NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Havighurst) Years ago, careers in the music business began by working for free, making coffee and waiting for an opportunity to open up. Then over the past two to three decades, music business programs proliferated at colleges and universities, providing training, internships and a faster track up the career ladder. Now as the industry grows faster paced and even more competitive, new kinds of professional training are taking shape.
Recently I visited a program in Nashville that aims to condense the lessons and advantages of a four year college into eight months. It's part trade school and part boot camp. It's called Segue 61.
In a well-appointed studio in the Berry Hill neighborhood, musician Steve Conn has his organ and amplifier set up on the floor. Engineers have connected the instrument through microphones and cables to computers and a mixing console here in the control room. It's crowded, with about a dozen people observing, while Conn talks over his keyboard part with songwriter/artist Damon Atkins.
“That’s what I’m feeling,” Atkins says. “What I really want is something that could possibly replace some of the guitar parts on here. Because it’s so guitar heavy, because I’m not an organ player. So I’m just kind of substituting for those ideas with more slide in the background. Nothing ridiculous, just something…”
“No problem there,” cracks Conn, breaking the room into laughter.
It looks like a conventional recording session, similar to dozens of others going on all across Nashville on any given day.
And at one level it is. But in fact, we're in school. Segue 61 is an eight-month intensive professional program for people aspiring to make a career in music.
Songwriter and aspiring artist Rylie Bourne, an Illinois native who’s made the school her entrée into Nashville says this scene is typical of the hands on learning environment.
“Normally we have those people come in around like one o'clock and then from two to four we’ll have what we call lab and recently we've been recording quite a bit or rehearsing songs with one another. And I think the biggest thing for me is just being around them all day. It's huge, you know, these people who are actually session musicians or living and working in the business right now. We're around it all day long.”
Labs like this recording session are overseen by school faculty, but Pete Abbott, a well-known working drummer and the school’s music education coordinator, says that as much as possible, students are executing every part of the production chain.
“We take a song, we rehearse it and we record it. And then we go through the process again and again – as much as they can be involved without us hinting at decision making. That’s where we want to get them – so they’re self contained – they can come in use the studio at night, record a song. We come back and go ‘That’s great.’”
“Well, you’re going to experience everything under the umbrella of the music industry.”
This is Guthrie Trapp, one of Nashville's top session guitarists and a founding partner in Segue 61. “If you come in here with your focus on being an engineer or a songwriter, you’re also going to take tour managing. You’re also going to take publishing and the people who are here with their focus is on tour managing, they’re also going to sit in on the engineering workshops and the songwriting workshops. So everybody's getting a really broad dose of all the aspects of the music industry.”
Segue 61 is a certificate program of Catawba College of Salisbury, North Carolina, which has accredited music and music business departments. Tuition for the eight months runs about $24,000 and includes virtually unlimited access to the school's custom built recording studio. The program is offered to anyone with a high school diploma or higher as either an alternative or a supplement to established music business programs, such as the ones at Belmont University and Middle Tenn State.
“This is a better alternative because it’s being taught by people who are currently making a living in the music business."
So says one of the school's founders, Industry and Music Coordinator Clay Bradley. Bradley is another established Nashville professional with a long record at the top levels of BMI and various record labels. He's also grandson of seminal Nashville record producer Owen Bradley.
“And it’s not academic, so called. You don’t have to go to astronomy class. This is for kids who know they want to make a living in the music business. I’ve taught at many of those places and what I’ve found is there’s a third of the kids who know exactly what they want to do and there’s two thirds who drifted in to those programs because they don’t know what they do and music sounds fun. We’re not looking for those two thirds. We’re looking for that one third.”
It’s too early to say if Segue 61 is part of a trend that represents significant new competition for the music business school tuition dollar, but there are a variety of focused training programs emerging as the industry adjusts to and invents new models. Music Producers Institute is a roughly week long program that trains would-be record producers. Blackbird Academy is a five year old program that puts classes of 20 to 30 people through 350 hours of training in studio and live sound engineering in one of Music City’s finest recording studios. You can take a variety of music business courses online from Berklee College of Music or other notable outlets.
“These trade schools are popping up all over the place,” says Segue 61’s Pete Abbott.
“They’re shortening the process. They’re staying focused. And they are specifically for a student that they know what they want to do. The excess fat that might be contained in a normal academic education is cut out. So they’re getting the absolute tools they need to do something."
Not surprisingly, some at the established music business programs take exception with elements of Segue 61's pitch and program and are sticking up for their model. Beverly Keel is chair of the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State. The university owns and operates WMOT.
“Keep in mind that many students will have jobs in five years that don’t exist right now,” Keel says. “So you can’t train them for a specific job. You need to teach them how to think. And that’s what we do. And there’s also a maturation and a polishing that goes through the college process. And also we’re focused on the whole healthy human – not just on the music industry and not just on the career.”
Keel says MTSU does not see certificate programs, even year long programs, as significant competition for formal four year degrees. “It’s apples and oranges. My concern is that students don’t know it’s apples and oranges. So if they’ve got twenty grand that I can either put into a college education of this, and this is short, hey I can be out in eight or nine months, well you know what you’re not leaving with a full well rounded education. And you’re not leaving with a college degree that’s recognized worldwide.
The administrators behind Segue 61 reply that students simply need to be aware that the program isn’t designed to replace college. Academic director Cameron Johnson calls it a compromise.
“We teach you exactly what you want to know. How to survive the music industry. How to survive Nashville. We bring mentors in here. Students make connections with those mentors. And at the end of the experience here we have them in an internship that will hopefully turn into a job. And we help them segue from the program to the industry.”
In music, a segue is a smooth transition from one passage or song to another. The folks behind this one room music business schoolhouse are banking on enough people seeing their new model as a solution for their own smooth transitions.