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MacEwan University reflects on 50 years of helping mould musicians

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The road to the Junos looks different for every nominee, but one stop well known to local musicians is MacEwan University.

The community institution has been churning out musicians for 50 years while helping shape Edmonton's local music landscape.

"Our music program has been legendary I think," said Rose Ginther, associate dean of fine arts and communication. "It is amazing the number of people who have come through our music program and gone on to amazing careers in the music industry."

The university is also home to a one-of-a-kind university-run recording label, Bent River Records, which Ginther co-founded.

"We still think we're the only active university record label in the country, and so we wear that proudly," she said.

At Bent River Records, professional artists can find recording and promotional services in exchange for giving students an opportunity to learn about the industry.

At the helm are two Juno-nominated and award-winning producers, Paul Johnston and Padraig Buttner-Schnirer.

"We were looking at it as a learning lab, as a kind of teaching tool," said Johnston, who co-founded Bent River Records with Ginther. "I saw this as a great way to make the education very current."

The music industry is constantly shifting and evolving, Johnston added, and the label was designed to be a part of curriculum that adapts as fast as things change.

It's also a conduit for creating professional connections ahead of graduation.

"One thing that we've always really stressed is that we want to build opportunity and be very community oriented," Johnston said, adding that the label collaborates rather than competes with studios in the city. "[Giving] students an opportunity to network and get connected in the recording industry is a big part of it."

Chris Larsen, a recording and production major and bass guitarist, is in his third year at MacEwan. He's known since before high school that he wanted to work in music.

"Since then I haven't really been able to imagine myself being able to do anything else with my life, and then being able to come to a school like this, with a recording facility like this, it's an honour for sure," Larsen said. "I think MacEwan has a massive part in the development of the music scene in the city."

Last year he interned at Bent River Records, where he learned all about the recording process - including the business behind the music.

"Which was very interesting for me to be a part of, because usually people just see the musician and the music," he said. "Like, 50 per cent of it is musicianship and the other 50 per cent is like knowing how to operate yourself and promote yourself in the community."

Larsen said it's easy to find MacEwan graduates in clubs and venues around the city, both on stage and behind the scenes. Though only around 50 students have worked for the label since it launched in 2017, hundreds have interacted with it through their studies.

The Juno Awards being in Edmonton is the perfect time to reflect on MacEwan's larger musical legacy, Ginther said.

"We know that here in Edmonton we're well supported by all the people here who really do appreciate what we're bringing," she added. "But we're not that well known across the country, even though we have graduates who have gone on to do things elsewhere."

At least a dozen alumni have been nominated or have won a Juno since 2004, including country singer Corb Lund, former Nickleback drummer Ryan Vikedal, Duran Ritz from the alternative rock group Rare Americans and Jeremiah and Solon McDade, who won a Juno in 2007 and who are nominated again this year.

Ahead of the awards, MacEwan will be hosting a panel with Juno-nominated engineers, producers and special guests.

"We're really looking forward to [it], to really honour those people that are in town from across the country," she said. "To build and forge some new relationships so that we can continue to offer some really incredible opportunities to students."

The Juno Stories from the Studio panel will be hosted by Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene. Tickets are available here. 

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