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Integrating Small Business Concepts into an Audio Production Program
How to assist audio production majors with the transition into a freelance career
By Dan Walzer
(more articles from this author)
2010-06-21
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The music industry is experiencing an unparalleled shift in focus. The days of outlandish budgets, huge advances, full service recording facilities, and brick and mortar sales are long gone. As large-scale recording studios close their doors, we're also seeing a huge shift in focus in the entertainment sector. People aren't buying CDs like they used to, and music piracy is still at an all time high. As major labels struggle to find successful business models, modern digital culture has completely changed how we consume and produce music, sound and art. The shift to a fully integrated digital community has also impacted how young people receive and assimilate information. As a music and media professional and educator, I have a unique opportunity to observe how students prepare to enter the job market as aspiring audio engineers and producers.

I've had the distinct pleasure of serving as a full time faculty member in the Department of Audio Production at the Art Institute of Tennessee-Nashville for the past three years. Our school is one of six satellite campuses of the Art Institute of Atlanta. The school offers a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Audio Production. Our campus opened in October of 2006, and as of this writing, we're nearing two hundred audio production majors, staffed with three full time instructors and nearly a dozen adjuncts. The AP major started with just six students and one full time instructor. As enrollment continues to skyrocket, the school has added a 24 hour recording facility equipped with an SSL Duality Console, an audio post-production lab, and we will soon have a dedicated mixing and mastering room as well.

One of the biggest challenges of being a satellite campus is reflected in our curriculum decisions. For accreditation purposes, every course and instructor are carefully reviewed by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in order to meet the established learning objectives for each major. Since our degree plan mirrors that of the Art Institute of Atlanta, there are many hurdles to overcome in order to ensure that each course is topical and relevant for the unique market that we serve. Preparing graduates for the Nashville market is an entirely different process than for those who might choose to work in New York, Los Angeles, or even in Atlanta.

No two markets are exactly the same. Since we are accredited as a branch campus of the Art Institute of Atlanta, all of our courses must be seamlessly constructed and integrated to match the Atlanta course catalogue. This includes the course descriptions, stated learning objectives, and the prerequisite order that each course is taken in the degree path. Each instructor brings their own unique experience to each class, and adjusts specific projects as necessary to achieve the stated learning objectives. However, course outcomes must contain specific language that compliments the vision set forth by the Art Institute of Atlanta.

As a general observation, our students are attracted to the Art Institute audio program because they seek a non-traditional career path in the creative arts. Our students tend to be tactile learners, and as such want to learn about recording technology from the first day they set foot on campus. Our admissions staff is expertly trained to find out what interests each student, and then assists them with finding the appropriate major. While there isn't a perfect snapshot, in general most of our students are creative dreamers with a passion for music, movies and related media. Most don't know exactly what they want to do, but are certain that they don't want to "work a nine to five job". They're compelled to major in audio production because they want to know how to make beats, produce music, and do something they love while ultimately getting paid for it.

There are three courses with a music industry/business focus in the degree sequence for the BA in Audio Production. Those courses are:

AU140 Survey of the Music Industry
AU250 Music and Studio Business
AU460 Media Business and Law

In a major with 192 quarter hours, these courses approximate less than 10% of the overall curriculum. We've found it necessary to augment these courses with additional business focus. To address these issues, we rely heavily on the input of industry experts in our local market and our Career Services team.

Every major at the Art Institute of TN-Nashville has a Professional Advisory Committee that reviews curriculum, technology and facilities twice each year. We invite members from all sectors of the audio production community to tour our campus and review our courses to ensure that we're teaching the "right" things. Over the past couple of years, we've been able to compile a list of Nashville's most successful audio engineers, producers, studio managers, and music business representatives. In addition to the biannual advisory panel, our department meets at a minimum four times each year to review courses on an individual basis.

Throughout these meetings, we also discuss how we can make general education courses more relevant to student success, and draw parallels between the humanities and audio-specific classes. After a great deal of review and trial and error, we decided to revise certain courses so that they addressed the realities of the business side of audio production. This was accomplished through a series of hands-on projects that were incorporated early on in the students' matriculation through the major. We like to call it "Freelance 101".

Survey of the Music Industry (AU140) is the first course in which students are exposed to various facets of the music business. This course serves as a broad overview of the many areas of the music industry. Students are exposed to music publishing, recording contracts, copyright, production agreements and audio specific careers. In addition to these general principles, the students are made aware of the realities of being a freelancer. Students often share that they're interested in working for themselves. However, they haven't the slightest idea of how to generate income while being self-employed. Their "life skills" are lacking in this area. After a careful review of our course objectives, we felt it was a disservice to teach students too much about an industry that no longer exists. More and more engineers are working out of their homes. Musicians collaborate remotely via the web, and it's entirely possible to track and mix a record without ever seeing the o! ther bandmembers.

For those students who are interested in artist-specific careers, we've exposed them to the DIY route that many successful artists are employing. Even the major labels realize they can't rely on one revenue stream. They've resorted to signing bands to 360 deals so that they can maximize their ROI. As many successful engineers scuffle to find work, it is imperative that our young students understand how to be versatile. It is a simple case of supply versus demand. There are far more people trying to make a living as engineers than there are gigs to have. Nashville has one of the largest concentrations of studios per square mile in the United States. And yet, Music Row studios are still staffed by a chosen few, many of whom have been in town for years. How do aspiring graduates compete with these daunting statistics?

Our department felt it was essential to place more emphasis on how to cultivate viable customer service and job skills. After all, audio production is a service industry. These areas include budgeting, networking, career research, file management, returning phone calls and emails, writing and public speaking skills, and effective presentation strategies. A portion of each lecture is dedicated to examining how students can get a leg up on their competition, and truly find a career that is the best fit. More than anything, we want them to know how hard they'll have to work to be successful over the long haul in a career path for which there are no guarantees. The best example of this is in the final project for AU140.

After the students have been exposed to about six weeks of general music business principles, they're asked to construct a business plan in which they have to generate the framework for a mock company they'll run after graduation. The students have the option of working in pairs or on their own. In this project they have to pick an audio or music-specific career and start their own business. They're required to pick a company name, research the associated costs to start the company (gear, rent, website etc...), and conceive a marketing plan in order to grow their business. In addition to these elements, the students have to decide what kind of a company they want to have (LLC, Sole Proprietorship), and design a logo. These requirements expose the students to the realities of day-to-day business operations.

Additionally, students are required to find an industry representative and interview them about their career. The final step of this project includes a presentation in front of the entire class and invited members of the PAC committee. The industry panel serves as a sort of "bank" in which they can approve or decline the funds needed to start the business based on how effectively the students have researched and presented their business plan. The students are there to "sell" their business vision, not unlike something they'll do to a set of investors or to the bank one day.

Without fail, this project has reinforced the concepts we discuss in class. Every quarter, the students underestimate how much work it takes to conceive of their idea, and then implement it effectively. Since so many of them want to work for themselves, this is a humbling process to undertake. For an engineer to be successful, they need a diverse skill set. Additionally they have to be connected to a group of people who can potentially hire them for a gig. The feedback they receive from the industry panel is incredibly helpful as well. It's a unique opportunity for the students to show their enthusiasm and passion for their respective fields. That passion and enthusiasm will carry the students over into their internships and potential job interviews once they graduate. Projects have run the gamut from starting a project studio, to a game audio company. The students are also required to submit all of the materials in a professional binder. It's quite an undertakin! g, from start to finish!

This final project has reinforced the importance of time management, organizational skills, tenacity and follow-through. While it's important to encourage student persistence, it's even more important that the students understand how challenging it can be to grow a business from scratch. Many of them will go on to work for a large company, however the skills they've developed in selling their passions will carry over into their first job interview. Most importantly, the students get a unique opportunity to rub elbows with some of the most successful industry experts in Nashville. It's a great selling point for them and our school as a whole.

As an arts college, it is imperative that we expose our students to the realities of their chosen fields. Moreover it's important to reinforce these concepts through real-world experiences. Rather than treating them like children, it's our goal to treat them as aspiring professionals. Doing so gives them some ownership in their education. Their success is entirely dependent upon how hard they work and how well they network. The process, both challenging and somewhat unforgiving, engages their minds and creativity in a way that books and lectures cannot. When the time comes for them to work with potential clients, they'll have had some practice and will be able to call upon the skills they've developed early on in their academic career. As the students matriculate through their major, they'll be able to develop and strengthen their freelance potential. The end result is a smooth transition from the academy into the real world.

The Art Institute of Tennessee - Nashville is a branch campus of The Art Institute of Atlanta. The Art Institute of Atlanta is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award associate and baccalaureate degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call 404.679.4500 for questions about the accreditation of The Art Institute of Atlanta.


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