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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published April 2014

The number of music grads is going up, but what of the number of experienced teachers?

Every day, tens of thousands of students attend classes in music production, live sound, theatrical AV and related arts and sciences. They go to schools ranging from huge for-profit academies to community colleges and, in some cases, even the kinds of recording studios that students hope one day to work in or even own themselves. These students have a lot of questions, ranging from how best to get that drum sound to how to pay their student loans once they graduate. The question that's not getting asked enough, however, is: who is teaching them?

The growth in music production and engineering educational programmes (and the number of students enrolled in them) combined with the contraction of conventional studio jobs brought about by the radical downturn in the industry, seems to be setting up a disturbing kind of feedback loop. Increasingly, schools are hiring their own graduates to teach the next class of aspiring record producers and engineers. More alarmingly, the gap between departing from school as a graduate and returning as an instructor is getting shorter and shorter, meaning that those who are teaching the next round of graduates have progressively less and less actual experience working in real situations — less interaction with artists, employers and with their peers. In the process, education increasingly risks becoming a function of outlines from textbooks, unseasoned by real-world experience and anecdotes. Anyone can teach others how to record in Pro Tools, but it takes someone who has been around the business for a while to explain how to know when the vocalist is being pushed too hard, how to defuse tension between musicians, or what to do when somebody pulls a gun out in the control room. (Yeah, that happens.)

Are You Experienced?

Some schools require a minimum level of actual employment in fields that potential instructors expect to teach in, demanding 'X' number of 'years in service'. That kind of requirement was easier to fulfil a dozen years ago, when the music industry was still funding record production at a high level and taking chances on new artists, producers and mixers, instead of narrowly focusing on putatively proven formulae and people, as it is now. In the process, it's given fewer people access to the in-depth experience that comes from working immersively in a wide range of music production scenarios. Instead, it's driven more audio professionals — including the seemingly endless stream of music-production graduates — into insulated pods in spare bedrooms and private facilities, where the critical element of personal interaction is never able to take place.

Over the course of a decade and a half now, the dwindling number of veterans who could add experience to the pool of teachers is creating a problem for schools. Some are watching what one executive administrator called 'babies making babies' (inexperienced graduates coming back to teach students just a semester or two behind them) with concern, aware that the syndrome threatens to poison what has been for decades a rather lucrative market sector. "Grads from many programmes are offered jobs in 'the mill',” another told me, using a pejorative term commonly hurled between institutions in this highly competitive sector. "The schools know there is a base out there of people they've trained, who can be used as instructors. Call it what you like; I call it disingenuous and immoral.” And, unfortunately, possibly inevitable.

As the handful of successful producers and engineers out there are compelled to become more entrepreneurial, building brands around plug-ins and their own educational products, delivered via DVD and online or in small, borderline-elite in-person settings, they will understandably become less community oriented. That's not an indictment, but an objective observation: when you create an enterprise around your skills without the supportive context that generations of producers and engineers have had in the form of well-run, profitable studio facilities that let them build their careers, it's understandable that you may relegate your 'giving back' to funding your fledgling charity foundation, instead of spending your golden years teaching newbies. As for everyone else, a teaching position begins to look pretty good as production work gets harder to find, the second child arrives, and the mortgage payment is due.

Academic Pursuit

Most of this phenomenon is taking place in the for-profit side of the education business. The four-year state universities face a slightly different problem. As the director of one of them told me, they don't have trouble finding highly experienced audio engineers who can teach. The difficulty, he says, is finding highly experienced engineers with masters degrees or PhDs, the level of credential needed to teach beyond the basic level at a university. But it doesn't necessarily make it much easier. The approach some state schools take is to allow select graduate students with some professional background to additionally pursue a certificate in college and university teaching as part of their MFA. At the university level, students do get the benefit of a broader education, but their teachers, accomplished as they may be, will still be subject to the same larger effect, because the amount of experience now available to engineers is undeniably diminished.

This is what the educational infrastructure of professional audio is facing. It's a crisis of sorts, though a quiet one, for now. There will not be a shortage of music technology and production whizzes, a sizeable subset of whom will be able to effectively teach those skills. But will these be little more than maths classes without the experience of also applying them in the context of years' worth of real-world work scenarios? We may learn that outcome sooner than we think.  

Published April 2014