Rethinking Music Business Curricula

Interview with Music Business Chair Don Gorder

CF: Tell me about your career in music before coming to Berklee in 1991.
DG: I went into the area of music education in 1983 when I took a job at the University of Colorado at Denver which was the second Music Business Program. Miami was the first and of course that was my first exposure to the discipline of music business and academia when I was a graduate student. I took a couple of classes and my next step was to go to law school but then I got an invitation to teach at University of Colorado. That was the program that David Baskerville started who wrote the musicians handbook. I was there for 6 years and then I took a job at the University of the Pacific. It was a small Music Business program but at the time it was an interesting place to go and try to build a program. I was only there for two years before the notice of the job at Berklee. It is kind of a funny story—I got a letter from Berklee in my second year there saying they were looking for a music chair for it’s Music Business department. But the letter didn’t really say what I found out later—that there was no department and that they wanted somebody to essentially build it. But actually, the more I thought about it, it sounded like a great opportunity to move into something where they’re essentially looking to me, saying ‘Tell us what it’s supposed to be’ as opposed to ‘Here’s what we do and make it better.’ So I applied and got the job.

 

It was 1991 when I came to Berklee. I taught a class similar to the intro class and at the same time I was basically structuring the program and coming forward with proposals.
There are still some similarities between what a music business program was or needed to be in 1991 versus today, but there are some obvious differences. I think all students in the music business program need to have an understanding of the fundamentals of business, which means they need to have some exposure to accounting, economics, statistics, concepts of management, and those kinds of things that I plugged into the program way back then. And there’s another interesting little side story—I came to Berklee and my background was on campuses where they have a school of business, which by the way is still primarily the case with music business programs. They’re on campuses where they have a school of business so the Music Business students go over there to take their accounting, economics and management and all of that and that’s all well and good. They probably don’t see much application to the music industry in those courses, but still those disciplines are important and they all need to know that. But when I got to Berklee, and I was ready to start assembling the program and putting my thoughts together, I said to President Lee Berk, “Is there a particular school of business that you’d like to align with and partner with, so our students could go over there to take their marketing and accounting?” He said,”Ah no, that’s not what we do at Berklee. We don’t go outside—we run our programs.”

 

CF: You once said: “I like the environment at Berklee, it’s a fast pace music industry microcosm.” Do you think that schools like Berklee that combine music and business rather then separating it have an advantage and make for a more successful transfer into the macrocosm of the industry?
DG: I think there are pluses on both sides. The real plus for us in that we are a pure music college is that we can teach the music industry application in those really traditional business disciplines. The challenge was finding people who could do that. But that’s what I tried to do. You take accounting and as I’m sitting there talking to Marty Dennehy, way back then, saying, “Can you make this relative to our music students?” It is the same thing with Peter Alhadeff when he’s teaching economics and statistics. Making this relevant to our environment here, knowing that Berklee is a very applied environment. People play their instruments and they are vocalists and it’s an immediate application. One of my early thoughts about this program at Berklee was that it’s a rather left brained discipline in a very right brained environment and that the creative arts tend to be very right brained and that’s not a criticism, it’s just a fact. It’s intuitive, spatial, whereas the business tends to be linear. You have to apply logic, and sometimes you don’t find that in people who are attuned to the arts, so you got to make it relevant. So the challenge was to show the application. For example if you teach accounting and you can show the application and you can show students this is how it is applied and this is why you need to know it. I think that those are the most important factors that allowed us to be successful in delivering the program together with finding the right people.

 

CF: And this ties in with the belief that if you can teach a musician the business side, they can be very powerful players in the industry.
DG: Yes, definitely. But looking at the other side or at other schools, we can’t provide as much depth to the discipline of accounting, for example, that you would get in a four credit course at a school of business. I don’t mean to say that we, for lack of a better term, dumb it down. We don’t do that, but at the same time, we’ve only got 30 credits to run this major and that’s not a lot compared to what a student might get in a bachelor of business administration. But we do what we do and try to cover the basics and we can do it because of our music industry focus, which is something other programs aren’t able to do.

 

CF: Speaking of the limitation of 30 credits, do you believe that Berklee will offer a master in music business in the future?
DG: We are going to have a master’s program in Valencia. The relationship is set. They haven’t broken ground yet, but all the documents are signed to my knowledge and everything is moving forward. I have submitted a program and it is called Global Music and Entertainment Management and that school is to open at the earliest in the Fall of 2012. It will be a master’s. I believe it won’t be an MBA but probably an MA. Will we have a master’s program here in Boston? Probably not in the near future, because they want Valencia to work before we walk too much into that direction here. I know that BerkleeMusic, the online school, was considering having a master’s of Business, but I believe they have put those plans on hold for now. But we do have the Suffolk relationship and Suffolk international MBA was ranked in the Top 10 this past year. So I think that’s great and they have been very cooperative with us working out the equivalencies for our students to enter that program and save a lot of time and tuition.

 

CF: Lets talk about the music business in relation to our program for a bit. As of now, students can choose between the three tracks: Entrepreneurial, Management and music products. With the products track changing to marketing, how do you think the program in general has to change to prepare students for a successful career within the modern music business?
DG: Well, you got to look at the realities of the market place. Where are the career paths these days and how can we best prepare students and help them so they are preparing for the rest of their lives. We have removed the music products track. It was an area that we did not see a lot of interest in. We always had students who wanted to go to the NAMM show and we had a few that have actually done quite well in music products, but we did not think that we needed a dedicated track for it anymore. We’ve had one course in marketing in all these years, and back in 1991, when I conceived this program, the one thing I did was make marketing a three credit class while everything else is two because at least I recognized they needed a little bit more. Now of course in this new age of the music business where everything has gone digital, marketing has just taken a whole new life. It’s sort of redefining itself as a discipline in the business. Our students are finding that there’s a whole realm of career paths that involve having an expertise in marketing because more and more of the music companies now are outsourcing their marketing as supposed to big staffs of in-house people. What they need is that expertise in the online areas. Knowing how to use the technology and social media is huge now.

 

CF: Do you think that consumer orientation is increasingly critical?
DG: Yes. Everything is direct to consumer and about establishing your customer base and fan base. We know that we have to put more emphasis into marketing. But what drove this process in this first major overhaul of the major since 1993, was the new core of studies in liberal arts. We were directed by the accrediting body that we had to have a core of 40 credits of liberal arts. We took our statistics and economics and pulled them into the liberal arts core. So we looked at the whole again and said, lets redo the tracks and add some more courses. But we also looked really philosophically at it. And knowing that the next generation of managers will to have to know something about all of the elements of the artist’s career. It’s no longer the person who helps them negotiate their record contract. They got to know something about publishing, marketing, branding, endorsements, merchandise and all of that and so we kind of pulled all of that into the new management track. The Entrepreneurial track we added some courses to that, like business start-ups, creative business and new media, the entrepreneurial practicum. The marketing track, we took the existing marketing course which is a 400 level and dropped it to a 300 level with fewer prerequisites and it’s still required of all majors and then we’re adding an advanced marketing course in the new marketing track. So you see we’ll have two levels of marketing now.

 

CF: Today’s students have to have both specialization as well a solid knowledge of the overall picture. It seems that while it is a big goal to preserve a well-rounded program we are heading towards more in depth and specialized tracks and education.
DG: Yes, we are, and our thinking is, in general, what do students need to address this changing landscape in the music industry? They need entrepreneurial skills. And music program that isn’t giving that a strong emphasis, I think is going to lose out. Everything is becoming less ‘corporatized’—people are starting businesses now, they are developing businesses because the technology is allowing that more so. So they need those skills and going along with that they need technology skills. We’ve been offering a class managing technology driven business which is going to be a required course. I’ll sound that alarm right now. We discussed this and thought they are going out into a world of business no matter what they do that to have some knowledge of how technology is used in business is critically important. That’s one students may have to get used to.
But it’s a balance and I think a well-conceived music program has that balance of the business basics or fundamentals, along with the more specific practical skills in the various areas of the industry that they may be interested in, the technology that is applied in business, hands on experience. I believe you have to offer students hands on opportunities. We have the entrepreneur practicum, senior practicum and of course internships. That’ll never change and I really like what the office of experiential learning is doing building up the range of offerings for internships which is also adding to the students range of things to have on their resume. It is a balance of also communication skills. We have not made communications a required class yet but we can only hope that students recognize that it’s so important.

 

CF: Another subject I want to quickly mention is the touring aspect of the business. The touring industry is still very healthy and growing overall. Do you think that our program should focus more on this part of the business?
DG: I do. We have seen a number of students that have gone into that direction of booking, touring, and tour management. The live business is always going to be there. The one question mark about it as you look on to the future, are we going see stadium acts once the current roster is gone? You got to wonder if there are going to be acts continuing to develop that can fill stadiums. But regardless, there going to be live performances of different sizes. My sense is that there will always be acts that can fill venues like the House of Blues, the Orpheum, and that kind of thing. Gillette stadium—who knows. But there will always be a need for an infrastructure that supports the live music industry. We brought Jeff Dorenfeld’s two courses into the management track. Intermediaries and concert promotion will be a part of that track because that is the new generation manager who understands the importance of getting his or her artist out on tour. We are certainly not giving touring any less emphasis.

 

CF: When will these new tracks come into effect?
DG: You know, I’m giving you advanced information and I am comfortable talking about it because I am confident that it has gone through the process. I have submitted these changes just in June.
CF: So would 2010 be a good guess?
DG: Well, yes, the proposals were to take effect for most of them for spring 2010, which means that as soon as that grid is published, that becomes the new contract for the students who come in. But we’re going to be phasing this in over the next two or three years because there are still students here who are under the old contract and we have to allow them to continue that way if they choose to but they will have the option to move to the new contract.

 

CF: You have mentioned earlier that there have not been many or any changes in the program since its launch in 1991. Looking at the ever-changing and increasingly fast-paced music industry today, do you believe that it will become a bigger and bigger challenge to educate students in this field?
DG: I think what we have to do is really keep an eye on the direction of the changes, so that we understand where the jobs are and where the career tracks are developing. We cannot hit a moving target directly but you can at least get a sense and know the basics you have to prepare the students with so that they can adapt to it. We’re not going have a course called ‘these are today’s jobs and this is what you have to know,’ but we can have courses that help students think creatively about their future and how they can continue to adapt to this changing environment.
The business mode that is going to save this business, especially the recorded music business, isn’t there yet because it’s a combination of cultures—and the technology hasn’t come about yet, nor has the willingness to accept some new ways of thinking about it. The one that’s constantly being argued about is if the internet service providers would pick up the licensing for music, and just build it into the service—so when you subscribe to Verizon for your internet service, your bill includes music and it feels free but it isn’t. But in order to do that, you have to have the technology that supports it so that the rights holders get their share out of that. It’s a major undertaking for the ISPs to go that route. And of course the other thing is as some European countries are now starting to do is the so called ‘three strikes and you’re out’ legislation. France is that close to making it a law.
You’re going to have something like that going on to draw people back into the mindset that music has value. I have said this probably too much, but it’s been 10 years since Napster started all of this, it set the industry on its ear, and they’ve been reeling ever since. But the challenge has been monetizing all of that digital consumption. How do you do to a scale of operation that provides meaningful revenue and allows these businesses to be profitable? And by these businesses I’m talking about the ad-supported services. They’re not profitable yet, and the reason is that they have not been able to build to a scale of operation where they can be profitable. There are not enough people are paying for it.

 

CF: And that is probably one of the biggest challenges today’s music business students have to figure out.
DG: That’s absolutely right and to me that sounds like a fascinating challenge. How do you help this industry bring itself back to profitability. What is that business model that you can present to the consumer and they’re going to say: ‘Good, that’s what I want and I am willing to pay what you say I need to pay.’

 

CF: It really seems to be not only an economical but a social experiment.
DG: It is, and it’s been a real challenge because as long as it’s out there for free you got to offer something that makes people say I’d sooner do this that get it free.

 

CF: What do you think are the most important qualities a graduating student from any music business program needs to have and the most crucial steps he/she has to take?
DG: Number one has to be passion. I always think of one of our earliest graduates here at Berklee. His name was Joe Carra, he’s been back here many times. He’s VP of marketing at Newline Records and I always think of Joe as the kind of person who can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work. Because he’s just got that passion. So you have to do your own self-assessment, and if you have that burning desire, the fire in the belly to work in the business, that’s number one. And then think about the broad-based level of skills, experiences and thinking that you can bring to a business environment. When they’re going to take you on, they’re going to want to know—What do you bring to us? How are we better off by having you here? Your resume shows the academic or professional experience you have. But communication is also important and of course, technology skills. Be tech savvy and certainly internet savvy. My generation will never understand social media as yours and that’s OK, but yours needs to understand it really well. If I were sitting here interviewing you for a job that’s what I’d be thinking about. Can you bring that to my business because we need that and you are much better equipped.

 

CF: So graduates should be able to assess situations, know where to find information, and adapt quickly accordingly.

DG: That’s right. Flexibility, adaptability and out of the box thinking. It sounds like a cliché but every business needs that. They need people who bring new well thought out ideas with some notion of how they can be implemented. That’s the right combination of the right and the left brain. The right brain, you have the idea, the left brain, you figure out how you’re going implement it. The successful people have a measure of both.

 

CF: How many students are in the major right now?
DG: I just got the count, as of right now there are 424 students in MB.

 

CF:And you started with how many?
DG:Oh, the fall of 1992 when we opened the doors we had 46. We saw a dramatic growth from 2002 to 2007 and it’s slowed down a little bit since then.

 

CF: How do you explain the decrease in growth?
DG: A few things have changed at Berklee, and now that we are auditioning students, we’re not sure whether that has changed the profile a little bit of the student who not only gets into Berklee, maybe even who applies to Berklee.

 

CF: How do you feel about that and what do you think should or might change?
DG: When the college embarked on this new plan of auditioning all students, it was really made clear, and this came from the president, too, that it couldn’t be all about the audition and that we still needed to view the so called ‘x-factor,’ which is everything else. What else is it about this student that’s applying to Berklee that says this is somebody that we should consider separate and apart from how well they do on the audition. Now of course they have to have basic musical skills—it’s a music college, there’s no argument with that. But at the same time, all of us at the non-performance majors want good students to fill up our classes and we are preparing industry leaders, people who are less interested in the performance aspects of the education and more interested in what we’re doing here. So you know, we need good students and we can only hope that the interview is getting us those students for us and is allowing those students to come forward to get accepted. We don’t think that there is any unfairness going on, but it is possible that there are students out there that would love to come here to study music business, and could perhaps do quite well in it, who don’t apply.

 

CF: And there are many examples that prove that you do not have to be a musician to succeed in the music business.
DG: Yes that’s true, you can, but we still have that tension point that it’s still a music degree and a music college and having said that, I would be so bold as to throw out to you what I think could be a solution. I don’t say this because there is any definite movement toward it, but perhaps at some point we can consider a Bachelor of Arts degree that has some different admission criteria attached to it for those students. I am absolutely sure that there are many students out there who would love to come to Berklee to study Music Business but are so intimidated by the audition that they don’t apply. And so perhaps we can offer them a different program of study, slightly different. You know if the college were to say, OK, you can have a hundred students for your BA in music business we’d get them in a heartbeat. That’s a maverick thing perhaps, and if you’re asking me about my vision for the future, that’s one I really like looking at—the day that we can do that, because I believe that would afford the best chance considering how we can continue to produce real industry leaders. It’s not to say that there are great musicians who can come in to this program and do well and really make us proud because I’m sure that’s the case. But I think we allow ourselves a whole other pool of really good prospects if we perhaps can refine the admissions criteria in a very different direction.
It’s been a great ride for me in the last 18 years, and it’s the students that have propelled us forward. We hope that we keep getting those students who have that burning desire and who push us and nudge us.

By Christina Fabi

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