With a guitar in his hands, Mike Varney bounced from gig to gig trying to make some extra money as a student.
But with a business degree from Dominican University in his hands, Varney started making loud music and loads of money. The 1980 DU graduate founded his own independent record label – Shrapnel Records Inc. – in Novato. It was the first in the nation totally dedicated to heavy metal music and Varney has made it stand and succeed for nearly 30 years.
“At 22, I was fearless and really didn't understand the odds against having some success in the music business. Sometimes when you don't see barriers, you can walk right through them and that is inadvertently what I did.”
Varney arrived at Dominican after leaving Marin to attend college in Iowa. He was inspired by a “New Venture Management” class taught by John Caple.
“It was one night a week and he invited a different self-made millionaire to speak to each class,” Varney says. “Hearing one self-starter after another explain what drove them to pursue their goals, and what it took to accomplish them, gave me the confidence to leave Dominican and hit the ground running.”
Varney was living at home with his parents near the Marin Country Club when he pulled an idea out of his bag. His band, Cinema, was disbanding so he focused his attention to being a record producer instead of a musician. He lent an ear to unknown artists with demo tapes and, if they sounded good to him, he helped launch their careers.
With his learning experience in marketing at Dominican, Varney ordered 5,000 copies of his company's first release and he paid for them with the little money he had earned as a guitarist and co-writer of an obscure musical with Marty Balin (Jefferson Airplane/Starship singer) and Bob Heyman.
Nevertheless, Varney and Shrapnel Records found their niche and attracted attention. He wrote a monthly column in Guitar Player Magazine that resonated with guitar enthusiasts with high pass-along rates.
A much bigger company, Roadrunner, did a great job of distributing Shrapnel in Europe and Japan and for nearly 25 years Shrapnel has been distributed in the U.S. by distributors owned by larger companies such as Sony and Warners.