School of rock: Music labels rely on student reps

Christina Hoag

MIAMI (MCT) – Jesse Stoll remembers falling asleep backstage at a No Doubt concert as a kid, collecting autographs from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Bruce Springsteen and traipsing behind his concert promoter dad checking box office sales.

So it makes sense that today, as a 21-year-old junior at University of Miami, Stoll is already way plugged into the music business.

He works for Sony BMG pitching new rock bands and manages his own group called Big Bang Radio. Oh yeah, he manages to sandwich in classes in copyright law and finance, too. “It gets overwhelming at times,” he admits.

Music-impassioned college students such as Stoll have for years formed a key part of record labels’ marketing programs.

Companies such as Sony BMG rely on student reps to build word-of-mouth for new artists with props like fliers and stickers, report back on the buzz, get press in college media – and occasionally even find the next hot band. Sony BMG has 50-odd reps on campuses across the country.

These days, though, with soft CD sales and digital piracy resulting in slimmer promotional budgets, campus marketing has taken on a new urgency.

“College students have always been a valuable group for record labels,” said Stan Soocher, music business professor at the University of Colorado. “But with the drop in music sales and students so tech-savvy, it’s upped the ante.”

College campuses, with a youthful audience that’s open to up-and-coming acts, are often the proving ground for new artists. Still, it can take years of tours and club dates – and constant promotion – before a band even lands a recording contract with a major label.

“You can’t just go to a radio station or MTV and break in a new band these days. There’s a lot more competition,” said Scott Carter, vice president of marketing for Epic Records. “You have to build a grassroots base before radio and video exposure.”

He points to alternative rockers Modest Mouse, now signed with Epic after emerging from the college scene.

“They were touring for 10 years and were college radio darlings,” he said. “College marketing is very important for us.”

Enter Stoll’s trajectory in the music business starts with his father Jon Stoll, the head of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Fantasma Productions, one of few independent concert promoters still around.

The younger Stoll, of slight build, vivid blue eyes and much zeal, has been Sony BMG’s rep for the past three years, promoting rock bands such as Test Your Reflex, Kings of Leon and Chevelle.

He drops off posters and displays at local retailers, organizes promotional contests and giveaways, arranges meet-and-greets with bands, hangs out at bars, clubs, shows – “anywhere the college scene is buzzing” – to get the word out about Sony BMG’s stable of artists.

“He’s very on top of his game,” said Danny Moeller, coordinator of Sony BMG’s college marketing program.

Stoll won’t reveal exactly how much he’s paid. He said it’s more than a stipend, and gives him enough for some spending money and for gas. In any case, the money isn’t always the main attraction – college marketing gigs can lead to record-company jobs following graduation.

Stoll, however, has more ambitions. “My dream is to bring a big band on stage,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to manage bands.”

He’s already doing it. For the past two years, he’s managed Miami-based alternative pop rockers Big Bang Radio. As soon as he heard them, Stoll said, he was convinced the band’s funky, powerful sound would be a hit.

BBR, which has opened for Ashlee Simpson and played Hard Rock Live!, recently won the Miami city contest in the National Million-Dollar Bodog Battle of the Bands. Out of 7,000 entrants across the country, BBR is now one of 17 bands on the final elimination tour.

BBR lead guitarist Alex Zapatier said that what Stoll lacks in age-old experience, he more than makes up for in chutzpah. “He got us on this tour,” Zapatier said.

Hovering in the backstage of Stoll’s budding career is his dad, but that doesn’t mean that the elder Stoll is pulling strings for his son or letting him slide on grades.

“I try to guide him as I can, but I’m reluctant,” said Jon Stoll, who started promoting concerts when he was 15. “I did it all myself, and he’s got to learn – you can’t have anything handed to you.”

Still, Jon Stoll said he’s proud of his son. “I did not push him at all into this business,” he said. “It’s very, very competitive, but I’d like him to follow it.”