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New popular music degree will set students on path to entertainment industry

New facility in downtown Phoenix will house recording studios, performance space

December 03, 2019

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Arizona State University is now offering the first bachelor’s degree in popular music in the state, creating a career pathway to a music industry that clocked $19 billion in sales in 2018.

The popular music concentration within the Bachelor of Arts degree in music is for students interested in becoming singers, songwriters, laptop performers or composers, producers, engineers, or entrepreneurs in the entertainment world. The School of Music at ASU is now accepting applications for the program, which will begin in fall 2020, according to Heather Landes, director of the school.

“We’re preparing students with a skill set of how everything works in the music industry, as well as teaching them to be flexible, understanding that the music industry will continue to change,” she said.

Students will choose their own pathway in the multidisciplinary degree program, which will be based on the Tempe campus the first year and then offer courses on the Downtown Phoenix campus in 2021. That’s when the new residence hall and entrepreneurial center, which will have two recording studios, a digital audio learning lab, a green-screen video room, rehearsal rooms and a performing space, is expected to open.

There is a demand for a popular music degree in Arizona, partly because the Maricopa Community Colleges offer an associate degree in music business, and those graduates had nowhere in the state to pursue a four-year degree.

“We were getting, on a weekly basis, several inquiries from prospective students about popular music possibilities and we were having to say no a lot,” Landes said. Typically, those students would choose to pursue a business degree or have to go out of state for a popular music program.

The new major also will diversify the offerings in the School of Music.

“Schools of music around the country predominantly are based on western art music models — classical music, orchestral music, opera, American art song, the American classical music of jazz,” Landes said.

“We’ve set up these serious institutions of music and we’ve decided who gets to study music and what music they get to study and now we believe it’s time to look at who wants to study music and what music they want to study.”

And what is popular music? A group of music faculty members spent a year working on that question while creating the new curriculum.

“It’s an all-encompassing term that could mean hip hop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, electric dance music, metal, and a broad range of other music,” Landes said. “It’s everything that encompasses what people are engaging with in our societies.”

And it’s not strictly American.

“An interesting thing that happens in music — when things get borrowed across borders. What does rap music sound like here versus what it sounds like in Europe or Southeast Asia?” she said.

“It’s understanding that music is a universal language and it changes based on where the music is being performed and heard.”

Students will focus on creativity and collaboration, working together and on independent projects. They’ll take specialization courses in years 3 and 4, and complete a capstone project before graduation.

“And there will also be an opportunity for experiential learning in the industry, which could be at a recording studio, a record label, or a music venue, learning how to produce and market and launch a series of performances,” Landes said.

 The driving force behind the popular music program is the same one that fueled the launch of the rapidly growing fashion program — student demand, according to Steven J. Tepper, dean and director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

 “Our popular music program is designed to give its students both a solid academic foundation and access to the kind of real world experience, through internships and guest artist residencies, that is currency in creative industries," he said.

The major also will include a yearlong music industry course, which is also included in a new certificate program offered in music entrepreneurship. That course is taught by Deanna Swoboda, an associate professor in the School of Music who was on the faculty committee that created the new popular music curriculum.

“We did a lot of research looking at other programs around the country and envisioning what our students would be doing 10 years from now and thinking about how to design a program that’s distinct,” she said.

A new donation from Camelot Homes is funding a $25,000 scholarship to the popular music program.

Swoboda said she’s anticipating a lot of creative collaboration among students.

“We tend to silo ourselves in one genre of music,” she said. “If you ask a student what kind of music they listen to, most often they’ll respond that it’s popular music. And what kind of music do they play? It’s very separate from the music they listen to, oftentimes."

“This will be an opportunity for our classical musicians to immerse themselves in a genre of music they’ve grown up in and be more flexible musicians and express their creativity in the popular genre," Swoboda said.

Top image courtesy of the ASU School of Music.

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