Nathaniel Baker was just testing out a friend's new recording equipment when he made a demo with his guitar one afternoon in the spring of 2004. Baker, of Northern Virginia, had an extensive musical background but hadn't considered being a recording artist.
"The thought never really occurred to me to strike out at all," said Baker, 20, a junior at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.
Then a fellow JMU student heard the three-song demo. Now, not only has Baker made records and performed live, but he is dreaming a bit of becoming a rock star.
Baker was the first artist signed by 80 One Records, JMU's student-run label. Staffed mostly by student volunteers, including about 20 from Northern Virginia, 80 One is one of about two dozen student-run labels at U.S. universities. It is the only such label run out of a student activities office, according to founder Chris Stup.
"It's a very unique opportunity that a lot of schools don't offer," said Baker, a Manassas native. "It's something I love."
Stup, a 34-year-old JMU graduate, launched 80 One in part because he missed working with a record label. Stup worked in marketing for Capitol/EMI Records in Laurel briefly in the mid-1990s, but then returned to JMU.
After getting a master's degree in music, he became assistant director of student activities for the University Program Board, a nonprofit student organization that provides educational, cultural and entertainment events at JMU. Because JMU had a thriving music industry program and the board had funds available, he started 80 One as a student activity in the fall of 2003, naming it after the interstate highway that bisects Harrisonburg. His initial goals were simple.
"On the one hand, we're doing artist development," Stup said. "On the other hand we're serving our campus population. . . . We have 16,000 kids here. We have a tremendous amount of talent. So why not have a student-run record label that can focus on student entertainment?"
80 One started with eight students, but it aggressively sought to sign a recording artist. After one of the students, Springfield native Sean Branigan, heard Baker's demo during a car ride with a friend, it soon landed one.
Baker, a singer-songwriter, guitarist and piano player, signed with 80 One in May 2004. He played his first live show the next night at a campus dining hall.
"It was kind of a cool opportunity to do what I love and have funding behind me," Baker said.
With Baker on board, 80 One grew quickly. The label released its first album, a compilation featuring artists including Baker and Stup, that same month. During the 2004-05 school year, it booked Baker at spots in Harrisonburg and other Virginia college towns. Baker's first solo album, an acoustic set called "between the lines," was released in November.
In August, when Baker arrived at the label's first weekly meeting of this school year, he was shocked to see about 70 students eager to volunteer.
Bryant Getzel and Randi Sponenberg, 80 One's co-directors, selected 19 of them to fill 11 chair positions, including Northern Virginia natives Maleika Cole, Massoud Adibpour and Katie Austen. Cole and Adibpour are booking chairs and Austen a video production chair.
The chairs and other students involved are volunteers, while Getzel and Sponenberg receive stipends as part-time university program board employees. Stup acts as the label's adviser and as a studio producer.
Running 80 One through the board -- not like other student-run labels, which are essentially small businesses -- allows students to get real-world experience without having to make the financial sacrifices of the recording industry, Stup said. The label operates like a nonprofit organization, with revenue that the students generate by selling albums and organizing shows cycled back to the board. Musicians signed by 80 One must attend JMU or, in the case of bands, at least one member must go there. Once they graduate, they cannot be affiliated with 80 One.
"All of the typical nasty things you associate with the corporate entertainment industry, we can be free of it here," Stup said. "We don't have this pressure to make a ton of money, which leads to a lack of artistic integrity. We're more in it for the artistic integrity."
Stup strives for 80 One to showcase JMU musicians and to train students for recording careers. Ideally, he wants them to enter what he considers to be a notoriously shady industry with strong business ethics.
80 One representatives are responsible for everything a professional label does, including negotiating and drawing up contracts, forging relationships with industry players, promoting and distributing albums, and navigating the line between pursuing commercial and artistic success for their artists.
Adibpour and Cole, for example, are booking shows for Baker next semester all over the state, including Northern Virginia spots.
Cole, a 19-year-old sophomore and music industry major, said volunteering for 80 One last year helped her land an internship in promotions with the radio station DC101 over the summer.
80 One is "amazing," said Cole, a Vienna native and Marshall High School graduate. "I've learned so much. . . . To be able to have hands-on experience, that's just the greatest thing."
Adibpour, a 22-year-old senior, co-organized and was emcee for an open-mike event last year. He also used his 80 One connections to secure an internship this semester with Red Light Management, an artist representation company based in Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville. The Fairfax native and Robinson Secondary School graduate plans to get into the business full time after he graduates this month.
His 80 One experience should help him, said Joel Mills, an alumnus of the label who works in ticketing for the label Musictoday, also based in Crozet.
Mills, 22, was an 80 One co-director last year. That experience impressed employers with whom he spoke after graduating in May and ultimately led to his landing a full-time job, he said.
"I probably wouldn't be in the industry if it wasn't for 80 One," said Mills, who is Baker's manager. "It was easily the most educational experience I had at JMU.
Mills is considered an adviser to 80 One. Stup hopes that future 80 One alums also stay close to the label -- just one of many goals 80 One leaders have.
Now that the foundation is in place for 80 One, this year its staff hopes to expand its radio show on the JMU student station, add a podcast, improve the Web site and sign a third artist (the second, Nelly Kate, signed in February). Sponenberg also wants to organize a student record label conference.
"The goal this year has been to set a standard," Sponenberg said. "We want to get our name out there so people come to us."
Getzel said that even though 80 One is made up of college students, "I think we can still be competitive with other labels."
Stup's long-term goals include growing the label's catalogue and extending its distribution nationally.
Baker could benefit from Stup's ambitions. He started playing piano at 4, picked up a guitar as an Osbourne Park High School junior and started writing music as a freshman at JMU. Yet music remained just a hobby until he hooked up with 80 One.
"It makes me want to play music more," Baker said. "It lets me be creative. . . . You always have in the back of your mind: There might be something bigger than this."
80 One artists own their music after they graduate. Baker plans to record a new album with a band in time for a February release party. That album should be more commercially successful than "between the lines," 80 One's leaders say, which would help Baker approach the type of career that some of his favorite bands, including Coldplay and Ben Folds, enjoy.
And if the rock star thing doesn't work out, Baker, a technical and scientific communications major, plans to move home and look for a tech job after he graduates.
When asked why he would give up on music, Baker looked around a large room in the basement of Taylor Hall after a recent meeting of 80 One and chuckled.
"I wouldn't want to work in the [music] industry," he said. "It's kind of sketchy."
If Stup has his way, it may not always be.
For more information, go to upb.jmu.edu/80One/fullnews.asp.