Conference roomI’m in Nashville, at the #apme conference, hosted by Middle Tennessee State University. Popular Music Education is still a relatively young field, at least in terms of having its own conference (launched ~10 years ago) and journal (launched last year). More about AMPE at Conference schedule here.
Coming from Berklee, perhaps I’ve become too comfortable with the idea that everyone talks about popular music pedagogy all the time. A lot of colleagues here are from institutions that have a long history of classical music education, but have only recently launched popular music programs. They are often seen as mavericks in their schools, and are viewed with some suspicion by more traditional teachers and departments. So there’s a palpable sense of community here, and even during this first morning of day 1 I’ve frequently overheard the phrase: “I’ve finally found my people!”.

This being Nashville, our first panel is from music industry representatives. Panelists include Doug Johnson (Black River Entertainment/hit songwriter), LeAnn Phalen (LP Creative Management/American Idol/vocalist), and Dave Pecula (Black River/RCA/BMG). The questions from our moderator are direct and clear – all variations on a theme of ‘how do artists get started’? The answers, although unsurprising, are worth noting here. Basically, move to Nashville (or whatever other cultural hub is relevant to your musical style/product, e.g. NYC for musical theater, LA for film music), network, and make yourself ubiquitous and indispensable. Routes into the professions frequently include internships. The US PROs (Performing Rights Organizations) – ASCAP and BMI – are often very supportive of new talent, and will assist in networking. In Nashville this includes setting up co-writes.
The panel agrees that they often see alumni who have a good musical product but have limited knowledge of the industry. LeeAnn notes that only a few Higher Ed institutions have courses/modules in touring.
There seems to be a genuine hunger in Nashville for new, young talent, and for young people generally to take key roles in all parts of the industry infrastructure. One speaker bemoans the lack of applicants for the BMI songwriting fellowship. And the lines between art and business are flexible [we can’t say ‘blurred’ any more, for copyright reasons]. Many of the significant industry figures in Nashville (including some of the panel) started out as musicians/artists.
Industry trends: it’s all about live. As Doug Johnson says, “live shows are the only product in the music industry that can’t be copied or given away for free”. All panelists advocate for a music curriculum that teaches live performance – both as an artistic skill, and as industry knowledge. In Nashville, the industry is dominated by three specific genres – Country, Christian and Pop, but the panel recognizes that the PROs are less style-specific than the town.
LeeAnn asks how many people in the room have music programs with internships. Of the ~200 people in the auditorium, only four of five hands are raised. And the industry here is much more aware of the institutions that provide interns – MTSU and Berklee are both mentioned.
Overall, the message seems to be that the Nashville part of the touring/recording/publishing industry is very supportive of popular music in Higher Ed, and would actually prefer more contact from institutions. There’s a real desire to get new talent in on the ground floor. The adjective that the panelists use the most when describing their ideal new artist/intern contacts is one that wouldn’t pass an HR department’s equity review processes, but in this context it’s a reassuringly cheerful one. The word is “young”.
In audience questions, Dave talks about competition, excellence and the skill sets needed. There are still different definitions of ‘producer’, he says, noting the phenomenon of the ‘track guy’ – a person who just makes the backing track [as distinct from the ‘topliner’].
More career advice for young musicians from Doug Johnson: “If you want to do music for fun, that’s great – go for it. If you want to do it professionally, be excellent. Come to Nashville, give yourself two years, and work harder than anybody. Love it more than anybody. [Some people are] scary great here [but] people who are good enough really do get a shot.”
LeeAnn and Doug comment that self-analysis is important, and studying oneself on video can be a great way of developing the live show.
Dave Pecula tells us that successful artists, where new or established, exhibit three traits: talent [having a great, commercially appealing but individual sound], teachability [willingness to develop and improve] and thankfulness [humility].