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Director of new pop music program is multifaceted performer, academic

Erin Barra wants students to learn broad range of skills for an evolving industry

August 28, 2020

Erin Barra is coming to Arizona State University to lead the new popular music program at a pivotal time. The music industry is undergoing huge changes as popular music itself is part of the country’s social-justice reckoning.

Barra, who has been an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has a wide-ranging background as a performer, professional musician and academic. On her website, she calls herself a “creative Swiss Army knife.” She’s been a music and technology educator, songwriter, producer, instrumentalist, entrepreneur and activist. Barra has written and/or produced with country-bluegrass singer Kathy Mattea, indie-pop-soul singer Res and the trombone-led instrumental trio Elephant Wrecking Ball.

“Students will see themselves reflected in me as I see myself reflected in them, and I'll be bringing everything I've learned up to this point directly to their doorstep,” said Barra, who has a Bachelor of Arts in songwriting and piano performance from Berklee.

She also is the creator and executive director of Beats by Girlz, an organization that empowers young women to engage with music technology to pursue careers in music production, composition and engineering.

The popular music program, which is debuting this semester, will move to the new Downtown Phoenix Residence Hall and Entrepreneurship Center on the downtown Phoenix campus for fall 2021. The new building will have performing spaces and recording studios.

“We are thrilled to have attracted Erin Barra to ASU as the inaugural director of our popular music program,” said Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre.  “Barra’s wide-ranging background in music technology, production, creation, industry and advocacy aligns well with our mission of empowering creative leaders who transform society through music.”

Barra answered some questions from ASU Now.

Question: What attracted you the ASU School of Music and the new popular music program?

Answer: The reason I ended up coming to ASU is because of the charter and the people I got to interact with during my search. I'm coming from a very expensive private music institution on the East Coast, which isn't something many people in this world get to be a part of, and I was really drawn to the inclusiveness that ASU fosters. That combined with the fact that everyone I spoke to who works at ASU and lives in Phoenix loves it was enough for me.

What excites me about the popular music program is that it's a clean slate and we'll be able to be agile in ways that other programs aren't able to. I also put forth a very progressive vision, which was wholly embraced, and that was very meaningful to me.

Q: Can you elaborate on your vision?

A: There will be equal access to technology. That, in particular, is very progressive because resources are scarce in general but especially in college settings. The typical scenario is that few people get access to the super high technology.

I think we all acknowledge and understand that technology is the future of all industries, not just music, but very much so the music industry. Management and artist representation use databases now, crunching numbers and using algorithms to see the people they should be looking at.

Right now, artists need to be able to record themselves to collaborate remotely.

I’ll do due diligence to make sure all students have access to technology and the skills they need for the music industry.

The other thing I think that I think is progressive is doing away with an idea of a grid. Usually people are given a pyramid, and you climb to the top and we let you go. So instead of the program being hierarchical, it’s a hub and spoke model, where students experience a concentrated first two years together and within that it gives them a lot of agency. We’re putting the power in their hands to decide where they want to specialize.

Also, this is a Bachelor of Arts, not a Bachelor of Music. That allows us to enroll people who don’t identity as traditional instrumentalists. You can enroll as a producer or you can enroll as a DJ — however you choose to express your musicianship is fine by us.

Q: How did you become interested in teaching popular music and songwriting?

A: I sort of fell into teaching on accident, believe it or not. There aren't a lot of people who have my combination skill set, which has made me really valuable in certain circumstances and at different times in my career. At one point I got a call from someone at Berklee asking me if I'd be interested in sharing what I know with the students there, and the rest is history.

Honestly, I think writing songs and teaching stem from the same core task, which is communicating. We're all here to connect with other people and to feel feelings, which is something I accomplish whether I'm making music or teaching someone how to make music.

Q: How do you feel your education, training, and classroom and performance experience can contribute to our popular music program?

A: After I did my bachelor's, I went to the school of hard knocks and did what I like to call a “PhD in the music industry.” When I left Berklee the first time I entered the music industry knowing how to write songs and play the piano really well, but not much else. The self-education I had to go through in order to become employable and successful has given me a firsthand account of what it actually takes to make it work. That combined with the six years I just did as an associate professor at Berklee, cutting my teeth at their amazing institution and learning from some of the best, has positioned me for this moment in my career at ASU.

Q: Can you elaborate on your education in the “school of hard knocks”?

A: After (earning my degree at Berklee), I immediately moved to New York and found out that I was basically unemployable because I only knew how to write songs and play the piano, and the music industry required that I be good at a lot more. Everything from self-managing to using technology to executing my vison. I didn’t even have the soft skills I needed. It took me a long time and it was a struggle but I had to figure out all those things on my own.

Q: How did you do that?

A: Right at that time there was a lot of tutorial content that made its way to the internet. I had to watch YouTube videos and interpolate from different sources. And I had to Google my way out of finding even the key words in order to Google the answers. I didn’t have anyone helping me. It was the modern-day, millennial self-education.

On the soft side, I had to make a million mistakes. I had to get up on onstage and say things I regretted saying. I had to be in collaboratory situations where I wish I could take it back because I didn’t understand how the world works. I had to find out the hard way by making mistakes.

Q: What would you say to someone who thinks that they can forego an academic degree and become a performer through social media?

A: There are different types of learners and different types of artists. Not everyone is ready at 18 years of age to go out and make those mistakes I talked about making. They need time to develop their craft. They need mentorship and an environment to thrive and grow. That’s the benefit of having arts in academia. Can you go out and be that without an academic degree? Sure. What is the probability of that? I think quite small.

Not everyone wants to be a YouTube star. The music industry is much more abstract than that and there are so many different ways to engage in it.

Q: Do you see an intersection of pop music and current events?

A: There’s a cultural reckoning that’s happened. From our side this is something we’ve always known — American music is Black music. It’s important to acknowledge these things, especially when you’re teaching pop music. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a context that is the result of the African diaspora. If you try to separate those things, you’re not accurately explaining the depth and breadth of what we’re doing here.

We have to make sure we’re providing that context to our students in a way that they can think critically, how they’re using their influence, how they operate and navigate a space where there are many types of people and voices that need to be heard.

We’re creating a new music history course that I will attempt to make a requirement on the history of pop music and the African diaspora because those things are one and the same.

Q: What do you think about the new Downtown Phoenix Residence Hall and Entrepreneurship Center?

A: I’m able to be directly involved in the formation and development of a facility that will serve the program, which maybe doesn’t seem so farfetched but quite often is the opposite — where a program exists in a space that wasn’t built for it.

I’m excited for a space that’s custom-built for this program that will support our program objectives.

It’s exciting to be adjacent to the fashion and design programs as well because that interplay is really powerful. Music is a river that runs through so many different arts. Fashion and music go together. People don’t walk down a catwalk to silence.

Q: Will you keep performing?

A: Yes. It’s an expectation. It’s partly why I accepted the position. I’m the graduate I’m trying to create, who is multifaceted.

Lynne MacDonald, communications specialist for the School of Music, contributed to this story.

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