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Entertainment News

A College Boy Can Survive: The Academic Side of Music Row

By Edward Morris
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

It used to be that ambitious youngsters knocked on Music Row doors or networked in nearby bars to gain a foothold in Nashville's music industry. Some still prefer these approaches, but the more savvy among them have learned that the odds favor those who've earned a music business degree, particularly if it's from a local college where the interaction between gown and town is constant.

There are plenty of high-profile success stories to drive home this point. Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood, are all music business grads from Belmont University. Grand Ole Opry manager Pete Fisher is a Middle Tennessee State University alum, as is Erin Enderlin, the co-writer of Alan Jackson's Top 5 hit, "Monday Morning Church." Super fiddler Andrea Zonn, a long-time member of Vince Gill's band, earned her degree from Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. Trevecca Nazarene University, a newer presence on the music business scene, is beginning to make a name for itself under the guidance of Jim Foglesong, the former president of MCA's and Capitol Records' Country divisions and a Country Music Hall of Fame member.

"Every record that comes out of Nashville has the fingerprint of at least one of our students on it," asserted Nathan Adam, Associate Chairman, MTSU Department of Recording Industry.

Belmont, which sits at the top of Music Row and MTSU, located some 30 miles away in Murfreesboro, are the major academic players. Belmont currently enrolls about 1,300 music business majors; MTSU 1,400. Trevecca, situated near Downtown Nashville, has 60 such students. Blair doesn't offer a music business degree, but Foglesong teaches a class about the music business there each semester. This session, about 100 students from Blair and Vanderbilt are enrolled. Moreover, the school has a thriving folk instrument program with distinct Country Music overtones.

MTSU boasts that it has the largest undergraduate four-year recording program in the country. Enrollment has soared as high as 1,700 students. But given the limitations of the present facilities, the ideal number is around 1,400, Adam said.

Students at Belmont's Mike Curb School of Entertainment and Music Business can major in music business, entertainment industry studies or audio engineering technology. Apart from classroom training, Belmont also owns and operates Ocean Way Recording Studios, a commercial venture that Wesley Bulla, Dean of the school, likens to a teaching hospital where pros and apprentices work side by side.

MTSU's Department of Recording Industry awards undergraduate degrees in music business and production and technology. Last year, the university instituted a Master of Fine Arts degree in recording arts and technology, primarily to prepare teachers for the recording industry programs that are springing up at colleges throughout the country. Trevecca confers a general music business degree. All Blair's degrees are performance- or teaching-oriented.

In addition to their full-time teachers, all the schools rely heavily on Music Row professionals as adjunct faculties. Bulla said that more than half of Belmont's music business instructors are adjunct. MTSU also employs a wide range of part-timers, including professional studio engineers, entertainment lawyers, music publishers and songpluggers. Trevecca has only two full-time professors, including Foglesong. Experienced moonlighters provide all the rest of the instruction.

Blair School of Music Dean Mark Wait established the folk instrument program in 1994 after friends took him to see fiddler Mark O'Connor play at Nashville's fabled Station Inn. "I was just blown away," Wait said. "I thought, 'Boy, if we don't make him available to our students, we're missing the boat big time.'" He quickly persuaded O'Connor to teach and soon after lured dulcimer player David Schnaufer, mandolinist Butch Baldassari and banjoist Alison Brown to the cause.

Internships are optional but commonplace at Belmont and MTSU. Both schools aid their students in finding part-time music business positions that qualify for academic credit. At Trevecca, internships are a degree requirement. Trevecca's students begin their internships the second semester of their freshman year, during which they serve a total of 40 hours. The requirement escalates to 100 hours a semester during their junior and senior years.

"Basically, all of our students want to intern," Adam said. "But we make them wait until they're in their senior year, until they've completed the core classes [for their degrees] . so we can guarantee we're not sending out into the field people who don't know anything. We're sending out people who have a good solid base of knowledge."

Despite the industry shakeups caused by record label consolidations and new Internet technologies, the job market continues to look promising, the schools' directors concluded. More entertainment outlets will require the creation, production, marketing and licensing of more content, they reasoned.

"We adjust our curriculum every semester, every year, based on what's happening," Bulla explained. "But there are a lot of fundamentals out there that just don't change. You're still selling an artist. You're still selling an image. You're still selling a lifestyle. You're still trying to get the public to identify with whatever you're trying to sell them. Whether you're trying to sell them over the Internet or in a retail store, much of the same knowledge base goes into both endeavors."

At a recent alumni meeting in New York, Bulla said he encountered a Belmont grad who works at an independent label overseeing a team of Internet bloggers.

"Five years ago, four years ago, even three years ago, students came into this institution barely knowing what blogging was. Now, she has a full-time job and full-time staff. So there's a job that didn't exist three years ago. . There are more jobs out there than there's ever been."

Foglesong labeled the job market "tough and competitive," but added that many of his music business students have been successful in finding the kind of jobs they've trained for.

To keep their competitive edge, the colleges are creating new classes, programs and physical facilities. Trevecca has added classes in marketing in the music industry, copyright law and entertainment law; and it is currently raising funds to build a fine arts building.

MTSU recently instituted the Partners in Craft songwriting program in conjunction with ASCAP. The program pairs aspiring student songwriters with successful composers and acquaints them with the business context within which songwriting functions. And there is a new program that enables music business graduates to tack on an extra year of studies and earn a master's degree in business administration.

"We're also looking at expanding our studio facilities into a 5.1 cinema mix suite," Adam said, "so that students can work on sounds for films. We already have that to some degree, but we want to implement a whole new room based around cinema mixing."

"A lot of these schools do the recording business very well," Bulla observed. "What we don't do very well is the concert and touring business. That's what we're looking at as a growth area for us - and a growth area for students who want jobs. Other than the [burden of] traveling, the jobs are more regular and pay better on the road than they do in town.

Bulla said that Belmont is working on a partnership with Clair Brothers Audio in Nashville that will basically be an internship and training program for the company.

"They've come to the conclusion over the years that touring and tour support are no longer a situation in which you get the biggest, burliest guy you can to hump your gear around. You've got to have somebody who knows computers and technology and how to operate this equipment, because it is high-tech. It's come a long way from 25 years ago, when you stuck a band onstage and just turned it up loud."

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