Why There Needs to Be a Real (Grad) School of Rock

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Aspiring rock musicians could benefit both artistically and financially from a musician-mentoring program similar to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

school of rock.jpgJack Black's film was funny, but a real school for rock musicians could have serious benefits. (Paramount)

There is nothing quite like being a young rock musician walking into a good recording studio for the first time, with a record contract in your backpack, surveying the machinery. The towers of digital and analog sound-effect consoles, with their glowing gauges and blinking lights, they're here for you—paid for by the label, available to you because you cut a basement demo that made people see dollar signs. Over the hum of the amplifiers you can almost hear the whir of the industry, the interns flirting, the promotion person on the phone with the terrestrial radio person, the booking agent negotiating with club managers in far-flung college towns. It's an apparatus built to make money but also to bring your songs to teenagers and twentysomethings who are like you, who scour the Internet and the Staff Picks rack for new music that will illuminate the sublime in desperate crushes and everyday despair.

From there, things tend to get more complicated. In the case of the band I was in during my mid-20s, we quickly figured out that we didn't have anywhere near enough time to lay down a good debut album in the recording schedule afforded us, especially given the greenness of our line-up and material. A few days after those transcendent first moments in the studio, the producer confirmed our worst suspicions: Because we had a song that had been gathering online buzz and sounded like a potential hit, he explained, the label had squeezed us into an unrealistic timeframe in hopes of introducing the song to college radio before the end of the school year. "They did it to you," he said, "they've done it to other bands, and they'll probably do it to some more." We panicked, blazing through each song as efficiently as possible.

I was in debt and couldn't stomach becoming homeless to promote an album that embarrassed me, so before we went on tour, I quit the band, took a day job, and went back to being a writer. The album didn't sell very well, but our "hit" was discovered by advertisers. The song in question, "Hey Now Now," was vaguely suicidal, written by our singer as he emerged from a black depression. The chorus went, "Hey now now/We're going down, down/And we'll ride the bus there/Pay the bus fare." But everybody misheard "We're going down, down" as "We're going downtown," and it was featured in a Pepsi commercial broadcast from South America to Europe to the Middle East, in which ethnically indeterminate rockers played the song in a practice space while the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho dribbled in an alley. Long after the band fell apart, it turned up again in an ad for Multi-Grain Pringles. Our legacy, in the end, was an 18-second fragment of one tune. We walked into the studio determined to make complex, aesthetically cohesive albums like our heroes in Arcade Fire; we wound up shills for snack food.

What my band needed was an Iowa Writers' Workshops for rock musicians, a Master of Fine Arts program at a university where respected veterans helped us learn to write good songs and perform them well. Such programs would establish a much-needed period of germination beyond the reach of commerce, in which young rock musicians could meet, form bands, and build a repertoire slowly, receiving feedback from seasoned rock musicians who don't have a pecuniary stake in their work. Such programs would cultivate good popular music by placing young musicians in an environment where aesthetic integrity is valued and financial strife held at bay.

After I quit music I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for an MFA in fiction. I spent my first year trying to finish a book I was on contract with Scribner to write, a history of the stepfamily mixed with memoirs of my own experiences as a stepchild. I had come to loathe this book, but I had been given a substantial amount of money to write it, which I had already spent. I could only bear to write the memoir sections, and in the memoir sections I kept making things up. One day, after class, I had a talk with my workshop teacher, the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, as we left campus. We discussed my abiding hatred for my project, and she said, "Ben, you're like the supposedly straight guy who just happens to wind up at the gay bar every night. You feel like you're supposed to be writing nonfiction, but you want to write a novel." I brought up the small matter of breach of contract. "Give them a novel," she said. "If it's a good novel, they should be happy."

This piece of professorial advice saved my literary career. I wrote a novel; my editor liked it. He and my agent, to their eternal credit, voided my old deal and hashed out a new one. What Iowa gave me, besides two years of funding and a circle of perceptive readers, was savvy, courage, and a faith in the power of aesthetic integrity. The music industry, by contrast, was an environment in which, as a young artist, I was encouraged to churn out work as quickly as possible, and the work was quickly whipped into commercial product.

A rock and roll grad school wouldn't save rock musicians from the difficulties of life on the road or from the byzantine practices of an industry desperate to find new sources of revenue after seeing its sales decline from $14 billion a year to $7 billion in the age of file-sharing. But it would give them a period of time in which to find collaborators, give one another feedback, get good, discover who they are as artists, and acquire mentors before they're exploited or pressured to sell out. It wouldn't spare musicians hardship, but it would help them make better music.

A rock and roll grad school would give musicians time to get good, discover who they are as artists, and acquire mentors before they're exploited or pressured to sell out.

When it was founded in 1936, the Iowa Writers' Workshop was a weird proposition; it brought an unscholarly pursuit into an academic setting. Writers were supposed to be renegades who refined their intuitive and unteachable art in bars and cafes. They were regarded, in other words, much the same way rock musicians are regarded now. But the Workshop went on to graduate 17 Pulitzer Prize winners, and there are now roughly 250 MFA programs in creative writing. Some are cash cows for universities. Some, like Iowa, are not unlike charitable organizations, in that they pay their students stipends to write whatever they want or give them work teaching undergrads.

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Benjamin Nugent is the director of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and the author of the cultural history American Nerd. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time, and his first novel, Good Kids, will be published in January.

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