Music School Students Get In Tune With Industry

Hear the Music

These songs were released on a compilation put out by the school's label, 194 Recordings.

Jim Anderson leads class at the Clive Davis School.

Michael McCoy teaches engineering at the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at NYU. Ned Wharton/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ned Wharton/NPR

The first stop on Weekend Edition Sunday's monthlong series investigating the impact of technology on music is at the NYU campus in Manhattan, where students begin careers at the intersection of music and technology.

It's called the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. The department's namesake was head of Columbia Records, Arista, and J Records, and is the department's chief adviser. It's an exclusive program — about 300 students apply each year, but only 20 to 30 are accepted and retention is high. Jason King, the department's artistic adviser, was the first full-time faculty member and helped launch the department in 2003.

"Clive Davis felt that too many executives in the music industry were simply operating from a purely corporate point of view in terms of the making of music," King says. "What he wanted to do was establish a school at NYU where students would be trained in a number of different areas: production in the recording studio, business, as well as the history and criticism aspects. But he wanted to train the sort of well-rounded creative entrepreneur."

The range of ambitions among students is in fact quite broad and not all are here to learn about becoming recording engineers; some are aspiring singer-songwriters and some want to run a label or a production company.

Though the students are full of optimism, there's still the reality of the music market. "It's tough," says Nick Sansano, director of the production curriculum at the school. "Just like it always was. You make your own business, you pave your own path. That hasn't changed much."

What has changed are opportunities to learn; the big studios that welcomed apprentices and interns are gone. When asked where they went, Sansano says, "They went into a basement in Connecticut, another one went into a basement in New Jersey, another one went into a basement in Detroit."

"In my laptop I can have an unlimited amount of multitrack recordings stored on a drive that can fit in my back pocket," he says. "Just a few years ago, in order to do that, I would need three machines as big as a washing machine, cabling, two people to explain to me where to plug everything in, trouble-shooting. But now it's just so streamlined. Everything is digital, everything is miniaturized. And the quality — if it's done correctly —is quite good."

But it takes skills to do it well. "There is a way to do it correctly," says Sansano. "You have to learn the core of how to capture sound. That doesn't change. It could be a $2,000-a-day room or in your mother's living room. But you have to learn the methods."

Michael McCoy is a freelance recording engineer and the production manager at the department of recorded music. He teaches Engineering 1, which is where most freshmen experience their first time in a professional recording environment.

"I learned that the technology exists to support the music and to support the content," McCoy says. "Sure, I can make this vocal swirl around my head and bounce back and forth between the left and right speakers, but does that support the music? Does that support the meaning?"

He says it's all about the decisions: "Everything that you do has to be right for the song."

Last year, students at Clive Davis released a CD of their songs called From the Highs to the Lows — and in these tumultuous times in the recording industry, it's just the kind of project that their artistic director wants to encourage.

"If you're able to think entrepreneurially, as a student, you're in a much better position to actually create your own opportunities," King says. "So, by the end of the four years that the students are in the program they actually have to create their own business venture and they have to pitch this business venture in front of a group of invited industry leaders."

King has been a producer, an educator, a performer and now artistic director of the Clive Davis Department. He's seen a lot of changes in the business, and the lesson he tries to pass on to his students is to remember why they're in it in the first place — which is the music.

"Amazingly, because of all the kind of tumult of the industry, it can get lost sometimes. Just remember why you're here and why you love it and what your passion is," he says. "I don't think it's possible to sustain a career in the music industry unless you have passion, unless you have drive, and unless you are committed to making music that is compelling, meaningful and is really about something.

Being in the industry is about finding ways to reconnect with that original impulse that drove you into the industry in the first place."

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