It may not make you a star, but it could help you produce a few

February 15, 2002

The growth in the UK music industry has fuelled a massive increase in degree courses covering all aspects of the pop business. Cynics may say that talent can't be taught but, reports Tony Tysome, many 'in-demand' technical and business skills can.

The pop music industry has always had a place in the career dreams of starry-eyed teenagers, and the television series Pop Idol has shown that there is still no shortage of pop wannabes. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the growth of the music industry has coincided with a huge demand for pop-music courses in universities and colleges across the United Kingdom.

Ten years ago there was just a handful of courses on offer; now there are hundreds. In the past year, the number of pop-music degree courses in England and Wales has doubled, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - although many are part of a combined degree programme. The University of Derby offers 16 combined degree courses, including one in biology and popular music. And then there are all the courses in popular culture.

The industry that these courses prepare their students to enter is notoriously competitive and fickle and still relies heavily on an old-school-tie network for recruiting people into the few openings that occasionally arise. Many pop magnates perpetuate the view that would-be stars and star-makers must start at the bottom of the ladder as tea-boys or secretaries, if they want to get their foot in the door.

This being so, it might be argued that the usefulness of a pop-music qualification for helping students make their way in this street-wise world is somewhat limited. But course leaders are adamant that pop music cannot be classified as what former Ofsted chief inspector Chris Woodhead called "vacuous degrees" or that their rise has more to to do with the bums-on-seats imperative than any academic one.

Sheila Whiteley took up the UK's first chair of pop music at Salford University, where a pop music and recording degree receives about 600 applications for about 50 places each year. She says she thinks one of the reasons the courses are so popular is that "they are relevant". Salford offers a wide range of courses incorporating pop music. Students can choose either a performance or recording studio-based study route. They receive instruction in their chosen musical instrument from session musicians, including a DJ who works the club scene in Manchester. But Whiteley says music theory is also an important component, even though many pop stars have hit the big time without knowing the difference between a crotchet and a quaver.

She said: "You still need to know the structure of pop music, what key it is in and what rhythm it has. If it is something that is melodic, then the harmonic structure is important. With dance music you are looking at overlaying lines of rhythm and the harmonies are more accidental. It is a matter of being able to make sense of all that."

While about two-thirds of Salford's pop students see themselves as becoming front-line performers in the industry, their expectations have not been affected by the Popstars / Pop Idol phenomenon, Whiteley says.

"These are degree students and they have a healthy sense of scepticism, although they also have a strong belief that they can get there and that effort will bring its reward. Things such as Popstars they see as manipulation, although a couple of our girls did apply because if you can expose yourself to the right people there's a chance you will be the face they are looking for.

"I do not think students are so starry-eyed that they think they can magically put themselves in the market. They are trying to forge a musical identity for themselves."

Most pop courses help to manage the aspirations of their students by equipping them with a broad range of skills that allow them to fit into a variety of jobs in the industry. Students on an HND pop-music programme offered by Bournemouth University and Bournemouth and Poole College, for instance, are trained to be able to work in production, recording and teaching, as well as performing, and also learn something about the business side.

Course leader Paul Carr says: "We want to prepare students to be versatile in the industry so they know how to go out and get work. Our philosophy is that it is better to make a living in some aspect of music rather than having to go and do something else like working in a supermarket."

Nick Lindsay, a student on the course, is hoping to find his way in through music technology, but is under no illusions over the task he faces.

"Like many young people I started out playing electric guitar and dreaming of becoming a popstar. I would have liked to realise my dream, but I have realised there are no private jets or limos that are going to take you there. You have to find your own way in your Ford Fiesta," he says.

The Bournemouth course has helped set his ambitions on more solid ground by developing his skills and so building confidence.

"I think 99 per cent of getting a job in the industry is based on confidence: being able to convince them that you can carry through the image you portray. The industry is run by businessmen, not musicians. The course helps you develop the professionalism you need to survive in that environment," Lindsay says.

Many institutions run courses specialising in preparing students for a particular section of the industry. Derby, for instance, runs a degree course in pop music with music technology; a BSc Hons in music technology and audio-system design, and a BSc Hons in performance technology. Simon Lewis, programme leader for the latter, says the industry is beginning to recognise a need for education and training, particularly in technical fields that have become an integral part of staging a pop concert.

"It was encouraging when we hosted a meeting of the Music Producers Guild six months ago and they said that if you were qualified you might still start at the bottom but you would move quickly up the ladder," he said.

Courses such as the live performance technology BSc give students the kind of skills that are in great demand in the age of techo-pop.

"You are looking at effects such as pyrotechnics and lasers as well as lighting and sound. This is increasingly important for the pop industry, because the quality of presentation has steadily increased. People who have paid £75 to go to a major show expect a full production, such as those at recent U2 and Madonna concerts, not just the artists on stage with a few coloured lights. It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes technology to make that happen," he says.

Some trained pop musicians can find themselves working in some surprising areas of expertise. Alison Kamsika runs a degree course in creative expressive therapies at Derby University, on which students are trained to use music to help people with special needs and mental disabilities express and develop themselves.

"Pop music has a lot of emotional resonance for a lot of people, which makes it particularly useful in this area," she says.

Despite the claims to relevance and usefulness, Carr thinks some institutions are guilty of "just jumping on the bandwagon with very few resources" in an effort to cash in on the rising demand for pop-music courses. "Every year I notice new courses starting up. Some call themselves pop-music courses, but are in fact into sociological theory and have no performance element. Obviously you need to get on a performance-based course if you are interested in making music."

Institutions such as Salford are making great efforts to show they do not fall into this category. Robin Dewhurst, senior lecturer in pop music, says applicants for places are left under no illusions about their chances of making the big time.

"We make it clear to applicants that getting on in the industry can have a lot to do with the old-school-tie network. We have a variable intake of people who are stars from the word go, but they still have to jump through all the hoops to get there," he says.

Many institutions also provide their students with the opportunity to produce their own album, which gets exposure to talent-seekers working in the industry. Salford, for instance, has set up a website called freeflow to showcase its students' work.

Carr says this is the kind of work that brings students as close as they are going to get to being popstars before actually working in the industry.

"It is such a competitive industry, I do not know if institutions can realistically do much more," he says.

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