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Beyond Bass Camp

Digging Deeper Inside the Bass, with Steve Lawson.


Last Wednesday, I was speaking at a conference at Leeds Metropolitan University. I gave a keynote talk – the usual stuff about how great the changes in the music industry are for musicians etc. – then I did a workshop/brainstorming session on ‘recording and marketing music on zero budget’, which produced some pretty creative thinking from the assembled group.

But it was the last session I want to address here, a panel discussion on ‘how many graduates can the music business accomodate?’.

The question is, I think, a false one, given that just about everyone I know who’s doing anything interesting in the world of music right now is doing it outside of the music industry, or at least, independently from the general morass of people clinging to the rigging of that slowly sinking ship, hoping for a deal or a contract, for some work to fall in their lap…

One point I raised that seemed to be a bit of a surprise to some of the people was that of the crisis facing FE and HE colleges thanks to the skewed priorities of the kids they inherit from schools.

Here’s the problem – in almost all school situations, kids in the UK are punished for not doing their work, or even not doing it in the right way. There’s no sense that the consequence of not studying is not knowing. The consequence of not doing what you’re supposed to do in school is punitive punishment – detention, extra homework, stern talkings to etc… all stuff that has pretty much no relevance in the rest of life, and that breeds in kids a mentality that often seeks to do ‘enough’ and beyond that just ‘not get caught’.

Contrast that with the world of music, where the consequence of practice, of dedication, of imagination, of daring, risking and chancing your way into the creative path is just that you stand more chance of writing music that means something to you – and therefor other people – if you’re doing it than not. The consequence of not doing it is that it doesn’t happen. Unless you’re a contract songwriter for a publisher, there are very few situations where there’s any kind of punitive arrangement set up for not being creative. Lack of creative output is a bad enough consequence. ‘You’ end up with nothing to play, nothing to sell, nothing to give away…

So before teaching kids about the mechanics of music, the structure of the dying industry, and some thoughts about creative entrepreneurship and collaborative working principles, perhaps we need to let them fuck up massively and not ‘punish’ them, give them space to forget, to miss things, to be too hung over to make it to class… And then talk them through the alternatives, the advantages of taking responsibility, the subversion of proactivity. Perhaps we should put ‘The Road Less Travelled’ on the reading list for music courses above Donald J Grout’s ‘History Of Western Music’.

The ‘old school’ music industry was is chock full of people in a regressed state of adolescence, with a team of minders and spin doctors clearing up after them, never facing the consequences of their actions, never dealing with grown up encounters, always relying on someone else to pick up the pieces. When they do get caught, a bunch of enabling morons in the press make out like it’s a fantastically rebellious thing to do to get wasted and fall face down in your own puke in the street. Yup, and it’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll when your local homeless drunk does it too…

The problem is, not only is that massively costly in human terms (people who live like that are generally horrible to be around, and are rarely in a position to contribute much to their communities), the cost in financial terms is huge too. ‘Minders’ don’t come cheap, neither do TVs thrown from hotel room windows, cars wrecked – or even drugs bought with “record company money”, and it’s all recoupable of course. (and I’ve not yet heard of a source of fair trade cocaine…)

If we’re doing this ourselves, in collectives, creatively, playfully, experimentally, we can’t be preparing students for a world of work that’s utterly unsustainable. We need to make sure that they aren’t reliant of the ‘machine’ not for a job, nor inspiration nor to cover up their stupid expensive behaviour.

And that is the big challenge facing music schools, not how many grads are going to get jobs with Sony…

So, how do we change things?

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3 Responses to “The Real Crisis In Music Education”

  1. Pete Honeyman Says:

    Steve – It’s no coincidence that art schools have always been a more fertile spawning ground for bands than music colleges – for forty years they have found ways to give a ‘creative space’ in education with very few rules. Unfortunately, higher education funding in the UK is dependent on results, measured by numbers of graduates attaining qualifications, rather than on achievement measured by individual ‘journey travelled’. Maybe one day a government will fund education just because it’s a Good Thing, and not look for any measurable output, but I’m not holding my breath – UKIP? Tories? don’t think so.

  2. Steve Says:

    Thanks Pete – I made that point at Leeds, that the educators were in a no-win situation where the skills required and the motivation to acquire them were at odds with the system in which the college/uni functioned, and what they needed to do in order to get funding/accreditation etc.

    I have every sympathy with the music departments wrestling with this, and those that recognise the tension are in a much better position to hold that tension creatively and carve out a path that gets as close to meeting both sets of demands as possible.

    I also mentioned that one of the most valuable skils I learned at Perth was learning how to teach, by watching you, and learning where to be hands-off, and just act in an advisory capacity in order to facilitate self-discovery. You did that brilliantly…. and I think I might have passed 😉

  3. Paddy Hare Says:

    I remember a few months ago whilst i was volunteering at a youth charity i was killing some time before the start of a group session with a bunch of young people and careers advisor who i’d only just met. the conversation led to me talking about what i was doing whilst volunteering (finishing my music performance degree part time) and when i said i was finishing my music degree i was met with the sarcastic response “Oh well that’ll really help you get a job.”

    I’ve never wanted a bloody job! i’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of ‘jobs’ however i’m all for being paid to do something i’m good at and enjoy doing.

    while it’d be ideal if studying was simply getting better at what you love then things would be a lot simpler, but the need for money to survive is inescapable. I feel that rather than gearing the education towards getting jobs (if i hear the phrase ‘graduate qualities’ ever again i may be forced to bludgeon LC to death…) the focus should be on how to use your skills and passion to earn money. to clarify slightly, i mean create your own systems to work within rather than opting into someone elses (ie getting a job, signing a deal etc)

    i guess maybe the ideal ultimate goal for any educational institution is to reder itself obselete for its students, and give them the skills they need to teach themselves, and perhaps even more importantly, the skills to teach others themselves?

    (apologies for any lack of clarity!)

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