Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tech, music work in harmony in new college programs

Photo: Damian Dovarganes, AP
Devin Karambelas/USA TODAY

Imagine if Steve Jobs had gone to music school.

That should give students an idea of where college music programs are headed, if they aren't already there.

Last month, it was announced that Andre Young, known by the more colloquial Dr. Dre, and his Beats Electronics business partner Jimmy Iovine, who chairs Interscope Records, would donate $70 million to the University of Southern California to create the first cross-disciplinary academy that would blend music production with entrepreneurship and computer science.

Despite the novelty of USC's new academy, experts say this shift in music education has been happening for a long time. Colleges simply needed to adjust to an industry consumed by the digital age.

"The intuitive nature of the iPad, cellphone, GarageBand and other programming has opened up the door to this generation of students to have a totally new perspective on music," says Robert Harari, a professor of music technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Whether it is developing a series of controls on an instrument that can allow handicapped musicians to play or using a biofeedback system to gauge audience reaction, Harari says music programs today hinge on students' abilities to understand sound as a creative medium.

In a similar vein to USC's new academy, Berklee College of Music will also launch a master's degree in music technology innovation this September at its Valencia, Spain, campus.

But Stephen Webber, the program's director, says the school has even loftier ambitions.

"I'm very interested in inventing the album of 20125," he wrote in an e-mail. "What is possible now is truly exciting: interactivity, video, surround sound, stunning quality images and the possibilities are endless, which is part of the problem."

David Biral, 20, who studies at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, says good business sense — making the right connections — and fluidity in technology were critical for having a professional career in music, even more so than musical talent.

"There are limits to record labels now and people wonder, 'How do we make money?'" Biral says. "But it takes that next person to say, 'I'm going to use this technology and make a living out of this.'"

While sales within the music industry nosedived for years as record companies dealt with illegal streaming, the global recorded music industry reported growth for the first time in 2012 since 1999, according to a February International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) press release.

Global music revenue was up by 0.3% last year, and digital revenue alone increased by three times that much, IFPI's data showed.

This came to no surprise for Langdon Crawford, an adviser and instructor for the Steinhardt School's music technology program at New York University.

The digital revolution — spearheaded by the development of file-sharing service Napster in 1999 and the MP3 — has completely changed the traditional recording industry, Crawford says.

But if the technology needed to create and distribute music is so widely available, and a lot easier to master for this generation of aspiring musicians, some question the value of a getting a degree in music.

"I've taught myself several programs but that doesn't solve the larger problem," Crawford says. "It doesn't teach you what to do and why to do it. To put it in the context of writing, many people think if they learn a tool they can learn music technology. But that's like learning Microsoft Word and then believing you can write a novel."

The academic environment is crucial to innovation, he says. And with burgeoning fields like machine listening, music cognition and psychoacoustics, college is the best option for exploring the possibilities of music making.

Berklee senior Brendan Killarney, 22, is studying music business at the school's main Boston-based campus. Despite his natural ability as a drummer, he says his studies have shown him just how important it is to master both the art of music and the business of it to survive in today's industry.

"Before the digital revolution, there was a simplicity to the industry," Killarney says. While the old model separated managers from their clients, artists today are increasingly filling both roles, he explained.

Hence, he says, the importance of school that can educate students on both.

"It's such a hard thing just to tackle yourself," he says. "If you're doing that, good luck. Making it in this business is such a hard thing to do."

Devin Karambelas is a summer 2013 Collegiate Correspondent.

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