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Teaching the unknown: The key responsibilities of music business programs

Originally published September 27, 2014

One of the many, many struggles within higher education is in preparing students for an uncertain job market. Too often undergraduate and graduate programs seem as if they were designed decades ago and then vacuum packed so that they may be opened and then resealed with each new semester. This lack of forethought not only creates a glut of unskilled college graduates, but it also degrades the validity of the academic institution and its staff. Thankfully, students wishing to learn about current and possible future business models in the music industry have Berklee College of Music’s Music Business/Management program, a set of courses that are not freeze dried in any way.

SFL spoke with Dr. Peter Alhadeff, Professor at Berklee College of Music, to learn more about the philosophy behind his institution’s curriculum and how other programs can easily create similarly adaptive programs.

SFL: What do you feel are the core components that any music business program today ought to provide its students?

Dr. Peter Alhadeff: A music business program that is not based on the changing music industry, shall we say that is not based on a recognition of the many changes that the industry is undergoing, would do no service to anyone. Programs have to prepare students for the realities of the modern market place, and while many of those realities have not changed, on the distribution side of things and the self empowerment that students now have to pursue their own projects, there has been a lot of change. Music programs must reflect these instances as accurately as possible so that their students have the best possible footing as they begin their careers.

Dr. Peter Alhadeff, Professor at Berklee College of Music

SFL: What are the specific subject areas that ought to be addressed in order to create the industry reflection you describe?

Alhadeff: A music business program has to be both cutting edge and prepared to cover areas that are more traditional in terms of academics. For instance, music business law and copyright law courses will always be essential due to their long established legal precedents and the effects they create today within the creative industries. An effective program also needs to provide a strong sense of the business elements that are unique to the music industry, such as understanding how record labels interact with artists, concert promoters, booking agents, publishers.

Funding should always be a large area of study. At Berklee, we are starting to address new ways of funding the creative industries. There has been a move away from corporate funding, as you know, to alternative ways to pay for a project or raising the money from fans. Crowd funding, for instance Kickstarter or PledgeMusic, in the industry is becoming more and more important. Students may think they have a firm understanding of these sorts of projects, but most are unaware of many subtle, yet extremely impactful nuances of such fundraising. For big money, music business students may plan to seek venture funding. We provide discussions on the latest strategies and considerations for approaching angel investors and the like.

Finally, nurturing the entrepreneurial aspect is key; how to empower students to function at a high level around the structures of the old music business and, at the same time, stay in touch with the new, evolving entities that are rising out there.

SFL: It seems pretty simple on the surface. In your opinion, why aren’t more music business programs taking a similar approach?

Alhadeff: I cannot speak for other programs but I can say it’s not easy to stay on top of these constantly moving topics. At Berklee, it takes a team effort between our faculty, alumni and students. We speak in groups often about what we see in the industry and how we ought to expose our students in class to the various changes that are occurring in the market. We share how a certain method of teaching or a topic may or may not have yielded the best results and we make any changes that we feel are necessary.

My guess is that some institutions do not have this level of discussion and revision, and on the surface, I can understand why because it is a lot of work. However, to stay current in our field, it has to be done on a regular basis.

SFL: From your perspective, how have Berklee’s students changed as incoming freshmen? Have they matured in their expectations over the years? Are they a little more aligned with reality today than maybe students from a few years ago?

Alhadeff: Students that come into our music business program do not expect for something to magically happen to them without hard work on their part. I do think there is more of a sense that they have to get out there and look for opportunities themselves. Even when I started at Berklee in the early 1990’s that used to be the case. The thing is there were less music business programs around than there are now. The business was more predictable and growing at a faster rate, rates of 7 percent in recorded music a year, extraordinary periods of growth. New multi-media was allowing more opportunities for musicians to place their work in positions like the Internet and video games where a wider audience could have access. Music business students were able to take advantage of a college degree and exploit the new formats that were there, making success a bit easier than many find today.

The reality now is that music business students are coming into a crowded market place both in terms of music business programs and the industry itself. Also, the industry is quite chaotic in dropping sales of recording music which used to be the cash cow of the business, but obviously there are other areas that are picking up today.

Yes, over the past decade, it has been a scramble, but now I think students are more aware that they have to not just understand the entire industry, as used to be the case back in the 1990‚Äôs, but now you also have to engage with entire industry. You have to get out there and work before you graduate. For instance, historically, internships were done at the very end of one’s academic career and they were an afterthought. Students now are taking internships very early on and are piling up as much experience as they can, even if they do not earn college credit for their work. Students at Berklee recognize that it is hard to make an inroad in the industry and internship not only given them tangible contacts but they also provide another level of skills you cannot find in a classroom.

I would say those are the biggest factors that students have to come to terms with today. You have to be more flexible in your preparation for a career. You cannot take the same approach as students did in the early 1990’s when they just wanted to study music business and develop street smarts to know how to talk the talk and walk the walk. Now students need other things too. You might need to be aware of social media in greater detail, understand a bit of programming, understand the language of hackers, be aware of the many new distributions outfits and on and on. You have to have a broader outlook in how you are going to place your product and distinguish yourself from others. Those are important changes that students must appreciate.

SFL: The music industry has changed so many times, and one thing that’s certain is that it will continue to change. As a professor, you are being given the task of preparing students for job titles that don’t exist today, to work with business models that don’t exist today. How do those sorts of considerations impact your planning and your teaching?

Alhadeff: That’s a great question.

Higher education, in general, must continuously raise the bar in terms of its expectations of its curricula especially when focusing upon the rapidly evolving creative industries. I am fortunate in that I work at Berklee, an institution that from its very formation in 1945 was geared toward the marketplace. I am not just advertising Berklee here. Our entire academic culture is based on our constant adjustments to the market place.

I will give you some examples. In the mid 1990‚Äôs Netscape became the standard for the web, in other words bulletin boards and the like stopped being the layman’s approach to the web. You had email and folks went to their own account within the web via, let’s say CompuServe or AOL. When Netscape, the first browser, became popular and the World Wide Web opened up, the faculty at Berklee had to start thinking about that. We soon realized that many store fronts would be created by the younger generation putting up their product information and advertising themselves. We immediately recognized the importance of students learning to design a website and moved quickly to include that in our curriculum.

Lately, I have designed a course on music business finance which I teach at Berklee Online. The course came about as I was recognizing crowd funding, micro financing and big-money venture capital were becoming ever more important in music business. Micro finance is used for smaller projects and getting a record out there. Venture funding is secured for bigger projects like how you get music streaming and setting up a service like Spotify, or working on music intelligence for future electronic devices so that you can tap on a particular song, on a particular aspect of the music, that might be connected to a game. All of these are new problems that will need to be solved by students and through my class they have the chance to begin thinking about possible solutions.

SFL: Is there one particular area that you feel music business programs must keep in mind in terms of their future planning?

Alhadeff: It is important to me to closely pay attention to the financial aspects of the music industry and how money is changing hands differently in the music trade. Breaking down emerging distribution methods and data analysis has become more important in my classes too. There have been a lot of new ways of teaching and I am sure other schools are doing the same. You cannot just use the manual of the 1990’s which was, essentially, a legal manual of laws, and structure a program around the legal aspects of music business. There is so much more to consider these days. More importantly, we know there will be so much more to consider in the years to come.