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Niteskool Founders Celebrate Decades of Creativity

Younger generations might take the concept of the music video for granted.

The visual element that accompanies the work of any mainstream musician nowadays—as much a marketing strategy as it is fan engagement—was considered revolutionary in the early 1980s when MTV launched and ran its first music video. The music industry had irrevocably changed, and ever-enterprising Northwestern students saw an opportunity and ran with it.

Many of those alumni gathered on the Evanston campus on May 18 to celebrate Niteskool, the award-winning student music video production group that sprouted from that revolution, known for graduating Grammy-winners and other successful music and film professionals.

Eric Bernt (C86), co-founder of Niteskool, said he’d been inspired by MTV and saw how Northwestern was a stellar landscape for this sort of creative work. Bernt successfully convinced the University to fund the student group.

“Northwestern always promoted cross-disciplinary programs, and this was one that would bring together people from Radio/Television/Film and the Music School and marketing students, too,” Bernt said. “Niteskool was just the right idea at the right time.”

Jon Shapiro (C87), the other co-founder, had already dipped his toe into the world of music recordings in high school. As a teen, he worked as an assistant in a recording studio in New York, but after hours, he would take his friends back to the studio to record their own demos.

“We dubbed it Niteskool then since that’s what it felt like we were doing—getting our real education,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro and Bernt met at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon event on campus and Shapiro realized they both shared a love of music, a relationship solidified when Bernt heard Shapiro’s demos.

“I said, ‘This kid is so much cooler than me,’” Bernt recalled. “I felt like he was the person I was supposed to meet.”

Shapiro and Bernt discussed early music videos the group made and how they quickly got a lot of attention in the media. But when campus funding fell short of their goals, Bernt and Shapiro took the advice of one of their friends and asked for a sponsorship from this friend’s father—who worked as an executive at the Miller brewery in Milwaukee. To their delight, Niteskool received a $5,000 grant from Miller, as well as 100 cases of beer.  

“When the Miller truck rolled onto campus with a 100 cases of beer, we were the most popular group on campus,” Bernt joked.

Niteskool boasts many famous alumni, including Thom Russo (C88), a sixteen-time Grammy award winner, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Chris Cornell, and even Johnny Cash. When he was an undergraduate, the music producer, engineer, mixer and songwriter said he knew he wanted a career in music, but had no idea what that might look like. Then, he joined Niteskool.

“When I went into the recording studio for the first time, my mind was blown,” he said. “I realized this was how they did it, this was how they made music. Right then, I knew, that’s what I was going to do.”

The Niteskool reunion included two other alumni panels, where former Niteskool members discussed their careers in music, film and television. The evening brought a live concert featuring Bourbon ‘N Brass, a band featuring NU students. The reunion was organized and produced by Niteskool’s current president, Erica Bank (C20), who rebooted the group as a freshman when she came to campus and found the group had been dormant for a few years.

“This is a group with unprecedented creative content,” Bank said of her reasons for reviving Niteskool. “It’s a group whose content was so good that no one could believe it was the work of college students.”

Today, Niteskool continues the tradition of pushing barriers with new projects, including the “One Take” series, where bands are filmed performing with no breaks or edits in order to preserve the live concert feel.

Shapiro said he still can’t quite believe the group that he and Bernt began in 1983 is thriving today.

“I was looking at old clips of me, and in those clips, I say, I hope that students have the opportunity to be in Niteskool in ten years,” he said. “To think that thirty-six years later, we’re still here, it’s just mind-blowing.”

By Cara Lockwood