Out of School and Inside the Studio: Spy Hop Records Empowers a New Generation of Musicians

Musicology students during a band practice session. Photo: David Newkirk

If the term ‘teen musician’ makes you want to rip out your own eardrums, I understand. Or at least, I did. Listening to the over-hyped, mass-produced, cookie-cutter drivel from the likes of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus is enough to turn even the most optimistic of music fans into jaded cynics whining about the future of the music industry.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I got a hold of a free CD sampler of local youth artists produced by a local youth record label, I was surprised. Actually, I was in disbelief. The first time I popped the CD into my stereo, I did a double take. I checked the CD and the sleeve to make sure that this was, in fact, the music of teen musicians as produced by other teens. It’s not just that the musicians themselves are talented and original, but the production quality itself is so good that I couldn’t help but wonder if some mistake had been made.

My apologies to the talented folks over at Spy Hop Records. Spy Hop Records is a youth-run record label, housed within Spy Hop Productions, responsible for invigorating and empowering youth artists from the Salt Lake City area. Some of those youth artists are the product of Spy Hop Records’ sister program, Musicology. The musical arts instructor and mentor over both programs is SLC-born musician Jeremy Chatelain. Chatelain describes Musicology as a ten-month program made up of teen musicians. “This year, I decided to make it one big project. So over the course of 10 months, these kids come in here––there’s seven of them–– and they all play different instruments. We work on writing songs and being in a band and rehearsing,” says Chatelain.

Spy Hop Productions is a local nonprofit dedicated to “empowering youth through multimedia.” Students from around the Salt Lake City area come to Spy Hop to learn various skills: how to make documentaries, make video games, run a youth radio program, etc. Students become designers, editors, audio engineers and cinematographers. Spy Hop Records and Musicology are two of Spy Hop’s newest programs, both only in their second year. Students of the Spy Hop Records program are generally recruited from other Spy Hop classes. As instructor/mentor for Spy Hop Records and Musicology, Chatelain tries to find designers, writers, audio engineers and publicists for the Spy Hop Records team. As a result, the Spy Hop Records class is the most diverse group of students at Spy Hop—hailing from high schools all over the Salt Lake valley and from all walks of life.

Essentially, the class is an actual record label experience. The students determine which local acts to sign and then offer contracts to those chosen. Then, students are faced with the difficult task of “trying to disseminate music to the public,” says Chatelain. “That class, for myself and the students is a constant learning experience … Some things we try totally fail, but some things we do totally take off. I think that’s the state of the music industry at large. They’re struggling, so we are a little micro look at their struggles––How do you sell CDs? I don’t know. We’re trying to figure it out.”

This year, Spy Hop Records has signed six different acts: Sam Burton, The Direction, Eliza Shearon, Malevolent MC, Joel Brown and Idyll Rigamarole (the Musicology band). All of the artists on the Spy Hop Records label are young people––none over 21 years old. SHR is one of just a small handful of youth-run record labels, and both students and artists at the label are proud of it.

Gabriella Huggins is a driven 16-year-old who co-manages the Spy Hop Records class with Chatelain. She speaks for most of her fellow students when she says “Spy Hop Records is such a cool thing because we’re youth, we sign youth artists for free and we give them a chance to put their art out there. That’s not an opportunity that [teens] get very often, and if we get those opportunities it’s because we’re under the control of other people, not because we have artistic freedom. Spy Hop Records gives [our artists] the freedom to do what they want to do, to make their records on their own time. We’re just there for support. We’re there to help them … We empower people.”

The students in Musicology are automatically signed with Spy Hop Records, giving the new artists the unique opportunity to form a band and record an actual album in only 10 months. This year, the work of Musicology and Spy Hop Records students will be showcased on July 21 at 6pm at Kilby Court. There, the students’ 10 months of hard work culminate in a concert featuring all six artists on the Spy Hop Records label and the CD releases for The Direction, Eliza Shearon, and Idyll Rigamorole’s new albums.

This year’s Musicology class consists of seven students in the band Idyll Rigamarole. The group, who had not met or played together before the class, became fast friends. They have already played several live shows and radio spots. Though referred to as a “class,” Musicology is not a typical music class. Students who join Musicology already know how to play their instruments, but don’t have much experience playing in a band. Since they play only original songs, no covers, class discussions explore what makes music “good.” Much of Musicology’s class time is spent writing songs and rehearsing music. According to Chatelain, “It’s a band experience in a condensed version…I don’t teach music lessons.” In fact, Chatelain doesn’t feel much like a traditional “teacher” at all, calling himself a “mentor” or “guide,” instead.

During rehearsal, Chatelain may suggest, subtly, “Do you want to run through this song, start to finish? ... Good, I think you should.” But it’s obvious that the students themselves are in control. The technical term for this approach, taken in all Spy Hop Productions classes, is “student-driven curriculum.” It’s what makes Spy Hop Records and Musicology so empowering for students.

At Spy Hop, students are given the one thing that all teens crave but that adults are unwilling to give them––independence. Chatelain says, “We let the kids here do what they want in the class and then we facilitate them pursuing those ideas.” The kids definitely appreciate it. When asked what the best part about Spy Hop Records is, Gabriella Huggins, 16, and Perry Layne Decker-Tate, 16, say that it’s their independence or “artistic freedom.” The students have even learned to trust each other’s artistic freedom. During one rehearsal, TJ Hunter told his fellow guitar player, Teager Czubak, to improvise a second guitar part, saying encouragingly, “You can come up with something.” And Czubak quickly improvised a new, complimentary piece to Hunter’s original song. Aspen Hinkle, a 17-year-old who returned to Spy Hop Records for her second year says that the independent aspect resonates with her, since the work doesn’t feel ‘required’ and stifling the way schoolwork sometimes can. Decker-Tate says, “They give you the tools to do what you want to do. Jeremy just gave me this and told me to [record this promotional video] the way I wanted to do it, and so I am. And it looks professional, by the way.”

Professional work isn’t always the result of this student-initiated approach, however. As Chatelain admits, it can backfire. He cites one example when the Musicology kids wanted to write a song collectively, as a band. Despite his suspicion that the experiment might not work, Chatelain encouraged them. The result? After a few minutes of initial inspiration, “I think they sat there for an hour and a half in silence.” Chatelain laughs as he relates these stories, because with his 25 years of experience in bands, “I’ve been there,” he says. “But it’s totally worthwhile. That [frustration] is real. I tell them that all the time, ‘This is what band practice is like­­––sometimes it sucks.’ But I feel like they’re getting lessons they wouldn’t get elsewhere.”

Many of those lessons are practical pieces of advice straight from Chatelain’s experiences playing in and touring with bands since he was a teenager. A native of Salt Lake City, Chatelain is currently working on a new album with his band Cub Country and enjoying two new roles as a father and a musical arts instructor at Spy Hop. Though he never pictured himself working with teens, Chatelain says he has enjoyed the opportunity to “establish trust with students and work on something creative.” He has watched some of his students turn from sullen, disinterested teens to engaged, active students, and “that’s pretty gratifying to see. Though I had no idea that was coming when I took the job here. I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh it’s a job where I can play guitar and record myself on Pro Tools.’”

Chatelain sets some curriculum goals and benchmarks for the students at the beginning of the year. Though he generally lets students “figure it out” on their own—which they eventually do and then excel—some of his broader goals have to do with the students’ larger experience with the program. He wants his Spy Hop Records students “to come away knowing that they can complete a project and see it through. When we release these records at the end of the year, I want them to have ownership of them.”

“One of the most important things [the program] is about is kids collaborating with kids they would possibly never be friends with outside of this class … and collaborating with all kinds of different people. I think it’s a valuable life lesson,” Chatelain says. Musicology student and Idyll Rigamorole drummer Braden Tipton, 15, says collaboration can be difficult in band practice: “The hardest part is having so many ideas in the same room and trying to get everybody’s ideas heard.” But the reward is well worth the struggle. If nothing else, the group has learned the joys of playing music and being in a band, which are, as Chatelain says, “the best reward.”

The hardworking, talented, freethinking students at Spy Hop Records and Musicology have opened my eyes to the amazing potential of youth to make good, original music and to empower each other. Salt Lake is lucky to have these innovative programs for students, and our music scene is continually enhanced by these capable, driven teens.

Don’t miss Spy Hop Records’ end-of-the-year show featuring all six artists and three new albums for sale on July 21, 6pm at Kilby Court.

To score a free download of the Spy Hop Records 2010 Spring Sampler, go to spyhoprecords.bandcamp.com, and keep up to date with Spy Hop Records on their website, spyhoprecords.com, or their MySpace page, myspace.com/spyhoprecords

For more information about Spy Hop Productions and the other programs they offer, go to spyhop.org or to Spy Hop’s location at 511 W 200 S, Salt Lake City.

Musicology students during a band practice session. Photo: David Newkirk