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Why Music Business college is good

There have been humans in the blogosphere and interwebs lately who have been bashing the college experience, as it pertains to studying the music business.  On behalf of those who teach  about the music business in colleges and universities, I would like to take this opportunity to fire back.  May I?  Thanks.  Let us begin.

Why Studying The Music Business In College Is Good For You

To be fair in this debate, let me make it very clear that I am a professor of the music business (at New Jersey’s William Paterson University). I’ve done it full-time for two years and, before that, was an adjunct professor for about a decade. I am also a graduate of William Paterson’s Music Management program (1990).  In other words, I am biased when it comes to this discussion.

There are two particular sources of discontent with the idea of collegiate, organized music industry programs that I shall refer.  One is Bob Lefsetz, a music industry pundit who has criticized the concept of music business and college multiple times.

The other person to shun music biz studies in a higher education setting is Steve Rennie, an accomplished music industry veteran of booking agencies, labels, startups, and former manager of Incubus.  

Both of these gentlemen have criticized university-related music business study. Rennie’s agenda is obvious: He’s invested time, money, and energy into his own music business education program called the Renman U Insider’s Guide To Today’s Music Business.  His main selling point is that, in the good old days, people in the biz learned by doing, not through books and professional teachers.  He likens this to the apprenticeship model that is thousands of years old in which novices learn by doing.  He says this: “If you ask 100 people in the music business how they learned the music business, 99 of them would tell you they learned by doing.”

A recent article about Rennie in Forbes said this:

According to Rennie, what holds many people back is lack of initiative, a problem that the proliferation of academic music biz programs doesn’t help solve, with their implied promise of access to jobs. “The challenge of this generation is that they’ve been taught that ‘If you do this, you get that.’ Not in the real world.”

Lack of initiative shouldn’t just be focused on the study of the music business.  In any field in which students want to enter, they need to have energy, passion, and “initiative” in order to break in.  If Rennie feels students think they’ll reach their goals merely by going through the motions, that’s more of a cultural issue than one specific to the study of the music industry.  

Before he throws stones, he should be able to back up what he’s saying.  The fact is, he’s a salesman.  A line like this is part of his pitch.  His criticism sounds good in a quote but is lacking in depth.

Overall, my question for him:

If you’re stating that formal education in the music industry is wrong, why are you offering a program of formal education in the music industry?  

What discredits Rennie’s argument, in my opinion, is this hypocrisy, made even worse because the benefactor of RenmanU is Steve Rennie.  He’s got to sell his program to make back his investment, and his main selling point is that colleges and universities can’t help you.  He can.  Smells like a money and ego-driven sales pitch rather than a true statistic that his program is better than any other or that organized music business classes in a college setting are bad.

This doesn’t mean his program isn’t any good.  He does get strong guests and he does have a respectable background. I would never argue that Steve Rennie hasn’t paid his dues or that he is unqualified to teach.  My argument against his argument is simply that it’s easier to bash college than to prove his program is better (although I will admit it’s an awful lot cheaper).

To read an open letter to prospective students by an engaging (and awesome) William Paterson University Music Biz professor, click HERE.

This brings us to Bob Lefsetz, who said this recently HERE.

They can teach you how to market at music business college, but they won’t teach you how to cheat, and they most certainly won’t teach you how to reinvent the wheel.

Lefsetz is a smart man who’s been writing about the music industry for many years. He goes back and forth about music business school (one of his problems, or gifts, is his ability to flip/flop about certain issues, i.e. a day after he lauded the Apple Watch, he wrote that he was returning it because he couldn’t stand so many of its features). Like Rennie above, Lefsetz is more of the belief that you learn by doing.  You can’t teach this stuff in school.

Hootenanny at WPU
Music Biz/Pop students perfect their art at a recent, self-produced hootenany.

Lefsetz has also said, “Ain’t that America. Where we focus on the money as opposed to the art.”  A statement like this is such a generality.  There are as many, if not more, people who would love to be artists today as there were 20 or 30 or 50 years ago.  But 50 years ago, there was no music business school.  30 years ago, the concept was in its infancy.  Today, music business schools across the United States are run by accomplished professors who have experience in the business.  In fact, many of these professors, be they full-time or adjuncts (part-time), have as much or more experience than Steve Rennie and Bob Lefsetz.  Are you stating, Mr. Lefsetz, that they shouldn’t share what they know because it’s based on money?  

As to his argument that schools aren’t teaching the art of music anymore, he’s wrong again.  There are thousands upon thousands of students enrolled in university music performance programs.  Our future symphony leaders, choral conductors, and composers are studying and practicing the art of music right now, this very second. I’m not sure where a quote like that comes from.  My guess is it fit in well with his diatribe of the day, with his mood.  He didn’t necessarily research his comment.  He put it out there and moved on.  

But the problem here is that people in the music business read what he publishes. Whether it’s a no-name academic like me or the manager of one of the biggest bands in the world, he gets a varied audience of readers.  Do they all agree with what he says?  I hope not.  But when he’s negative about something, it shouldn’t be taken as the word of God.  

What both Lefsetz and Renman are missing is this idea:  If I want to become a doctor, I go to school for it because it’s hard and there are many facets of becoming a doctor that can only be taught in school.  Yes, much of this is by doing. You perform autopsies and study on frogs and pigs before working your way up to human cadavers.  It’s one thing to read about this in a book or watching it on YouTube.  But it’s another to actually do it yourself.  In this case, becoming a doctor is taught via both school and experience.  

Paul Sinclair, head of marketing & digital forAtlantic Records, teaches a Survey of the Music & Entertainment Class.
Paul Sinclair, head of marketing & digital forAtlantic Records, teaches a Survey of the Music & Entertainment Class.

The music business is the same thing.  You can’t tell me that just anyone can jump into a product manager job at a major label today without any music industry experience.  While in the old days, the stories of a mail room guy becoming CEO were legendary (David Geffen is an example of this), these days many of the people getting the jobs are college graduates, many of whom went to music business school because the stuff taught in music business classes is specific to the music business. You think you can learn and understand all the nuances of streaming vs. subscription royalties as they pertain to artist, songwriter, label, and PRO without some formal education?  Most kids don’t even know what a PRO is until they go to music business school.

“Ahh!” you say.  “Those are the ones that lack initiative!  They should know without you and that’s their problem!”  

Perhaps.  Or better yet, maybe they don’t know because, very simply, they don’t know.  Should a brain surgeon know every part of the brain before she enters her freshman year of college?  At what point, naysayer, is it lack of initiative and at what point is it simply they haven’t been exposed to the knowledge in the first place?  The internet has everything, so you can’t state a student should know all of the streaming equations if you can’t state a student should know the name of every neuron in the brain too.  

One other main reason to support the college experience is that college is simply that – an experience.  Think of the typical 18-year old freshman vs. the 22-year old senior.  That person is different.  She has changed.  Somebody who goes to college for four years grows academically, for sure.  But she also grows physically and mentally.  She matures and experiences new people and relationships.  She fails and succeeds and learns time management.  She may balance work and college simultaneously.  She is growing as a person.  I would say that, if I were hiring someone new for my music business company, I’d prefer the 22-year old music business major over the 18-year old because of the whole package I’m getting: Somebody who understands the biz and somebody who has matured and made it through a four-year program.  

College isn’t for everyone.  Studying the music business in college isn’t for everyone either.  But if it is your preference to live your life backstage and not on it, your best shot at getting there is a four-year degree with an emphasis in the music business.  

If you don’t agree, feel free to comment below.  


For full details about the Music Management Program, including courses, the minor, and our MBA, click HERE.

For full details about the WPU Pop Music Studies Program, including courses and audition requirements, click HERE.


Professor David Philp is Assistant Professor Music Management & Popular Music Studies at William Paterson University. He is the co-host of the only FREE advice college radio-based music & entertainment industry talk show in America, Music Biz 101 & More, which airs live most Wednesday nights and is available as a podcast HERE every night (days too).  Reach him at PhilpD@wpunj.edu or find him on LinkedIn HERE.

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