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MAD Dragon Moves Philadelphia Music Forward


It’s no secret that the music industry has faced serious challenges in the past decade or so, but that hasn’t stopped a Drexel University student-run record label from thriving.

Founded in 2004, MAD Dragon Records, which takes its name from an acronym for the university’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and the university’s dragon mascot, does everything a label not run by students does — but in many aspects, in a more efficient manner. MAD Dragon President Terry Tompkins, a veteran of the record industry, sees MAD Dragon as a label that boasts the best of both worlds — the altruistic, music-first approach of an independent label with the staffing of a corporately owned major in the major’s heyday.

“The model is we set it up with all the departments of a major label but operating under the auspices of an indie label,” Tompkins explains.
“Most indie labels don’t have the wherewithal to have this type of setup. Our initiative is artist development. It’s not about the bottom line.”

MAD Dragon releases are distributed by ADA (Alternative Distribution Alliance). Previously, MAD Dragon was distributed by Ryko Distribution, until Warner Brothers purchased Ryko and folded it into ADA.

Through a blend of classes conducted in a lecture format and hands-on experience, the program has developed students into working professionals in the music industry — while they’re still in college. For its efforts, MAD Dragon has gained national attention; it was named the 2007 and 2008 College Label of the Year at the Independent Music Awards and has earned raves from major media outlets, like Rolling Stone, which called MAD Dragon “one of the most inventive music programs around.”

If you follow local music, you should know the label’s current roster: Kuf Knotz, The Spinning Leaves, Hezekiah Jones and Toy Soldiers.

MAD Dragon Records is involved with the artists from the beginning of the relationship — the discovery process, in which an eight-student A&R (artists and repertoire) committee meets weekly to listen to new submissions — and during all points in the album-making process, from recording to release to promotion, including booking shows via its own concert division, Madko Concerts. The most recent event was held on May 13 at Bookspace, when MAD Dragon presented a record-release show for the Spinning Leaves and Hezekiah Jones. In March, Drexel’s Music Industry Program’s Annual Concert was held at the university’s Mandell Theater and featured headliner Free Energy, a Philadelphia band with a rising national profile.

Students end up working with music industry professionals outside of the label, which can lead to job placement after completing the program.

“The cool thing about that process is in many cases (the professionals) have hired the students that they’ve worked with when they worked with MAD Dragon,” Tompkins says. “A good example of that is Karen Moran-Thomas, an employee at The Syndicate. CMJ awarded her Promoter of the Year last year.”

Tompkins also brings in industry insiders, like Jesse Lundy and Rich Kardon, to serve as adjunct professors. Lundy and Kardon operate Point Entertainment, a music talent buying, management, production and marketing firm. Since 2009, Point has programmed the esteemed Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Lundy recalls attending a My Morning Jacket concert at the Theatre of Living Arts with longtime friend Tompkins a few years ago when Tompkins invited him to teach at Drexel. Now he and Kardon teach a lecture course on music venues, concerts and booking philosophy and an ongoing practicum through Madko Concerts, in which “kids are identifying venues, holding dates and putting the details together” of shows, Lundy says.

“The most exciting part of it is when we’re actually able to help a kid get either a really good internship in the summer or a job at the end,” says Lundy. “This is (Lundy and Kardon’s) sixth year doing it, and we have kids who are full-fledged agents at real agencies. Not to say we are the ones that set up their careers for them, but it’s exciting to see anyone’s career grow.”

As the music industry has changed, so have some of MAD Dragon’s teaching points and label strategies.

“It’s provided opportunity and also created its own set of challenges,” Tompkins says. “We’ve moved away from the traditional model. We’ve seen a decline in the overall sale of records and to a large degree a shift to direct-to-fan marketing, all the various tools to stream media. It’s more cost-effective. And there are less gatekeepers but so many options (that) the challenge is finding the right (outlets).”

The city of Philadelphia has a strong musical tradition, and MAD Dragon has found a lively home base there, thanks to an established infrastructure it has been able to tap into.

“Philly’s got a rich musical history,” says Tompkins. “We have everyone from Philadelphia International to Gamble and Huff to wonderful radio stations that support the artists. That’s our network.”

Michael Lello is a freelance writer, editor and former longtime newspaper professional based in Scranton. He operates the music blog Highway 81 Revisited.


Terry Tompkins holds the MAD Dragon Records class on tuesdays on Drexel’s campus


Flyers and posters for a few of MAD Dragon artists cover the walls in its Drexel office

Students meet in class and correspond regularly to keep the label humming

Covers from recent MAD Dragon releases

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

Region: Southeast

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