From the artistically rich surrounding city of Ann Arbor to its challenging, comprehensive curriculum, the University of Michigan provides students with a thriving nexus between arts and education. For musicians specifically, the University has been home to a multitude of inspiring talent, from Iggy Pop, to Richard Perry, to Madonna. And even now, there is no shortage of student musicians in Ann Arbor, which is precisely the reason two University students have developed an innovative and exciting organization that could give several artists the momentum to become the University’s next generation of success stories.
Empty Mug Records is an independent, student-run record label, and in its short history, it has used Ann Arbor’s art-inclined culture as a foundation to provide student musicians the chance to develop their music in a significant way. Having worked closely with artists in School of Music, Theater & Dance Prof. Dick Siegel’s songwriting class, the group is now up and running as a University student organization after originating last year in the shape of a class project.
“I was in a music business class (a Performing Arts and Technology course offered by SMT&D) last spring and that’s how it stemmed. We had semester-long projects and we got a group together and decided to create a (record) label for the University,” said Hailey Phelps, LSA junior and Empty Mug Records’ co-president. “Instead of that stopping at the class project … we just took (the idea) and ran with it.”
Midway through working on the class project, Phelps brought in LSA senior Meta Stange. Together, the pair was determined to pursue the record label outside of the classroom, and with the August release of Empty Mug’s first compilation album, the co-presidents have finally brought the project from ideation to fruition.
“We’ve met with a lot of people to get their insight,” Stange said. “We were working with a lawyer who was helping us get some stuff set up and Melissa Levine who works in the copyright office for the University.”
“And from there it was just e-mailing people, getting in touch … asking questions and finding people to help you with that. And people were so wonderful to us,” Phelps added.
Levine, the University’s lead copyright officer, has been involved with Empty Mug Records from the beginning, informally offering guidance and mentorship. She was also able to provide key financial support in the form of a Third Century Grant that two of her former interns had applied for. They had seen the cross-section of projects that came through Levine’s office that dealt with copyright and wanted to reconcile their law school educations with their passion for the arts to create something meaningful for members of the Ann Arbor community. Empty Mug Records grew out of that effort, as some of the funds that remained in the Grant were approved for transfer to the organization as seed money.
“One of the great things about these Third Century Grants is unexpected consequences in a good sense, and I think that Empty Mug may be just that thing,” Levine said. “I couldn’t have planned for that as a deliverable but for it to have happened is a very good investment.”
With help from the University, Phelps and Stange have managed to grow their record label into a full-service operation dedicated to helping student artists in any way they can; that includes production, distribution, designing album artwork, press photos and more.
“Basically anything you would need as a musician besides literally sitting down and playing the guitar, we can help you with,” Stange said.
“Everything is in-house,” Phelps added. “So everything that we do or help create, we are working on that within our label … We have everyone from sound engineers, more business-minded people, financial, promotion, marketing and then Meta and I primarily deal with reaching out to artists specifically. But it’s all in-house so everything that we do comes from the people who we work with directly.”
Because it provides so many services to its artists, Empty Mug Records is as much about the people behind the scenes as it is about those in front of the microphone. The company prioritizes creativity, collaboration and most importantly, inclusivity — the greater the diversity in skillset, the greater the opportunity for everyone involved to learn and grow. In time, the co-presidents hope that the label will not only become a platform for artists but also a network for people who are interested in pursuing music in any capacity.
“That’s one of our main goals: to make it very inclusive and very collaborative because we want people to share their ideas if they know how to do something better than us,” Phelps said. “We want to hear that to make this the best thing possible.”
Empty Mug Records’ initial success is exactly what Levine hoped would come from the program funded by the Third Century Grant: to dispel the notion that people are either creative or business-minded.
“(My former interns) proposed applying for one of the … grants from the Provost’s office to develop a program around entrepreneurial skills for humanity students with the idea … being that many of us who are interested in the arts assume we are not interested or competent in business,” Levine said. “And actually business is incredibly creative and ideally about being creative and effective with that. So, the proposal we made had to do with developing business skills for humanity students.”
Going forward, Phelps and Stange will seek funding in the form of external grants; searching for additional funding is a large part of one of Empty Mug’s departments. Currently, the group has just over 30 members, with interest growing rapidly among the student community — both regarding the organization and its music.
“My moment of validation from this whole process was this fall when we were passing out flyers to come to our mass meeting and someone (said), ‘Oh yeah I heard this compilation on Bandcamp.’”
Regarding the name of the label, Phelps admits she had a hard time making a decision.
“We had to find a name right away and I was writing down lists and lists and trying to figure out what was going on and I was actually talking to one of my friends who works at a coffee shop … and he actually thought of the name Empty Mug and it was kind of catchy. It’s different,” Phelps said.
“It fits now because we are motivated by creativity, passion and coffee,” Stange added.
While this may be true, Levine was a bit more metaphorical in her interpretation.
“One of the challenges for student organizations with great energy and momentum is that students graduate, and so I think the symbolism of constantly refilling the mug actually gives some potential longevity to this.”