Empty Mug helps U-M student musicians find a sense of community


Gravy Train band

Gravy Train photo by Lila Turner.

Despite the pandemic, music organizations on the University of Michigan’s campus are thriving. Students are yearning to hear music over loudspeakers, dance in sweaty houses, and produce their own songs, and organizations like Empty Mug are here to provide, whether through having concerts, recording live videos, or releasing music.

Fia Kaminski, one of the presidents of the organization, sat down with us to talk about Empty Mug's present, past, and future.

Q: What is Empty Mug? How did it begin? Did it start as a label from the get go or did it start as something different than it is now?
A: Empty Mug is a student record label, but it's a lot more than that. It's a collection of students who come together because we really love music and want to see it flourish on campus. We accomplish this in different ways, whether by helping record and promote student and local musician's music, teaching students how to use certain platforms such as Ableton and Logic to be able to make more of their own stuff, or gathering performance opportunities for different bands and musicians. We also throw concerts of all sizes, whether funk concerts that turn into huge dancing parties or intimate acoustic showcases. We were founded by Ross students in 2014 and were far more based in the music business at that time. Now, we're kind of just a collection of students where anyone can take part in our work, no matter their skills, as long as they have a true and deep love for music. 

Q: How has Empty Mug changed within its lifetime? How has it changed because of the pandemic?
A: So, we've definitely changed to have a more relaxed culture. It's not something I would call a highly professional club—we are here to help people spread their passion. It's also a club with quite a social culture that we always encourage and try to develop more. I've made friends in the club, and it's a great place to go to get to know people in the music scene. I see the same faces in the club that I see at a lot of concerts around town. The pandemic definitely threw a wrench in things, and we became a smaller club for a while. We were definitely still on our mission of helping gather performance opportunities for local musicians (even if they were online) and compensating them for it. Now that we are back from the pandemic, I believe we have a better handle on aspects of our club that could be done more remotely, such as production. We also had a lot of time to work on our PR approach and think about how to get people engaged with online events.

Q: Who are the artists that make up Empty Mug? Is there a certain Empty Mug type? How does Empty Mug help these artists?
A: We work with a wide range of musicians. We're not really a club that concretely "signs" artists, more works with them to help produce tracks and get them out there, or helps them create videos for their songs, or organizes opportunities for them to play, or whatever. We've worked with funk bands, acoustic folk artists, rappers, indie-rock bands, indie-pop bands. Whatever the music, we are excited about working with them. We just love talented artists who are able to skillfully express their passion. We are also excited about artists who are still finding their voice and are happy to support them with what they need to get there.

Q: How does working at a student-run record label differ from working at a record label in, say, Hollywood? What are the pros and cons of it? Do you think being in Empty Mug gives students good experience to later work in the music industry?
A: It is far more relaxed and social. This is a place where people come to get involved in the local music scene, yes, but also a place for students to make friends. I think the cons can be that it can be a little less organized than a real record label at times. This is a club that meets like any other, so we don't have the full capabilities of a professional firm that runs at least 40 hours a week. I think that Empty Mug certainly teaches you life skills that are very useful in the real world and the music industry. An important one for me has been learning how to make connections and get involved in the local music scene. Since freshman year, I've done everything I can to get involved in the music scene on campus, and there have been a lot of lessons on that that I've learned along the way. But there's such a wide range of things to learn depending on what area of the club you're involved in—people on our production team will learn very different skill sets than those on A&R (artists and repertoire) or booking.

Q: What is Empty Mug most excited about once the pandemic lessens?
A: Concerts! We love most to spread the love for music as a good time. Now, live music is booming like never before. People's motivation after the pandemic amazes me—there are at least a couple of shows happening each weekend with student/local bands. It's being organized everywhere—at co-ops, in coffee shops, in people's basements. We are so happy to see people getting back to losing themselves in the music, dancing freely, and having a great time. As long as the music is growing, we are happy.

Q: In what ways is Empty Mug changing and entering new territory the label has not yet entered?
A: We are definitely getting more focused on production, and doing our most to get into that. Before the pandemic, we organized concerts very well, and that was one of our "things." When the pandemic halted all that, we got this exciting opportunity to look at other aspects of our club and how they could improve. Since concerts have come back, however, we've also reformed the way we go about them. We are more focused on a better quality of sound now and have done some aesthetically beautiful setups, with lighting design and all. Since the music scene shifts around so frequently (as is the way of a college campus), I think the nature of this club is that it and its mission are constantly changing. We are very happy and willing to embrace that.

Katy Trame is a student, poet, public library associate for Pulp, and music writer for The Michigan Daily.

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