PHILADELPHIA — Caleb Autry started playing drums when he was in third grade, and by age 13 had moved onto piano and music production.
When he enrolled at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Autry was a little wistful: if only the school offered opportunities to continue down the melodic road he’d found, in music production or audio engineering.
And then, this past winter, lightning struck when Autry was a senior at the magnet school in North Philadelphia. What, his teacher asked, if Carver students had the chance to launch their own record label?
“I thought, ‘This is something we need,’” said Autry, who has just graduated from Carver and is headed to Drexel University to study music business on a full scholarship. “I know a lot of artists at school, and the music industry is such an experience-driven industry. We need opportunities to get our feet wet.”
Now, only a few months later, Carver Records has dropped its first single, the summery, beat-driven “Never Change,” with an EP landing later this summer. Autry executive-produced the single, but this label debut was far from a one-person project: Carver students handled everything related to the release, from design to marketing.
That the label came together so quickly was part hard work, part serendipity.
Andy Hurwitz, a music entrepreneur and founder of the nonprofit 30AmpCircuit — which supports the health, wellness, and professional needs of musicians and artists of all mediums—dreamed up the idea of a Philadelphia School District record label. He broached the concept with Frank Machos, the district’s executive director of arts and creative learning. He was in favor but suggested Hurwitz start smaller, launching a label at just one school.
Hurwitz soon bumped into Amyronn DesVignes-Pope and Devon Curtis — childhood friends and energetic business partners in We Workin’ Entertainment, a production company — and the trio started swapping ideas. When Hurwitz told the duo about his plan for a School District-based record label, their faces lit up, he said. They knew just the place to anchor the project: Carver.
“We know the school has a lot of talented kids, we knew it would be able to flourish there,” said Curtis, a 2015 Carver alum. DesVignes-Pope graduated from the school in 2014.
In short order, Carver Sound got off the ground. Teachers Kit Bradley and Christina Puntel put out feelers to students who might be interested. Any worries that young people might be too overwhelmed by remote schooling to add another Zoom commitment were quickly disposed of: 40 routinely showed up for meetings, and everyone got to work.
The project resonated with students, and with teachers.
“One of the missions of Carver is to make sure that every student has some way to live their passions,” said Puntel, a humanities teacher. “We want kids to have something they love.”
Curtis, who manages and develops musicians and performs as DJ Swelly, mentored Autry; DesVignes-Pope, who runs branding company Allsides Design, provided advice around creative design and merchandise.
Amoya Donaldson, who graduated from Carver this month, became head of social media and marketing, and led the creative and design team. Donaldson, who will major in biology at Hampton University this fall, fell in love with the process, learning about everything from the economics of a record label to how to target specific audiences.
“This helped with being comfortable in my skin, being comfortable with taking an extremely ambitious idea and running with it,” said Donaldson. “It built my leadership role, it helped me gain skills to be the proper leader that I want to be.”
The team met with Hurwitz weekly for a high-level look at the project and the industry, but it was student-driven, and student-run. Teachers functioned as project managers, but young people ran the show, working on production and beats, matching music with artists, and handling technical, and creative matters and distribution, often with support from Curtis and DesVignes-Pope.
Financially, the project cost the school system nothing; Hurwitz, Curtis, and DesVignes-Pope all donated their time and expertise. The district already owned some licenses and equipment; other merchandise was all donated. When it came time for distribution, “Never Change” was sent out on Symphonic, an independent digital music distributor.
“I didn’t have to nag anyone; they were calling me,” said Hurwitz. “I showed some people in the music business, ‘Look at what these kids are doing.’ It just felt so organic and right.”
Autry, whom Hurwitz calls “an all-star kid, just incredible,” said Carver Records will help equalize the playing field for Philadelphia students.
“I feel like within the School District, there’s just not enough funding for extracurriculars, and kids that grow up in schools outside the city, they have more exposure to things,” said Autry, who also started a spirit squad and drum line at Carver.
Carver Records will grow beyond its single release; Donaldson and Autry are already mentoring younger classmates to make sure they have the experience to keep the label going and to expand district-wide.
“I would love to see a record label in every school. I would love to go to major labels and demand a lane for these talented kids,” said DesVignes-Pope.
The process wowed Puntel and Kit Bradley, another Carver humanities teacher who worked with students on the label. Particularly key was the involvement of Curtis and DesVignes-Pope.
“It’s a very powerful model of alumni showing up, not just for our students, but for the city, and for each other,” said Puntel. “This project has been an antidote to the confusion and chaos of the last year. It’s been incredible.”
That the students can open up their favorite music apps and find “Never Change,” the way they can find music by major artists, is still a thrill, they said.
“This record label has just given me joy,” said Donaldson.