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

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

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Jack 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.

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.

I'm sympathetic to arguments that the university is in danger of becoming a consumer experience, that it should preserve aesthetic traditions, like classical music and jazz, and refrain from adding programs in new, trendy disciplines. But rock and roll belongs at liberal arts colleges because it's one of the mirrors our culture uses to monitor itself. If you want to understand the late 1960s, you can't only look to Thomas Pynchon and Andy Warhol. You have to listen to The White Album and Beggar's Banquet, and you have to listen to the words. Ditto for understanding the late 1970s in England—no portrait is imaginable without The Sex Pistols. Who would attempt to understand the culture of urban African-Americans in the 1990s without listening to hip-hop? Or who, for that matter, would attempt to understand the culture of suburban teenagers in the 1990s without listening to hip-hop? I would never claim to find in popular music the depth of analysis that I find in literature, the scrutiny of the textures of divergent lives, but it has the same claim to turf in the liberal arts curriculum as painting and film.

Most important of all, contemporary rock music would benefit from a system that connects young artists with their elders—and rock now has many brilliant elders. There is a sense that rock, for the past 10 years, has drifted from retro trend to retro trend without doing much that is truly surprising. I wonder if we might find a way out of that condition by placing up-and-comers in classrooms with the musicians who managed, in their own heyday, to Make It New. Robbie Robertson might choose to ride out the rest of his years on a tour bus, but I wonder if he might be persuaded to rest his cowboy boots on a seminar table and tell a circle of 24-year-olds how he wrote "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."