By Noelle Toumey Reetz
By Noelle Toumey Reetz
An innovative new venture at Georgia State is giving students a chance to launch a career in the entertainment industry before they’ve even graduated. MTM Standard is the university’s new student-run music distribution and licensing company, and since its launch last year, it’s been helping students find new pathways to success by producing and marketing their music.
The label is the brainchild of two professors of practice in the College of the Arts. Al Thrash and Ben Yonas are both veterans in the music industry and still work with award-winning artists. Using funds from the Research Innovation and Scholarly Excellence (RISE) challenge, a one-time university seed grant, the pair started MTM Standard just over a year ago.
Student led and student managed, MTM Standard provides young artists the uncommon ability to create their music and market their songs while retaining the rights to their recordings. The label’s synchronization division helps students get their songs in the hands of music supervisors for placement in — or sync’d to — TV shows, movies and commercials.
“These students are not just making hip-hop and R&B, they’re also making folk, rock, indie and electronic music,” Yonas said. “Our students are diverse, so our catalog is very diverse, and we’re teaching these artists how to market this music and really take ownership of the process.”
Georgia State students lead the university’s music distribution company and sync house, which operates out of the School of Music.
Below, the professors behind MTM Standard share how the venture is evolving and where it goes from here.
This started as an idea to create a student-run music label, but you’ve created something different and quite innovative. How did you conceive the idea?
Thrash: We had been talking about this idea when President M. Brian Blake put out a call for proposals for the RISE grants, so it was just perfect timing for us to go for it.
Soon after we secured the grant, we decided that a traditional record label may not be the best thing to do with our resources. When you think about a record label, you place most of your money and focus behind an artist or two and hope it all works out. Instead, we decided to develop a distribution company. That way we could support more artists and ultimately release more music.
I would say MTM Standard is a distribution company that offers label services and has a music licensing division. We started with weekly meetings last fall, assembling student teams, identifying artists, drafting contracts and creating a framework to get this company off the ground.
Yonas: We were initially approached by School of Music Director Chester Phillips, who encouraged us to pursue this vision. We dreamed up the proposal and just needed startup funding. On MTM Standard Music Group’s distribution/label side, we support the release of our students’ records, and on the other side, MTM Standard Sync is a full-service music library and licensing company.
These students are learning from professionals in the industry and have a pathway laid out to show them how to break into the music business. How rare is that?
Yonas: Music industry education needs to be experiential. Students can read every book there is, but if they’ve never actually rolled up their sleeves and put in some work, it’s going to be hard for them to get a job. So, we’re preparing students by giving them that hands-on experience. All these initiatives are operated by students. Professor Thrash and I are the coaches. We sit in the back of the room and when there’s an issue we jump in and provide guidance, but these are student-led initiatives. It’s not purely theoretical. It’s real.
The sync division of MTM Standard is breaking some new ground. What is it and how might it be important for these student-artists?
Yonas: Georgia State is known as an innovative university, and this is us being innovative. We’re building a music catalog and generating opportunities for our students to have their music featured in movies and TV shows. We had a wonderful launch with the MTM Sync Meet-Up, and we used seed funds from the RISE initiative to fly out music supervisors who license music for film and TV.
The sync world is truly a magical space where you can create opportunity for developing artists and really impact their lives. You can help people launch their careers. I see it as one of the only level playing fields in the music entertainment space because it’s not a popularity contest. These people don’t care how many million followers you have on TikTok. If your song really speaks to the mood and the energy of a scene and it's a good pairing, they will license the song.
Thrash: We find in today’s music business landscape we have a better chance of getting one of our students’ songs placed in a TV show more quickly than we can get them a million streams on Spotify. So, we’re using those kinds of licensing and sync opportunities to help these students establish themselves as artists. Getting that placement on a TV show could be the first big thing that happens in a music career. This spring, some of the top music supervisors in the sync world came to GSU and 16 student-artists had the opportunity to introduce themselves, share a little of their story and play an original record.
Because of what Atlanta has become on the film and production side, we think we can become a mainstay and offer a music library with hundreds or thousands of songs that these production companies can utilize.
You mentioned Atlanta’s location. Why is Atlanta such a hotbed for music?
Thrash: We’re making much-needed progress when it comes to infrastructure, and the fact that we have so many universities in Atlanta is a big component because students come here, they stay here, and they thrive here. It’s just a fertile place for music to be created so the major companies have been tapping into this well for over 25 years. The creativity, the production and the musicianship, along with the independent spirit, have always been in Atlanta.
Yonas: I think it’s important to note the cultural significance of Atlanta. This is the city that exports popular culture to the whole world. Where Professor Thrash and I really want to take this is to lead the way by filling some of the voids in terms of infrastructure here in the city. When you think about all the movies that are made in downtown Atlanta, we’d like to take that a step further. Let’s employ more folks from Atlanta to be part of the process of licensing the music. Let’s get more people of color involved in those roles. There are a lot of jobs in the music industry other than just trying to be an artist. You can truly carve out your own career in music, film and television.
What does it take to make this a successful business?
Thrash: It’s the talent, right? We have to start there, but also important is good organization, especially at a company like MTM Standard where we aren’t necessarily pre-screening the artists.
Communication is also important, as is having a clear understanding of what a label and distribution company does. So, you must have project managers, a production department, a marketing department, an A&R department and so on. We had to build out each of those departments and share best practices for each of the roles with students.
How does research play a role?
Thrash: One thing I can say is when it comes to being a distribution company, a major part of releasing the music is the marketing and advertising. Some artists might have hundreds of thousands of dollars to market their music and get songs on the radio, but we are using social media to reach the masses. There are a million and one ways that you can go about marketing music on social media, so we’re creating these messages while our marketing teams conduct A/B testing to determine what type of messaging works better and what calls to action in those ads work better.
We’re then using the results to help us to make decisions about what we do next and where the resources go. We don’t employ a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy for our releases. Every artist is different and must be promoted and marketed differently. We are constantly researching past and present market trends, and radio and streaming analytics, to help our artists reach their maximum potential.
Are these opportunities open to new students or did they need to get in when it first started?
Thrash: It is always open to new students. Starting this fall, MTM Standard operations will run out of two capstone courses for graduating seniors, Record Label Operations I (fall) and Record Label Operations II (spring). I think these dedicated courses will really make MTM Standard work a lot better when it comes to scheduling and logistics.
Students not enrolled in these courses can still work with the label. This is just where the nucleus of the label will operate. We can always use dedicated, hardworking students who want to learn about how the music business works.
What’s next? What would you like to see over the next five years for the students and the label?
Thrash: I would definitely like to see MTM Standard grow. Of course, I’d like for us to be recognized in industry trades as a bona fide company operating out of a university versus just a project that students are working on in school. I would love a Grammy nomination in the next five years from our label and I want us to be truly recognized in Atlanta, because if you’re recognized in Atlanta, you’re recognized in the industry.
On the sync side, I want to see our catalog grow into hundreds and then thousands of songs and I would love for us to see serious placements that we can look at and say, “You know, MTM Standard had a hand in that.” Most of all, I want to see student careers launched while they are still in school.
Yonas: In terms of where we’re headed, we want this to be a sustainable entity, and we believe it can be. Our hope is to reinvest sync revenue into future programs rather than to need more grant funding. We want this to be a viable label/music group that launches careers and helps our student-artists take off and find success.
For more information about Georgia State Research, visit research.gsu.edu.