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Why Study Popular Music or Music Business at Catawba?

Why Study Popular Music or Music Business at Catawba?

A Personal Message from the Director, Dr. David Lee Fish       

singer1.jpgMy own son will be going to college in just a couple of years, so we're starting to think about what might be the best college or university for him. We've even come up with a short list of schools and a series of questions to ask each one to judge its suitability.

You're likely at the same stage of life if you're reading this page. You're also probably a performer and/or songwriter of popular music (be it alternative, rock, pop, gospel, or another style) or a college-bound student interested in pursuing a career in a profession related to popular music — like management or production. Either way, this message is for you. It answers the question, "Why should I study popular music or music business at Catawba?" It also offers a list of questions to ask a college or university about its support of popular music and music business.

singer2.jpgOur goal at Catawba College has been to develop a curriculum for performers and songwriters of popular music under the umbrella of the school's music business degree concentration. We wanted to do so for two reasons. First, such a curriculum serves a population of deserving musicians that is woefully under-served by higher education. Second, supporting popular music creates an enlivened learning environment for music business majors interested in becoming managers, agents, producers, engineers, or the like. (You can study music business at quite a few colleges and universities these days, but hardly any of them also support popular music in any meaningful way.)

We envisioned students of popular music learning alongside students of music business, all within a liberal arts setting (more on that last piece).

I'm proud to say that we've been quite successful at making this vision a reality. I like to say that poplar music and music business at Catawba are growing like kudzu in the Carolina sun.

Secrets of our Success         

One of the reasons for our success, frankly, has been a lack of competition. If you've looked around, you've no doubt found that precious few colleges and universities have much to offer if you're a rock guitarist, an R&B singer, or the like. If you haven't looked around yet, I invite you to do so. For example, I'll buy you lunch if you can find ten colleges or universities besides Catawba that offer a rock band for credit like the Catawba College Vernaculars. After you're done with that search, try Googling college and university songwriting classes. You'll find the pickings are just about as slim.

Isn't that incredible? With over 2,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, only a tiny handful truly supports popular music in any meaningful way. Catawba is proud to be one of them.

Derek_001.jpgWhy does this huge empty space exist where popular music curricula should be? There are a number of reasons, but one big one is probably a prejudice concerning the artistic potential of popular music. We don't hold that prejudice at Catawba.

At this point you might be wondering, "Why would I want to go to college anyway? Jimi Hendrix didn't. Kurt Cobain didn't. Why should I?" There are a number of important reasons. One is very pragmatic. You should go to college to gain competitive advantages that may help make all the difference in your professional success.

The music industry is extremely competitive. Most people who try to enter it fail. For instance, did you know that only one in every nine albums released by a major label makes a profit? That means that even if you've got what it takes to ink a contract with a major, you still only have a one in nine chance of success.

Should you forget about your musical dreams then? Absolutely not, but you should stack the cards in your favor. Our mission at Catawba is to help you do so.

Giving You Competitive Advantages         

One of the most fundamental ways in which Catawba can help you "stack the cards" is by helping you develop a musical depth and breadth that will sustain your career. You might get away with a few hot moves and a great hairstyle if you want to be successful in the music industry for just a brief time. Long-term success requires deeper, broader musicianship — the ability to make music in various styles, the capacity to lay down an industrial-strength groove, the musicality to harmonize vocally, etc.

Catawba also helps you develop your own singular artistic voice. We all have our artistic influences, but it's fairly well the kiss of death in popular music if you sound too much like someone else. The world doesn't need another John Mayer. It's already got one. At Catawba, we keep a watchful eye on this aspect of your development and help you grow those facets of your personal style that are distinctive. That's why we say, "Our Purpose: Your Music."

Essential business know-how is another competitive advantage our graduates enjoy. It's been said that musicians are like farmers who are great at growing crops but are too often clueless at getting those crops to market and then selling them. You may have no interest in ever becoming a music manager yourself, but you still need to know the elements of good management. That way, you'll know if the person who is managing you is competent. The same thing goes for accounting, marketing, and other aspects of business.TK.jpg

Notice that I used the word business know-how in the last paragraph, not knowledge. Knowledge is not enough, but combine knowledge with experience and you really have something — know-how.

Here's an example of the process in action. As part of their Advanced Music Business class, our students recently organized a concert by roots rocker Bill Noonan. One student served as the booking agent, another as the house manager, a third as the publicist, etc. The whole event was overseen by music industry veteran Jeff Cheen, who's worked with everyone from John Lennon to Rick James. It was a real-world learning experience within an educational framework. Imagine the competitive advantage you enjoy with four years of such experience on your resume when you go out to conquer the music industry.

Popular Music, Music Business & More         

Above, I mentioned that our students study popular music and music business within the liberal arts. This is extremely important to us. In no way, shape or form are we a technical school or an isolated conservatory. Popular music is one of the most influential industries in today's society. It needs professionals who have an understanding of history, philosophy, politics, the environment, and other disciplines. That's what the liberal arts is about. We also believe in the idea of vocation: using your gifts to help address the world's needs. We don't just educate musicians, we educate musicians who will become leaders.

NickEric.jpgMusical inclusiveness is equally important to us. Our inclusive attitudes have, after all, made a place for popular music at Catawba. But inclusiveness cuts many ways. Don't be surprised if you find one of our rockers also singing a motet by Renaissance composer Josquin de Prez, playing the Miles Davis jazz classic "Blue in Green," performing with our Japanese festival ensemble, or hitting the field with the Catawba Pride drumline.

One more thing: some prospective students wonder about Catawba College's church affiliation. What does it mean for students studying music business and popular music? Most Catawba students would probably say that religion can play as large or as a small of a role in your studies as you like. In addition, both our students and faculty come from a wide variety of faiths and denominations. As far as music business and popular music are concerned, those are our subjects—not religion.

Questions to Ask         

To conclude this personal message, let me give you a list of things to ask a college or university about its support of popular music. Feel free to use it as you "shop" for the right school to attend. A quick look through this website reveals Catawba's answers to these key questions.

I've broken the list up into two sets. The first is for students interested in studying popular music. The second is for those interested in music business.

Questions for students of POPULAR MUSIC to ask:

  1. How does your curriculum meet the specific educational needs of popular music students (not just jazz)?
  2. What is your school's attitude concerning the artistic potential of popular music?
  3. Do you offer classes for students of popular music, such as songwriting, audio recording and demo production, music technology, the theory of popular music, and a rock-style popular music ensemble?
  4. Do you offer music lessons with instructors having expertise in popular music?
  5. What courses do you offer to give students the business know-how they need to succeed professionally?
  6. What facilities do you have for students of popular music, such as rehearsal spaces and recording studios with open access?
  7. What is your student retention rate from first year to graduation?
  8. Have any of your students or recent graduates enjoyed success or received recognition in popular music?

Questions for MUSIC BUSINESS students to ask:

  1. Does your school have a thriving popular music curriculum (not just jazz)?
  2. What is your school's attitude concerning the artistic potential of popular music?
  3. What is your curriculum for music business students?
  4. Where have your students interned?
  5. What sorts of hands-on preprofessional experiences do you offer to help students develop their skills?
  6. What is your student retention rate from first year to graduation?

Let me know if you've found this personal message useful or if there are other questions you'd like me to answer about popular music and music business at Catawba. My e-mail address is You can find information about auditioning and scholarships here. I hope to hear from you soon.