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Redemption and the Personal Studio

The semester was nearing its end when one of my students showed up after missing class for most of the term.

The semester was nearing its end when one of my students showed up after missing class for most of the term. During the first few weeks, she was very enthusiastic and showed promise, but then she disappeared. But just as suddenly, she was back, and I asked where she’d been.

“Jail. I stole a car…”

I smiled and lightheartedly added, “Don’t do that!” so that she understood I wasn’t judging her. But I also realized that I had no idea what her life was really like. All I can do is introduce her and the other young people in our Music Industry Studies program to the joy, satisfaction and career opportunities that come with a solid skill set in music production.

As we all know, art (and for the purposes of this discussion, music) has the ability to transform lives. Discovering that you have marketable skills in songwriting, recording, engineering or producing will have a profound impact on your future.

I’ve had the privilege of teaching in community colleges for more than a decade, and I have seen how powerful affordable education can be in boosting self-confidence and opening doors for a section of the population that has no other opportunities. Of course, my classes involve music technology. Many of the young adults that take my class have a deep connection to music but no economic advantage, and there are few (if any) opportunities in a market where jobs for unskilled labor are hard to come by. But when music is their passion, and there is a resource to explore the options, they have a fighting chance.

In the best-case scenario, these men and women discover their voice through the use of technology, whether it involves producing beats, recording or mixing. And if they can get their hands on a computer, they immediately have a personal studio. With so much information online, they may already have an idea of what they want to do by the time they enter my classroom. They often have experience putting together some kind of media using freeware, shareware or, not surprisingly, cracked copies of big-name products.

The software piracy issue—we talk about that. In fact, it is very easy to get the point across when you turn the conversation around to focus on the student. If I ask them what they hope to achieve in this business, fame and fortune are among the top items. Fine, but how are you going to make a living if the majority of your listeners are illegally downloading your music, or streaming it online where you earn little or nothing, depending on the source of that stream? The issues involving Spotify and Pandora come up, and I help demystify the business models. 

When the discussion circles back to the software issue, and I mention that the products we use are created by real people, like the students themselves, the seeds have been sown. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but the curriculum doesn’t stop there.

Colleges at this level have an educational priority called Student Learning Outcomes, which detail the skills that each student should have at the end of each semester course. Of particular importance is the ability to “demonstrate professional behaviors required in the music industry.” That includes arriving on time, following through on projects, and meeting deadlines. It’s the stuff that we, as professionals, expect from our colleagues, but often take for granted. Yet, if it wasn’t for the boot-camp environment of this level of instruction, where would these young folks learn what is expected of them when they enter the music industry?

Start Local. Think Global

Success begins locally, in the neighborhood, where the budding professional can go through the R&D phase of their life. And once these young people discover that their music-related skills can be monetized (to borrow a distasteful bit of corporate jargon), they quickly put them into action. Perhaps they start by selling beats to local producers, or maybe they have a microphone and an interface and record their friends at home using a low-cost DAW.

A former student, still in high school when he took my class, was already hard at work, charging $10 an hour to track vocals over the beats that friends would bring in. And business was booming.

“Maybe it’s time to raise your rates,” I suggested.

“Naw, people won’t pay much more.”

“Try it,” I replied. He did—$15 an hour—and it worked. Since then, he has saved up enough for a mic upgrade and purchased a quality stand-alone channel strip. And he is now attending a recording arts program.

This is the power of the personal studio—no matter how informal—to transform lives. I like to think of it as the metaphorical garage where big players such as Hewlett Packard and Apple began (except that even the big players in the music industry still occupy the garage, albeit using high-end gear).

These days, everyone who dreams of making a living at music has access to many of the same tools the pros use. A few of them will graduate into the big leagues, while others may never get farther than their garage. But having access to creative tools, and a self-awareness of their skills, can be enough to help them find a healthy alternative.