning that on any given weekend at least one band was playing somewhere at Middlebury.”
An independent musician and producer of digital media (mattbonner.com), Bonner was a guitarist in Yukon Time, a rock-reggae hybrid band that played gigs on campus. “We were pretty good,” he says with a laugh, “at least in the context of being a party band.” And according to reports, they still are good. Bonner and his bandmates— Josh Sarkis ’91, Rodrigo Prudencio ’91, Barney Hodges ’91, and Andy Wiemeyer ’94—played last June during Reunion Weekend at 51 Main, the College’s off-campus performance space.
Bonner is collaborating with MMU to rekindle the live music scene at the College. “One thing that would be really cool would be a student-driven music label at Middlebury so people can write, record, produce, and mix their own stuff, and then get it out using digital distribution services. It would not be a ‘pretend’ label; it would be a real label with real people making high-quality music. Admittedly they’d have to be advised by, shall we say, certain alumni who happen to be in the music business. We just have to figure out how it will work and get the right equipment in the FIC recording studio, and then it could be really sustainable.”
The record label is a topic that gets the current leadership of MMU, Gadomski and Woodworth, very excited. “To have original music coming out of Middlebury would be good for musicians, good for our students, and good for outsiders looking at our college for the first time,” says Gadomski, whose rock band Thank God for Mississippi has attracted a following on campus.
“We have amazing students,” adds Woodworth, who, like Gadomski, plays electric guitar. “Look at the Solar Decathlon team and all that they accomplished: We don’t have programs in any of those things, and yet somehow we are competing with students who study engineering at the graduate level. We have kids capable of being part of the real-world playing field in any number of areas, and music could be one of those.”
Peter Hamlin ’73, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, sees what MMU is doing in the context of a liberal arts education. He has been the adviser to the Musicians Guild/Music United since its founding in 2004. “Now it’s seven years later and we have Mike and Parker diving in,” he observes. “It’s a thrill to watch them operate. One of President Liebowitz’s themes has been to allow students to use their own leadership and creativity and give them a measure of autonomy to follow through on the things they are passionate about. The MMU today is just a perfect example of that.”