In 2007, Troy University’s new music industry program began a bold venture that would take on a life of its own.
Under the guidance of program director Robert W. Smith, music industry students launched Ilium Records, a student-run record label designed to promote music made by Trojans while giving current students a taste of the business side of music.
Next year will mark 15 years for Ilium, and its legacy continues to grow.
The genesis of the label occurred when Smith returned to TROY in the fall of 2006.
“The music industry curriculum had been approved, so Dr. Larry Blocher contacted me to come back to TROY,” said Smith, who had previously been the University’s director of bands before embarking on a career with Warner Bros. “I’d had one of those opportunities in life that you can’t turn down, to go and work for Warner Bros. Then a few years later, Dr. Blocher said, ‘Do you remember that music industry program we talked about? We have got it now.’ It was the perfect time in life for me to come home.”
What Smith and Blocher envisioned as a relatively small program with only a few students instead launched to great popularity among the student body.
“What happened is that music industry and music industry education are very popular,” Smith said. “It grew exponentially, very quickly. We knew we needed something to be the glue, the heart and soul of this.”
Enter Ilium Records.
“There’s a group of students near and dear to my heart, because they envisioned the entire thing with me,” Smith said. “To single one out, Kelly Efstathiou was a graphic design major and a music industry minor. She also happened to be a really great songwriter and a majorette in the Sound of the South. Kelly was the one who actually branded us. Her senior project in art and design was to brand Ilium Records.”
Fourteen years later, Efstathiou’s initial logo design and branding remain, a testament to their quality.
“In 2021, that still looks good. It’s timeless and has legs,” Smith said.
For her part, the artist remembers the excitement of those early Ilium days.
“I remember I was really excited about it, because Robert wanted to have a really professional experience, so he created a music studio presentation,” Efstathiou said. “He brought in musicians from the Sound of the South, taught us how to use pro tools and how to operate a studio. He set up songwriting classes, and that’s when I really learned how to write the proper way. I was the first to combine the graphic design program with music industry program. It was something really special for me.”
With the creation of the University’s pop music ensemble POPulus a few years after Ilium’s founding, the record label began publishing new original student music each year in the form of annual POPulus albums.
“Ilium Records is an independent record label that is student-administrated, so our students get the opportunity to understand the ever-evolving and ever-changing music business,” Smith said. “For example, we used to be in the record business to sell records. Now, we don’t do that. We’re in the record business to brand now and to get people to use and stream the recordings, and to sell merchandise. What a great opportunity for our students each and every year to release a brand new album, a brand new project.”
The music industry program has a long lineage of success stories, and it can be traced back to Ilium Records.
Efstathiou, for instance, graduated and went on to become one half of the award-winning inspirational country music duo Cori & Kelly. The duo is expected to release its second album this year.
“Anybody that’s wanting to have a career in the music industry would benefit from this program,” she said. “It blows my mind to think how it started and what it is now. Students are able to come out with a portfolio to present to whoever they are looking to get a job with. I’ve seen several students post recently that they are now in Nashville or south Florida working in music thanks to their experience at the music industry program and Ilium Records. I really appreciate Robert and the skills he taught me, because it was all very beneficial to where I am today.”
Meanwhile, the first member of POPulus, according to Smith, was Wyatt Edmondson.
“He was my first recruit — a model, standout student at TROY,” Smith said. “He’s enjoying an amazing career now as a songwriter.”
Edmondson’s success since leaving TROY includes composing music for “Veggie Tales” and working with Carrie Underwood. Recently, his song “Pontoon State of Mind” became a theme song for the Avalon boat company.
Smith takes pride in the professional success of his students, particularly those who sharpened their musical teeth in Ilium Records. Their experience at TROY directly feeds their later success and reputation.
“Students are learning to create and market recordings in all genres,” he said. “If Ilium is the heartbeat, POPulus is the soul. Between Ilium and POPulus, that pairing of these entities gives our students the opportunity to experience the music industry while they are on our campus. We have seen exceptionally high employment rates of our students — generally speaking, 75 percent of our music industry students are employed as they walk across the stage to accept a diploma from the chancellor.”
For Smith, the living legacy of Ilium Records exists in its alumni and current students.
“The reality is that to work in music entertainment, you don’t need a degree. But you still need to come to TROY and graduate,” he said. “Why? I contend that one year here in our program with Ilium Records is worth five years on the street. Students can come get their degree in four years, and it literally is going to give them a 20-year leg up in the industry. The legacy is going to be in their lifetimes of success. What I most care about is their lifetime of success and their future career.”