Rock ‘n’ roll high school?
Once upon a time, bringing your guitar to school would land you in detention hall. Not anymore.
Why would any sane adult want to steer a young person toward a career in music?
The business of music isn’t exactly a growth industry. The five major record-label groups (Bertelsmann, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner) have been shrinking dramatically in recent years and are either up for sale (EMI, Universal and Warner) or the subject of merger rumors (all five). Eventually, those label conglomerates’ huge catalogs may wind up being owned by Apple or Microsoft, which will use them to anchor music-downloading networks like iTunes. Ergo, those students pursuing a master’s of business administration toward landing that plum job at a major label might want to rethink that course of action.
Of course, a brilliant teenage band still might get signed by a major record company, but chances are that it will get its label deal because it sounds like a knockoff of a successful band signed to another label, and chances are that its debut CD will be thrown at radio programmers with a bunch of other debut CDs that sound, well, remarkably similar to already successful major-label acts.
Unless the brilliant teenage band is really lucky, it won’t even have its record played on commercial FM radio, a medium dominated by a handful of corporations with names like Clear Channel and Viacom. For example, last week, the remaining independently owned rock radio station in Sacramento, KWOD 106.5, became station No. 92 in the portfolio of one of the smaller radio chains, based in suburban Philadelphia. Entercom already owned five local stations; going up the FM dial, there’s Smooth Jazz 94.7 KSSJ, Eagle 96.9 KSEG, 98 Rock 98.5 KRXQ and The End 107.9 KDND, in addition to KCTC 1320 AM. (It should be mentioned that KWOD and 98 Rock both program locally produced music that fits into those stations’ formats, but most of that is done during Sunday-evening shows.)
And unless the brilliant major-label band sells a lot of records or gets its debut CD added to radio across the country, chances are that it will be touring the country in a van, sleeping on floors and eating fast food as it plays a litany of small clubs. Most of the larger venues—arenas, outdoor amphitheaters and large auditoriums—are controlled by big music promoters. And the dominant regional promoters around the country, like Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco, which books most of the big shows around Sacramento, were bought by a company called SFX a few years back. SFX, in turn, was acquired by Clear Channel, a huge radio conglomerate that owns more than 1,200 stations—including, locally, Y-92.5 KGBY and V 101.1 KHYL on the FM dial and Talk 650 KSTE and News 1530 KFBK on the AM dial.
Not to dissuade the young music careerist, but the corporate end of the music business is usually a dead-end street.
That’s the bad news.
But fame and fortune aren’t always the reason many people fall in love with music. And, for someone who is dead set on making his or her own music, or on marketing someone else’s, there are always opportunities, even if it means doing it entirely on your own.
The good news is that the entire process has been demystified in recent years, from home recording and mixing—often done on a home computer, these days—to manufacturing CDs and selling them in local record stores on consignment. A couple of local community colleges teach hands-on courses aimed at D.I.Y. musicians, and a local charter high school offers a practical music course as part of its arts program.
Six years ago, Brian Rivers was a founding member of Mumbo Gumbo, a band that developed into a successful cottage industry. Rivers had burned out on that band’s life of incessant touring, and he wanted to settle down. Enter Natomas Charter School, which was an idea coming to fruition around the same time.
“I’ve been here since day one, when it was an empty room,” Rivers said. “My vision was to develop a contemporary music program—something that included guitar players and piano players, along with all those kids who weren’t getting included in the typical school music program.”
The performance and fine-arts academy program offered by Natomas Charter School, located in an industrial area east of Arco Arena, employs three music teachers. James Chavez-Glica specializes in the voice; his background comes from the classical side, and he’s the musical director at the Woodland Opera House. Matt Spiva handles what Rivers described as the traditional band programs; Spiva studied percussion under Daniel Kennedy, who co-directs the annual Festival of New American Music at California State University, Sacramento. Rivers teaches the more rock-oriented courses, along with songwriting and recording. (The academy’s Web address is www.natomascharter.com/pfaa, and the school is currently accepting applications.)
“Almost all the arts teachers at this school were professionals who are now teaching,” Rivers said of the school’s arts academy, which, in addition to music, offers courses in dance, theater, visual arts and production technical arts, as well as the required general-education courses. Programs in filmmaking and 3-D animation are being added. “Many of us don’t have teaching credentials, but our credential is our past professional experience,” Rivers said.
According to Rivers, the music program began by offering classes in guitar, piano and drums. Then, it added a songwriting class and followed that with a technology course—“so that the kids could get up on the equipment and whatnot,” as he put it. Then, the program started a record company called Blackrock Records.
“That’s the culmination of my vision of doing a contemporary music program,” Rivers said of the label, which he co-runs with Spiva.
Blackrock began life two years ago with a compilation CD titled Teenage Soul for the Chicken Soup. “We did that in our spare time,” Rivers recalled. “We did it, top to bottom, in 30 days.” It was an uneven compilation; music students contributed material they’d written for film scores, songwriting classes and other student projects. “The album doesn’t ‘listen’ very well,” Rivers admitted in retrospect. “It’s sort of on this audio rollercoaster.”
But as the tangible result of what Rivers called “project-based learning,” making a CD and working at a student-run record company is a pretty good way to demystify the whole process.
Blackrock is organized into four departments: songwriting, studio band, audio technology, and music marketing and administration (which includes the label’s Web site, www.blackrockrecords.com). It’s kind of like the old Motown hit-factory approach: One group writes the songs, another group sings and plays them, another records and mixes them, another designs and packages a CD of them, and another develops a marketing plan and sells the CD.
The current project of Blackrock is a CD titled Equal, which was a year in the making. It comes out on Tuesday, June 3, and will be feted that night at a record-release party at the Hard Rock Café. Equal features the collected works of a group called No Bands Land. “We came up with an identity that will live from year to year,” is how Rivers explained the group. It was a strategy designed to keep the school’s CD projects from getting filed in local record stores’ various-artists bins. This year, No Bands Land includes 14 students, which includes songwriters and studio-band members.
Rivers had heard about the upcoming Jammies, a new awards program developed by SN&R to honor local high-school-age musicians and bands. He submitted a rough mix of Equal to the committee charged with finding nominees for the second night of the two-day festival, to be held on Friday, June 6, in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall at UC Davis. (The first night of the Jammies program, which spotlights traditional genres of music taught in school programs, will be held at the Mondavi Center on Saturday, May 31, and will feature orchestras, jazz bands, choral-singing groups and soloists.)
Of the material on Equal, the Jammies committee chose a song sung by Natalie Gordon, a senior at Natomas. “But we’re really a collective effort here in every way,” Rivers explained. For its nine-minute slot, No Bands Land decided to feature two of Gordon’s complete songs along with a medley featuring two other writers from the program.
The group also got to write the Jammies’ theme song, a creative project that could inspire reveries of Banana Splits-style imagery. “One of the things I teach in songwriting is the concept of jingles and working with a client and that this isn’t always about expressing yourself as an artist every time,” Rivers said, laughing. “That’s all great, but if you want to make a living, realize that you have to work in a variety of environments.” The solution was to focus on part of the Jammies’ tagline, “the next generation of Sammies,” because the cartoonish, pajama-party subtext of “jammies” seemed overly kitschy to the students.
In addition to No Bands Land, the list of performing bands on the June 6 program includes GoOsEr, Felixcat, 8 Brown Eyes, AudioTribe, Fairman and Nelson, Brenda Malvini, the Folsom High School Jazz Choir, Mixed Signals, Leejay Abucayan and Starmakers. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of any of these bands yet. SN&R hadn’t either.
If the current, corporate-shackled state of the music business isn’t quite rosy, the future is another story. The democratization of the record-making process offered by affordable home recording technologies, along with educational programs such as the one offered by Natomas Charter School, are laying the foundation for the next wave of creativity and growth in music. According to Portland-based record producer Larry Crane, who also edits the home-recording enthusiast magazine TapeOp, that knowledge is already bearing fruit.
“I’ve noticed that, as time has gone by, more people come in understanding the simple ideas of overdubs and punch-ins and how to get basic tracking and add onto that,” he said. “Whereas, it used to be more of a mystery. I’m all for it.”
And whatever form that musical future comes in, there will be a few people who anticipated its arrival.