A Dose of Reality Therapy: University Musicianship in a Commercial World

October 1, 1973


The purpose of this address is to bring something of the values of the commercial music world to your attention and to communicate some thoughts on the usefulness of commercial music in achieving your goals. I suggest to you that the school of music operates in its own commercial environment and that commercial music itself has meaning and application to your special purpose, the education of musicians, music teachers, and listeners.

When I speak of your existence in a "commercial world," I mean several different but related things. First, your day-to-day activities have a commercial, dollars-and-cents dimension. As broad educational institutions, your success on particular campuses can be measured in part in economic or numerical terms. How many new students can you attract each year, and how many non-majors can be attracted into music courses to help to offset the high cost of applied music instruction? The answers to these questions can have very practical importance to your institutional success.

In a second sense, your activities can be evaluated in commercial terms because your efforts can be measured in terms of job placement, income of graduates, and other factors utilized to evaluate vocational training. I realize that your institutions are scarcely vocational schools, but you do have strong links with certain occupations. As you must compete with other departments for non-majors, you must remain alert to trends in certain job markets in order to succeed within the vocational aspect of your programs.

The third sense of commercial is at the very heart of my talk, and it involves a recognition of the preeminence of commercial music as a contemporary vehicle for artistic expression and listener satisfaction. The element at the basis of this speech is a definition of commercial music and my own sense of how commercial music may aid the school of music in dealing with its own commercial environment.

Commercial music is the form which has come to dominate the American and even the international musical horizon. It can be defined simply as music performed for profit, and today it is usually disseminated through sound recordings. It is more than simply music which makes money, however. It is music produced to meet the special needs of the marketplace—or more precisely, of certain special marketplaces. Commercial music over more than a half-century has made effective use of a basic recognition that America's "melting pot" did not melt, and that self-conscious subcultures would pay for access to individualized music serving their unique aesthetic values.

It is this general definition that I wish to stress, for it incorporates all genres of American music: country music, blues, rock, and so on. Each of these exists in widely-disseminated form because each serves the interests of a discernible special market.

Commercial music is more than a capitalistic "hype" pawned off on a gullible public. It is a form of music emanating from several generations of anthropological insights by businessmen associated with the broadcast industry and the recording industry. Through all the styles of popular music which have been labeled and dissected by scholars, the basic insight—that much of music (art music included) has a sociological basis for its popularity and commercial viability—has kept American commercial music tied to the values of special segments of our populations and has infused the music with a particularly close relationship with many aspects of American culture.

Commercial music rests upon a historical foundation of Anglo-American and Afro-American folksong and is the result of the commercial perception that ethnic-based "root" music could be sold to minority groups. Of course that early perception has been expanded beyond the thinking which allowed the recording of rural blues as "Race" material or the recording of Anglo-American folksong as "Hillbilly." The modern producer has an incredibly wide range of musical styles available as source material, and he has sensed that innovative mixtures of root forms—a pinch of blues plus a dash of country with a polka beat and a dash of garlic—can equal a hit. Commercial music succeeds by combining and recombining musical trademarks which are culturally meaningful. It is this cultural perception, this image of a market, which ties commercial music to its audience and makes it interesting to musicians and listeners alike. It is this historical depth which gives commercial music its broad applicability to the many programs that you, as educators, might devise.

This is why commercial music is worth studying and why it has a meaningful attraction to both practitioners and students. The connection is clear between commercial music as I have defined it here and those special aspects of commercial enterprise that affect your institutions. The wide listener-appeal of commercial music can be utilized in building viable course programs for non-music majors, and this music can form a rich field for innovation in applied music programs.

I will confess that I, as an observer, sense a certain lack of confidence and direction among music schools at the present time. The university educational scene is changing rapidly. New pressures are being brought to bear upon university educators. Students demand courses and degree programs which relate directly to their personal sense of reality while society at large is demanding its own brand of relevance from educators, a relevance often expressed in economic terms and channelled through state funding for specific programs. It is within this push of students' interest against legislative economizing that the school of music may be trapped. Yet with an additional commitment which involves minor adjustments in curriculum, with slight alterations in the content of a few for-majors-only courses, and with a painless (but yet necessary) adjustment in our working definition of what musics are worthy of study, a situation that appears dangerous can be converted into an institutional asset.

Let us examine for a moment the problem of music courses for non-majors. What frontiers may be crossed through the utilization of commercial music?

It cannot be doubted that many forms of music ignored by trained musicians in the past are today treated as "fine art" by a generation of listeners. The present generation has intellectualized rock 'n roll, country music, blues and other forms of commercial music, and thus these forms are now analyzed, examined, compared, and studied. This examination of commercial music goes on both formally and informally. The interest is increasingly being served by the educational establishment but all too often by a program outside the school of music.

Despite the interest in commercial music on the part of liberal arts students, music courses for the non-major have not deviated appreciably from what might be termed "standard music appreciation" offerings. The teaching of "appreciation" must not be tied to the teaching of a particular literature. After all, "appreciation" is a process of coming to grips with the musical experience and of learning to utilize tools of description and analysis. Too often, these courses appear as attempts to impose the Western art music tradition upon non-music majors. Why not teach an introductory appreciation course using, say, Bach alone? Or perhaps an offering could be constructed on Anglo-American folksong and rock. Any literature can be utilized to increase the sophistication of listeners. Courses in jazz history and black music represent breaks with "traditional" non-major programs, but even these often fail to deal with the basic focus of student interest, the contemporary commercial music scene.

This situation is regrettable not only because it deprives the school of music of non-major enrollment but also because it represents an abdication of responsibility which has effectively given the study of commercial music to literary scholars and social scientists. Courses in the literature of rock, in the cultural basis of traditional music, and in the history of popular music have multiplied in literature, sociology, and anthropology departments. While each of these disciplines brings valuable insights, each too often ignores the obvious fact that musical sound lies at the heart of all musical experience. Only the trained musician can bring this essential dimension to the study of the commercial product. Only the professional music educator can teach about music and maintain credibility. Though societal and cultural analysis of song lyrics and group interaction are a part of the commercial music scene, the study of any musical form or style must emphasize an increased understanding of the musical sounds produced. This is the central reason why you must maintain control over the direction of courses for non-musicians, and why an increased involvement in the study of commercial music is essential.

At this point you may well protest: "We have made such a commitment. What of the conferences, symposia, and panels which have avowed an interest in the music of ethnic minorities? What of ethnomusicology? And what of our growing interest in the study of jazz? Don't these expressions of interest at least constitute a commitment to the study of popular music?"

My honest answer is yes, but only in the most limited sense. Ethnomusicology has certainly developed a firm methodological framework within which to study unwritten musical forms. It has opted, unfortunately, to expend its considerable talents almost entirely upon the study of the music of non-literate peoples and the art music of Asia. Though the groundwork for a successful study of commercial musical art exists in the many current methodological viewpoints in ethnomusicology, the field itself has exhibited an unmatched enthusiasm for avoiding the study of modern commercial forms.

Courses in black music, often available to non-majors, are found in many school of music curriculums today. Students of American culture welcome this long overdue recognition of the vitality of black musical America. Such a movement could be accompanied by the study of the music of other vital American subcultures—country music, for example, or the mariachi music of the Spanish Southwest, or the polka bands of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, or the music of Louisiana's Cajuns. In other words, a general study of all commercial "root" music.

This is the commitment, a general enthusiasm for the commercial musical product, which I fail to sense in the wealth of available black music programs. Commercial musical enterprise has survived only by continually searching out the interests of American subculture markets and divining the music each desires. Whether the market consists of youth, rural whites, or urban blacks, the ability of businessmen to recognize the stylistic essentials which account for a performance's appeal coupled with the ability to duplicate and mass-produce these stylistic features is the central element of American popular music. The discernible fact that the musical vocabulary of commercial music is drawn from the musical languages of American subcultures only adds meaning to an already exciting field of study. Paying homage to the music of one subculture while ignoring other musics constitutes only a half-step in the direction of commercial music study. We thus need a full set of courses dealing with the American commercial music tradition. It cannot consist of jazz and blues, for this music is broader than a single culture influence. It cannot discuss Anglo-American folksong while ignoring country music. It cannot emphasize a single period: it cannot praise Louis Armstrong for his efforts in the 1930s and damn him for his commercialism of the 1960s. It must recognize that, for the bulk of American listeners and working American musicians, and certainly for the bulk of today's university students, musical art consists exclusively of some aspect of commercial music.

This recognition thus must avoid tokenism. It is not enough to begin a textbook in music theory with an "anonymous" folksong and close with a Lennon/McCartney tune. The task demands a genuine acceptance of commercial music: a recognition that it satisfies the artistry of performer and the needs of listener; that it exists not in a commercial limbo devoid of artistic integrity, but rather in a stimulating marketplace which continually renews the music through contact with its audience.

This is in no sense a demand for the abolition of traditional "music appreciation," nor is it a call for the establishment of a radical new curriculum in commercial art. Rather, it is a suggestion that you explore the interests of a larger student body. Locate those articulate and interested faculty members in your own departments who can communicate the excitement of musical experience to non-professionals, and add course offerings on the full range of possible subjects in commercial music. A token class, the quick capture of a bearded guitarist, is not enough. Utilize your finest teaching talents in this effort. The result of these additions can be to return the study of commercial music to the school of music, expand the number of non-majors participating in school-of-music activities, and increase school-of-music enrollment in those areas of your programs in which an expensive, one-to-one teacher/student relationship need not be maintained. At the same time your students majoring in music education can use these courses to build skills necessary for communication with non-performing secondary school students, a demand which will increasingly be placed upon high-school music teachers.

Such a program in commercial music offers great potential for a fiscally-responsible expansion of school of music offerings; for a program could be staffed in many cases with existing faculty, and the program as a whole could be operated at a low cost per student per credit hour. A program in commercial music for non-majors is a frontier in music education, but a frontier can be crossed in gradual stages, using existing resources.

Utilizing the study of commercial music in programs of applied music is a challenging and intriguing problem. There can be no doubt that some of your finest products have found rewarding careers in commercial music. At the same time, it is equally true that most university-trained musicians complete their years of schooling with little or no understanding of the special demands which a commercial performance environment may place upon them (or, at least, they leave with little understanding gained in formal study). While no university program can substitute totally for practical experience, it is worthwhile to explore the needs of the music industry in a search for areas in which specific programs may assist a student musician in avoiding some difficulties certain to be encountered in the "real world."

Of course schools of music are not vocational schools, geared for the production of cocktail pianists and rock guitarists. But, like law and journalism and radio/TV, the school of music has a vocational dimension, and, like those other divisions of learning, it is occasionally called upon to justify itself in terms of job placement, average income, and the like. For those students who will build lives as working musicians, a knowledge of the special needs of the industry can be an aid to success, if not a guarantee.

In speaking of commercial music I must confess that my remarks are geared to the current musical scene in Nashville—in some ways a typical, and in other ways an atypical music town. Nashville, Tennessee has risen to prominence in the commercial recording industry over the past two decades. The city now contains forty recording studios, and an A. F. of M. chapter boasting nearly 2,000 members. Four-hundred artists and fourteen-hundred songwriters live in the city, 600 music publishers are represented in Nashville, and all three major music broadcast licensing firms (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC) have offices in the "Music Row" area. Nashville has become a center for the production of commercial music on record, and the special characteristics of musicianship in a commercial environment can be determined by an examination of Nashville musicianship.

I spoke with many practitioners of Nashville's commercial music in preparing this talk, and their suggestions for an application of commercial standards to formal musical training were interesting. All agreed that a need exists for quality musicians, particularly musicians who can play "by ear" and sight read with equal facility. Commercial producers added that improvisation was an essential skill in commercial performance, but this does not necessarily imply a need for students trained in jazz. Rather, commercial improvisation must rest upon the musician's ability to isolate the basic stylistic clichés which identify various genres of popular music and upon his ability to imitate, alter and combine these clichés into new, commercially-viable performances. Thus the commercial musician's ability to "sound like" blues, or gospel, or jazz is what often determines his success in the studio.

An additional aspect of a commercial musician's success is determined by his ability to communicate effectively with non-musicians. In a certain sense this need re-emphasizes the importance of ear training, for a studio musician must often respond musically to the instructions of non-performers. A single example will suffice. About three months ago, I produced a "demo" recording session for a Nashville songwriter. The "demo" session is not destined for release as a commercial record but should result in a quality tape that can be used by the songwriter in promoting his material. This session utilized bass, drums, two guitars, and piano. As producer of the session, it was my responsibility to help the ensemble achieve a good "sound" and insure that the final product was both free of technical errors and aesthetically pleasing to the writer/performer. None of the musicians read music on this session. In my discussion with the writer prior to the session he indicated that he wanted a "slinky" or "sexy" feel. I translated this for the piano player by saying I wanted a "bluesy" feel. He promptly produced blues, but that was too "funky" a sound. I asked for less of a "blues feel" and more "jazz." At that point the notes fell into place, but he altered the rhythm, making it too complex. So I then asked for a "straighter, more commercial feel," and finally got the sound both the writer and I felt appropriate to the song. The whole process took less than one minute, and the pianist had first heard the song only a moment before that. What is interesting is the speed and dexterity with which he followed my thinking through a series of stylistic changes, all without recourse to the formal language of Western musical notation. This illustrates the total involvement of the commercial musician: his ability to combine technical skills, the knowledge of many musical genres, and his individual artistic insights to produce quality music under pressure. Surely this is much the same goal you have for your applied students. This sense of total involvement, the utilization of all musical resources simultaneously, is of equal value to all musicians, regardless of what music literature is under study.

I think you sense that I am talking about a level of proficiency which includes more than ear training plus jazz improvisation. This level of musicianship demands a good ear and improvisational ability but also a firm knowledge of the stylistic features of the various American popular musics, coupled with a skill in what ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam has called "intersense modalities:" the ability to produce coherent musical sounds on the basis of non-musical information meaningful only to the other senses.

None of this suggests a drastic revision of offerings now presented. It in no way requires a dilution of your programs; I ask only that you add to your already-successful offerings. The need for ear musicians probably calls for an increased emphasis upon aural skills in applied programs. The ability to hear a melody and reproduce it, or the ability to improvise within recognized genres of popular music, coupled with the special talent of improvising upon non-musical instructions, call for two kinds of adjustments in contemporary offerings in music theory courses. First, what could be called the "literature of examples" utilized in theory books and classes must be expanded to include all genres of music. In modal analysis, for example, the use of folk or popular examples can provide a hook on which to hang the general theoretical concept. When we approach diatonic scales, the shift between major and minor can be demonstrated and applied through reference to much blues and rock literature. The music student who can deal effectively with the rondo form should also know his way around a twelve-bar blues, and the student who can label a Neapolitan sixth at the drop of a hat should be equally able to create beautiful commercial forms within the I-VI-II-V progression. The selection of commercial examples, taking the time to point out stylistic clichés, and the couching of theoretical concepts in everyday commercial terms can increase the excitement generated by theory courses and, more importantly, can add a painlessly-gained commercial dimension to your students' musicianship. In this sense theory courses need not be a hurdle, overcome and discarded, but a part of cumulative musical learning.

The complex of ideas discussed thus far contains elements of ear training, improvisation, and knowledge of musical styles. At a more basic level, commercial musicianship emphasizes communication of ideas, receptivity and adaptability. In this sense much of what constitutes commercial musicianship is only the ability of musicians to communicate with one another and with non-musicians.

Nashville music people stress the importance of the ability to deal with people effectively and the ability to communicate in a relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere. In a recent article in my organization's publication, the Journal of Country Music, a Vanderbilt University sociologist reported that most Nashville musicians felt that personal contacts, friendships, and a knowledge of an individual's dependability and loyalty exceeded the importance of musicianship in obtaining performing jobs. Commercial music, because it is created in an atmosphere of severe time pressure and financial risk-taking, places special emphasis upon an artist's non-musical skills. There is little room in commercial performance for artistic temperament, excessive competitiveness, or problems with drugs or liquor. A commercial musician's family life must be stable, and his personality should be pleasant. In short, he must be "easy to work with."

If this description sounds a bit like the Boy Scout oath, it should; for the commercial musician, whether in road bands or in studio work, is committed to a life of creativity within a highly structured, demanding context, a context which emphasizes many non-musical skills.

Musicians operate in a business environment. Even art musicians deal with agents and stage managers and record-company executives, and all Nashville commercial performers stressed the value of understanding the business side of music. In more general terms, they pointed out that many musicians end up in non-performing positions in publishing, booking, personal management and other areas. These are fields in which a solid knowledge of musical material is of value but in which an understanding of management, accounting, marketing, and other aspects of business is most beneficial.

The drift of my comments on the non-musical needs of the commercial musician is clear: prepare your students for that unique environment of competition and cooperation which inhabits commercial music. Ensemble musicianship of any sort is a strange human activity, for it demands a high level of cooperation from individuals who must also compete with one another for recognition and success. The pressures of this situation are intensified in a commercial environment, where the high costs, high financial risks, and limited time increase the strain placed upon performers.

I suggest that some of the overt competitiveness which schools of music often foster among students may be disfunctional in a professional environment. Certainly if aggressive competitiveness is combined with what might be termed an "artistic temperament," the results can be disastrous for an individual career. A student must understand that music performance in the "real world" often demands the submerging of self, and that those years on campus as a student often comprise a period of freedom which is never matched in an actual career.

In large measure, of course, the school of music has no influence over an artist's personality, and it is difficult to suggest specific programs which might assist students in adapting to this aspect of the commercial music environment. It does seem, however, that the "dog-eat-dog" sense of competition sometimes encouraged among applied music majors is certain to be disruptive to a commercial musician's career. A conscious effort on your part to borrow something from the commercial environment, to emphasize the spirit of cooperation and non-musical communication which characterizes the "real world" could do much to ease the pains of transition from music school to commercial musician.

There is a final point which is everywhere mentioned by working commercial musicians when asked about the role of formal musical training. All insist that the basic BM degree must be made to have a generally recognized meaning. This requires the establishment of inter-university techniques for the evaluation of musician's skills and musical programs. Only when a specific course of study is capable of measuring and insuring a student's level of musical competence will the full vocational dimension of your efforts be realized.

This task will not be easy. Only departments of law and medicine have truly imposed the meaning of their degrees upon society at large, and this was accomplished only by gaining some control over the right to license practitioners in these fields. I doubt that you will ever live in the paradise in which a BM is required for a union card, or in which unqualified piano teachers are prosecuted by the state for "malpractice." Your goal can be the establishment of meaningful competencies for each of the degrees offered by your institutions. As soon as a potential employer has confidence that a certain degree in a specific field of study almost assures him of certain specific abilities, the value of the degree, and of your training will be increased.

All that I've said about the addition of a commercial dimension to your applied programs requires no lessening of your commitment to the Western art tradition. Yours is not a "vocational school" role, and your task is broadly educational rather than merely technical. A vocational dimension remains, however, and the special requirements of commercial music can indicate new directions which will provide your students with interesting, relevant courses, while simultaneously expanding their vocational horizons.

In passing, while on the subject of vocations, the commercial music industry is always anxious to locate what could be termed "music support" people. These individuals will never be artists, but are capable of handling musical material and possess a strong interest in the business side of musical activity needed by the working industry. At the present time, publishing, booking, marketing, studio production—and many other areas of business—locate and place employees only through an elaborate and unwieldy system of word-of-mouth promotion and on-the-job training. The expansion of music as a minor within a liberal arts program or other degree program can do much to connect university graduates more directly with these music-support jobs. Of course formal schooling can never substitute completely for an individual's on-the-job success. Employers in the music industry will still value experience as well as education and will continue to rely upon the industry's informal system of personnel acquisition. Recognition of the viability of commercial music on your part, coupled with a willingness to enter into joint programs with departments of business, law, radio/TV, and journalism can do much to ease a student's advancement in the informal pattern of success found. outside the school of music, however.

My point can be summarized in a phrase: utilize all available materials to create totally involved, flexible musicians and music businessmen. I urge you to examine your own resources in a new light. Seek out those faculty members who can communicate with non-musicians. Locate those teachers who have an interest in commercial music. Find ways to encourage non-majors to seek an understanding of the music they support financially through study in your departments, and satisfy your own students' interests in utilizing commercial musical materials in applied music programs. The resources needed to effectively utilize commercial materials in the way I describe now exists on your faculties.

You are already qualified to implement a viable commercial dimension in your studies. I believe that you will have support of the commercial music industry if you embark upon these programs. My own organization, the Country Music Foundation, was organized as an educational institution through the efforts of the commercial music industry. We maintain a large research library, publish a quarterly journal, operate a museum, and even offer a few courses of our own. In addition we try to act as a clearing house for information on commercial music and also as a point of contact between educators and commercial music practitioners. Our very existence is the result of industry interest in education, both for musicians and students of music history. The NARAS Institute, the educational arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (also headquartered in Nashville), is committed to programs aiding the study of commercial music in schools of music. Even now basic discussions are under way on methods of forging permanent links between the Nashville-based recording industry and the many talents of Nashville universities. Both the NARAS Institute and the Country Music Foundation are national organizations, and each stands ready to aid you in developing your individualized interests in the commercial music tradition.

Tremendous outputs of artistic energy are channelled into today's commercial music, and equal measures of artistic satisfaction are earned by its practitioners. My root assumption here is that the training of good musicians, the education of good listeners, and the creation of intelligent musical laymen is in itself a more important task than the particular musical form, or style, or period from which students derive the musical materials studied. I am asking you, not to make concessions to the monetary clout of commercial music, but to take it in as a viable artistically-satisfying element in which to practice the art of musicianship. To deny your involvement with the plurality of musical experiences is to deny to many access to your skills.

Consider, for a moment, the alternative. How many times have you seen a speaker stand before you lamenting the fate of the symphony orchestra in America, or the high cost of applied music instruction, or problems in job placement for music educators? With that image in mind, my question is this: Will you make the popularity of commercial forms among musicians and listeners a liability or an asset? Your campuses are filled with students with an interest in learning about commercial music. A concerned industry is willing to assist you in your efforts. I have no desire to convert your halls into trade schools servicing an industry. I do not argue that the study of rock should replace an examination of the Western art tradition. I only suggest that by utilizing your existing resources, what may seem as a threat to your continuing success can in fact become a guarantee of your continuing vitality.

2057 Last modified on November 13, 2018