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.
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.
Rock music should be wild, unprofessional, spontaneous, indifferent to convention—it shouldn't feel like a craft honed in school. But neither should literature, and many of the most radically original writers in recent American letters have passed through the MFA system: Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson went to Iowa, David Foster Wallace went to the program at the University of Arizona, George Saunders to the one at Syracuse, Karen Russell to the one at Columbia. If there are any romantic punk rockers out there concerned that MFA programs would inhibit budding Lou Reeds from drinking too much and sleeping around and doing drugs, or otherwise constrain their outré behavior, this Iowa graduate is here to reassure them they do not.
There are, of course, many distinguished programs in musical composition and performance, but they don't teach their students how to do what most rock bands do. Nearly 50 years after Bob Dylan recorded Bringing it All Back Home, Americans still love the form of entertainment Dylan pioneered: songs that are half literary endeavors, half musical ones. Part of the pleasure of listening to a song by Smokey Robinson, David Byrne, Aimee Mann, Andre 3000, Ol' Dirty Bastard, or Joanna Newsom is hearing the person who wrote the song sing it, even if the singing and/or playing and/or composition are, from a technical standpoint, undistinguished. Such music peddles much the same goods as literature: psychological portraiture, imagery with many conceivable meanings, moral ambiguity.
MFA programs in rock music would be good at nourishing music in that tradition. (They would be much less effective at nourishing bands like Van Halen, where the sound is all and the words incidental.) This does not exclude hip-hop or country music; indeed, these genres have long boasted artists committed to the workshop-friendly disciplines of narrative and wordplay. Songwriting programs at professional training institutes like Berklee College of Music are staffed by faculty who've written pop songs for other people to perform—they're not staffed by, say, Guy Piccioto of Fugazi, or Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, or Chuck D, the musical equivalents of MFA-program professors like Marilynne Robinson and Mary Gaitskill. We need a curriculum for rock musicians who aren't wholly musicians but are rather half writers, like Kurt Cobain or John Lennon. And home recording has become sufficiently fast and cheap that with an $80-dollar mic, a couple guitars, and a laptop, you can record a decent draft of a song-in-progress and email it to your classmates, without so much as waking up the neighbors.