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Music Business and Oberlin

January 26, 2010

Will Mason ’10

I'm responding to a question that got posted on an older blog post of mine with a new post because I think it's an interesting discussion. Chime in if you have anything to add.


First of all, thanks for all the great info so far. I'm a senior and Oberlin is one of my top choices right now. However, it's kind of the odd one out on my list. I'm a guitarist and songwriter and although I love music, I'm not really interested in pursuing performance. So, I applied to a lot of music industry programs (USC, NYU, Drexel) as well as a bunch of big universities where I can mix a study of music with business offerings (BU, UPenn, etc). Still, I was really interested in Oberlin, and I figured with the great music scene there, I could make something work.
So, my question is, would I be able to create my own program preparing me to work in the music industry? I know Oberlin has no business classes but when I spoke with an admissions officer, he said that he had seen students design arts management programs and things like that. While I love the intellectual atmosphere that I perceive to be present at Oberlin, I'm worried that the school's approach to music might be too theoretical for me given my career goals.
Finally, I absolutely need to study music history in college. I'm especially interested in contemporary music studies like the history of rock, etc. Does the conservatory have these kinds of classes or is it more geared toward periods like baroque, classical, etc.? Also, is that recording studio you mentioned really available to all students??
Thanks a lot, 
PS- how is the music scene in Cleveland and do kids venture there often?


Hi Megan,

Interesting questions. Let me first preface this by saying that, having not gone to business school or participated in any formal coursework related to the music industry, I can't comment by way of comparison but only by way of hearsay and speculation.

Having said that, I have never heard of anyone enrolling in a music industry program and coming away from it feeling like they were ready to be the next Jay-Z. The music industry right now is a mess and they're still searching for a usable business model in an age where people are reluctant to pay for content and have largely stopped buying albums. My sense is that no one in the music business school programs will be able to do much to equip you to answer these questions, because if they could then they'd be running some hot-sh*t new label instead of teaching. At the same time, there's a definite void in the music industry that will have to be filled sooner or later. As the guy who helps run the record label in Cleveland that my band is on put it: "It's a strange time in the industry but also an environment that is ripe for change and starving for whatever is next. Hopefully we'll all be able to ride that wave as it starts to break."

I do think that business school in and of itself is a great idea, however. It's eminently practical, imbues you with a valuable and widely applicable skill set, virtually guarantees you employment out of college at a place that doesn't require you to wear a nametag and matching uniform. If I could do my college applications over again I would have applied to one or two business schools.

What's interesting to me is that, despite not coming from a music business background, my experience at Oberlin has left me feeling prepared to operate in the music industry, and from talking to recent Obie alums now eking out a living in music, I get the same sense from them. Like any business, being a musician is partially about the product you're selling--your music--and partly about your marketing. The conservatory has, to keep the analogy going, trained me to have a reasonably high-quality "product," and my experiences getting gigs and performing have helped me market that product. The Conservatory does have gig referral services and other similar resources (which, incidentally, I'm sure you could work for and would find practical + engaging). There are also at least three courses offered relevant to the music industry.

But most students are able to do just fine on their own. Through persistence and luck I've been able to tour around the country (well, east of the Mississippi) numerous times, play a bi-weekly gig in Cleveland, had a rock band I play in get signed to an indie record label, play shows at Oberlin sometimes as often as once every 10 days, et cetera. As a result of this, I now know how to assemble a cogent press pack, correspond effectively with bookers and promoters, schedule a tour, manage finances while on the road, puzzle over distribution costs, and so on. And that's not to mention the wide network of connections I now have, and which I will keep when I leave here no matter what I may end up doing with myself. All of this from a school with no business program.

Which brings up another point: just because a school doesn't have an explicit program doesn't mean it can't equip you for success in that area. Oberlin has spit out a number of important rock + pop figures despite being a sometimes-stodgy sometimes-forward-thinking bastion of music predominantly written by dead white europeans intended for consumption by other dead white europeans. Before there was a jazz major here there were still great jazz musicians emerging from the music program. So much of being a professional musician these days is versatility + adaptability, and Oberlin recognizes and nourishes that even without having explicit courses in those areas (MSCHIZO 209: "Playing Stravinsky and a Rock Opera in the same 14-hour window: How to cast off notions of artistic integrity in order to prevent starvation").

There is no rock 'n roll music history course, though it does get some lip service in some of the musicology courses that are relevant to 20th-century music (one or two days of the 5-day-a-week Intro to the History and Literature of Music, which all con students must take and which is open to anyone; Music Since 1914; and the 2nd semester of Intro to African American Music, all of which I have taken). I think that American popular music might get some attention in the introductory Ethnomusicology course as well. It's always puzzled me why they don't offer one, though to be honest I don't have a whole lot of interest in that area myself. My suspicion is that they just don't have anyone on faculty who's researched in that area. The music history courses that are offered are diverse and very interesting, and the two upper-level classes I just mentioned are particularly useful for anyone interested in 20th-century music. But ultimately the curriculum here is geared towards people who are going to be playing traditional Western concert music, not rock/pop.

You could definitely do a cross-disciplinary independent major in music business through the college; I have an independent major in the conservatory and I love it.

The recording studio is available to all students provided they can get in touch with a TIMARA student to engineer the sessions. It's not an open door, sign up for a time sort of thing. Anyone can use it but it needs supervision. All TIMARA majors in their junior year are required to do a recording project, which is one great way to get some time in the studio.

As to the music scene in Cleveland, it's sort of hit-or-miss. They get a number of great rock and hip hop concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra is world-class and has a nice student discount, great jazz concerts come through, and the local scene has some really interesting stuff going on. I've had all sorts of different experiences playing Cleveland, from packed clubs to empty rooms and everything in between. The economy here isn't great and I think that there are fewer concerts coming to Cleveland than there used to because there are definitely fewer concertgoers. It's a large city with a small population and an even smaller music community, which is actually kind of nice. Its geographic location is a strength, though: it's a nice stop-over point between Chicago and NYC or Philadelphia. Students do venture into Cleveland with some regularity for shows.

Hope that's helpful!

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