Pulsing beats blare down the block and the scent of beer and fried dough fills the air.
With hundreds of attendees, two stages and a slew of colorful interactive art installations, the Swamp Records Fall closing party is off to a great start.
Most of the attendees don’t know tonight is more than a celebration of the student-run record label’s semester. Tonight is about a secret that over one hundred people kept for months.
At the stroke of midnight, an electronic-pop duo called Retrolux will take the stage. After the final notes of the first song, Swamp Records co-presidents Joel Ramos and Stephanie Elkin will announce that the pair has been chosen as the label’s newest band.
At least, that was the plan. But last night, the singer’s dog chewed through all of her cables. The stage is also darker than anyone expected, so the Swamp Records team needs to find some lights.
“We can’t just have them playing in the dark,” says band manager and Swamp Records member Krissy Engelson. “We want to have a Facebook Live video, you know?”
One last complication – this is Retrolux’s first time performing live.
Gainesville has launched acts from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Against Me! and draws thousands each year for The Fest, a three-day punk music festival, but it’s not known as a hub for the music industry like New York or Los Angeles. But because of Swamp Records, University of Florida students can get a leg up in the music and entertainment industry without leaving campus.
Completely student-run, the record label founded by two UF students in 2013 offers members hands-on experience and a chance to enhance the local music scene.
While the record label doesn’t actually release albums, members do just about every other behind-the-scenes task. Students handle everything from A&R to branding, social media to event planning, and videography to promotion – all for free.
“It’s convenient because they do all of the PR work so we only have to focus on the music, which has helped us to get more done and be more productive,” says Anna James, Retrolux’s singer. “They have helped to boost our social media reach and traffic. It’s nice to have a new music project and already have 100 new fans from this club.”
It’s not just a matter of getting more press locally. Flat Land, a group self-described as “ethereal funk fusion,” joined Swamp Records in spring of 2015. The band now gets radio play on Boston college radio stations and has its own Pandora Radio station, thanks to the label. The nine-piece Motown soul band Savants of Soul, which signed to Swamp Records in May 2014, has toured the South and shared the stage with artists like The Wailers and Charles Bradley. Both groups performed at Suwannee Hulaween, a festival with over 20,000 attendees, and Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, which drew 30,000.
When Swamp Records opened applications for a new band at the beginning of the fall semester, 50 artists sent in demos. Joel and Stephanie thought The Delta Troubadours (formerly known as Gritt) were an obvious choice: The group already played around town and gathered a following. The label was only looking to add one band to its roster, but one other band stood out, too, the electronic duo Retrolux.
Unlike The Delta Troubadours, this band had no fans and no social media accounts. Retrolux had never even performed live before. Still, the Swamp Records team loved their sound. And even better, they loved the idea that a team could take the artist and help them build their brand from scratch.
Since recruitment brought in a record-breaking 120 members, Swamp Records took the leap and took on Retrolux as well.
On a Saturday morning in September, the Retrolux team meets the band outside a nightclub downtown for a photo shoot. It’s 8 a.m. and everyone is exhausted. The streets, which were full of college students just hours before, are empty.
Anna and her bandmate, Maynard Shaye, have never done a photo shoot before. But having eye-popping images on their new social media profiles is the first step in building their image, so here they are.
Krissy Engelson and Liz Herold, a Swamp Records graphic designer, have come armed with a camera and a list of locations. They lead the group to whatever space draws their attention – a shadowy stairwell, empty tables in front of coffee shops and colorful murals.
After the shoot, the group swings by Shaye’s house. As Anna scrolls through the photos, Shaye (who goes by his last name) plays the latest Retrolux demo for Krissy and Liz. They sit on the floor of Shaye’s bedroom, listening to electronic clicks and beeps.
Other than the co-presidents of Swamp Records, Krissy and Liz are the only other people who have heard this music. The band didn’t share their music much before – in fact, Shaye heard about the opportunity to be Swamp Record’s new flagship artist and sent in Retrolux’s demo without Anna knowing.
“It was kind of just a project that we dabbled with,” she says. “I never really took it as seriously.”
Once she heard that Swamp Records wanted them as a flagship artist, her outlook changed.
“It kind of turned on a switch on my head,” she says. “It was like ‘Oh, this is really an opportunity.’”
The duo started to practice more and worked to create new songs. Before their first performance they have a lot of work to do. And until then, the band – and over a hundred members of Swamp Records – have to keep the partnership secret.
For some members of Swamp Records, being a part of a label is a fun way to act on a love of music. But for others, the club is a pathway to a career in the industry.
Gators have walked away from the organization with internships and other experiences that have led to full time jobs. Stephanie spent a summer interning with Pandora Radio, an opportunity that she attributes to her involvement with Swamp Records. Club members have worked as college representatives for Sony Music Entertainment (a position that not only means free CDs, but networking and experience working in the industry). Members also engage in Skype sessions with industry influencers, such as Brittany Brace, head of publicity for Syndicate Marketing in New York City.
For Krissy, who will graduate in May, managing the band is a combination of hobby and resume booster. She hopes that her work branding Retrolux will help her in the future.
“Building something from the ground up is really important for me to have in my docket when it comes to getting a job,” she says.
While Swamp Records can help members find employment after graduation, it’s also a big responsibility for the students. If members don’t do their job, they let down the artist as well as the team they are working with, Stephanie says.
“We have people’s careers in our hands.”
Each of the four bands on the label has an assigned team. Team directors make the overall plans, while business majors often gravitate towards helping with sponsorship, booking and A&R. Public relations majors and those interested in writing or photography usually help with creative tasks like designing Snapchat geofilters, writing for the label’s blog, or shooting videos.
“We have it so that anyone who wants to be here is here,” Joel says.
A projector balanced on two Scott Pilgrim books casts beams of colored light, painting the room with long streaks of color.
It was tricky organizing this video shoot. Stephanie wanted a place where the team could manipulate light and shadows. But finding a place to film was much harder than coming up with a concept. Finally, the team decided to just clear the living room of Liz’s house and shoot there on a Friday night.
Wearing shiny metallic heeled boots and a black dress with long fringe, Anna sits on the floor taking selfies as she waits for the team to set up. Coby Sanchez, a Swamp Records photographer, comes over to help shoot the video. Shaye fiddles around with the projector, trying to find the perfect image to shine onto the back wall that he and Anna will dance in front of.
Joel brings over a fog machine. He’s never used it, but he figured it would be cool.
“I bought if for a Halloween party three years ago that never happened and I just kept it,” he says.
Finally, Liz’s living room is transformed into a studio. Fog billows from the machine and floats to the ceiling. The dimly lit room is colored with deep pinks and blues, created by two colored light boxes and Shaye’s projector. Anna and Shaye dance to the hypnotizing, repetitive beat that loops over and over again.
“You’re going to have this song stuck in your head for hours,” Shaye says.
Since it’s the first time anyone here has made a music video before, the entire shoot is like one big experiment. Anna and Shaye flail around, trying different ways to dance, from silly to serious.
It’s not long before the fog machine is too much and the smoke detector starts wailing. Shaye props Liz’s front door open and music floats down the block. Inside, the Swamp Records team stands behind the camera directing Anna and Shaye, telling them what looks good and suggesting different dance moves to try.
The final product is less than 30 seconds long. But it doesn’t look like something that a group of first-time music videographers shot in a living room. It looks legit.
The colors melt together as Anna and Shaye dance across the screen, faces overlapping as they sing the words. The blending images feel surreal, mysterious and even a little trippy. It fits perfectly with the music.
Liz spent hours putting the video together, but she said it partially took so long because she was trying new animation techniques throughout the editing process. It’s one of many pieces she’s produced in the short time she’s been a part of Swamp Records, such as the Retrolux promo video and fliers for Savants of Soul.
“I wish Swamp Records could count as school credit,” she says.
A graphic design and music composition double major, Liz has loved getting the chance to get close with the musicians in Retrolux. From learning about production techniques from Shaye to getting inspiration to try making her own music, working closely with the band has been just another benefit of membership.
While the band gets to tease its new music on social media, giving anyone that checks out their Facebook or Instagram profiles a professional-looking preview of who they are, Liz and the rest of the team add the music video their portfolios.
It’s the end of another semester at UF. But before exam week starts, Swamp Records is celebrating.
There’s a lot that the label has accomplished over the past four months. Members filmed music videos and launched a new newsletter. They co-hosted a battle of the bands event with Alpha Epsilon Delta’s philanthropy Impact Gainesville, which raised money for Florida Diabetes Camp and gave local artists exposure. They booked other shows and then spread the word on social media, drawing hundreds of people to their events. They successfully revealed The Delta Troubadors as their new flagship artist without a single member spilling the beans.
All that’s left is to reveal Retrolux.
Right before midnight, there are about 400 people at First Magnitude, drinking and dancing and eating fried Oreos.
While Swamp Records members try to find more lights to brighten up the indoor stage, Joel and Stephanie sit outside at a picnic table and write out what they want to say during the reveal.
Finally, it’s time for Retrolux’s set. Swamp Records members flock to the distillery stage and the rest of the crowd follows their example. Some members are manning Snapchat, using a geofilter Krissy designed to document the band’s debut. Others are ready to stream on Facebook Live or post to Instagram.
Anna and Shaye take the stage. It’s still dark other than a few glowing strips of LEDs by the DJ table and a pattern of cascading lights projected onto the ceiling.
Retrolux starts playing anyway. The dark room is filled with electronic beeps and clicks. Wearing a lime green bodysuit decorated to look like an alien’s face, Anna starts to sing.
The few bulbs that are casting light flicker around the inside of the brewery, reflecting off the towering silver distillery tanks.
It’s not quite what they pictured, but it works. The setting combined with Anna’s extraterrestrial outfit and ethereal voice rising above Shaye’s intense beats is dreamy and out of this world.
Joel bobs his head to the music, arms crossed, while Stephanie scans her script before the big announcement. After the first song ends, the co-presidents take the stage.
“Some of you may know we’ve been keeping a secret for quite a few months now,” Stephanie says. “When we started the search for our new flagship artist back in July, we were planning on finding and inviting one amazing new artist to join the Swamp records family. But to our surprise and delight, we found two.”
The crowd roars as photographers holding smart phones and cameras cluster around the front and the side of the stage to get footage. The band launches into another song.
Retrolux’s first show isn’t perfect. Anna’s microphone squeals when she tries to talk in between sets, and the band has to start one song over again. But the crowd doesn’t care. The audience dances to each song even though it’s their first time hearing it, and screams after each one concludes.
It was the payoff for a gamble that Swamp Records took months ago. For Krissy, who built the band’s image from the ground up, the night was everything she had hoped for. She works at High Dive, a live music venue downtown. It always makes her sad when she sees new bands play for only a handful of people at an empty bar. But because of Swamp Records, Retrolux didn’t have to suffer that same fate.
“We were able to help them get their first show with almost 400 people there,” she says.
Now that the band’s partnership with Swamp Records has been announced, the label can promote Retrolux openly on social media, whether it’s announcing the band’s upcoming three-song EP release or advertising future concerts.
Having Swamp Records behind the band has made a huge difference for Retrolux.
“Both Shaye and I are super grateful to have an amazing team that is dedicated to our success,” Anna says. “That’s the craziest thing in the world to me.”
Students interested in getting involved can follow Swamp Records on Facebook for updates. Recruiting typically takes place at the beginning of the fall semester.