Does the institutionalization of Pop Music signal its Decline?

Ben Folds Masterclass at The Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma
Ben Folds Masterclass at The Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma

I remember when Performance Artists were bemoaning the fact that you could go to college to get a degree in Performance Art which seemed anti-thetical to the aesthetics of the discipline.  I know that Billy Joel and some other big names pop artists have given masterclasses in the past,

but I’m not so sure the institutionalization of pop music into a masterclass setting is necessarily a good thing for pop music.  The university where I teach on the Arts Institute has a songwriting class as one of its offerings.  The Music Department itself has production technique classes as well. I commented briefly about the legitimization tactic for pop music in a previous post which mentions a local music store chain:

I get regular mailings from a local music store, “Mom’s Music,” which has (I think) three branches. I usually get my non-classical electronic gear from there as it’s a local store and not a big megachain. I’m on the mailing list and occasionally get event notices for their Clarksville, IN branch which is the one that actually has a regular band concert series. Most of the private lessons for rock band instruments are taught at that store (one of my cello students actually takes guitar lessons there) and the students form bands and occasionally give band “recitals” –and apparently this is a fairly regular type of phenomenon in more local music chains and I wonder how much of this kind of educational initiative is actually spurred by the declining economic situation for local bands.

That last part is the crux: “how much of this kind of educational initiative is actually spurred by the declining economic situation for local bands” and likewise, how much of the interest in more formal masterclasses for pop music is all spurred on by the declining economic situation for bigger name pop musicians?

Are we now in an age where there are so many performing musicians that revenue opportunities now have to be outsourced and packaged as educational initiatives such as what’s happening with the rising number of adjuncts in universities (and low level drug runners)?  What I would be asking is if the pop music field is doing so well (which it isn’t) then why would we need to teach the techniques?  And if this seems like an obtuse question then why are we so worried about music school churning out so many music graduates while the classical music field is supposedly not doing well?

I guess the irony is that for all the new model talk about using pop music as a model to get the classical field out of the doldrums, there is a corresponding move in pop music to mimic the legitimization of art musics through more formal education.  While this “American Voices” Festival isn’t probably the only gaffe Renée Fleming has made recently, they both may also demonstrate how out of touch the purportedly “in touch” classical musicians of today are.

As one of those performance artists said, “if we’re going to teach Performance Art in the Universities, then performance Art is truly dead now”–maybe now we can add an obituary for pop music as well.


13 thoughts on “Does the institutionalization of Pop Music signal its Decline?

  1. I might say that the institutionalization of certain forms of music once called “pop” indicates that the definition of pop has sloped off elsewhere while we weren’t looking …


  2. I was a guitar teacher for Virtuoso Music when I lived in Seattle. My students were from wealthy families i.e.; Microsoft/Boeing parents. Sometimes these parents would ask me if they should turn a spare room into a music studio for their aspiring rock stars. They’s be on the internet checking out the best prices for; audio mixers, recording studio software, electronic drums, multi-effect processors, etc. I’d stop them midstream and inform them that rock n roll is the defiant voice of teen angst. Making things easy for them would only serve to DE-motivate them.


    1. This is where you’re wrong. 99.9% of all today’s “rock stars” are trust fund kids with rich parents. Do a little digging. I defy you to find a single solitary famous rock star today who isn’t from at least an upper middle class family. It’s a rich kids’ game.
      And those very few who aren’t rich… dig a little more, and you’ll find a rich person paying for them, for whatever reason.


  3. I see this as the inevitable fragmentation of all things. If the classical tradition can be made more pops, then once rebellious music can become mainstream, even academic. And what is more academic than the rock music coming out today? The only shock left is to perform naked, and only a few women can pull that off (so to speak) like Gaga! No, before there can be anything truly (if incrementally) innovative, there will be a period in the march of history where we revisit what’s come before as “CLASSIC”. It is the cultural miscegenation people resist, but since people also like to tear down walls, it is very gradually happening anyway. We want it both ways.


    1. Very true, Rick–though I do think we tend to overlook how the infrastructure which supported the more popular forms of entertainment are also fragmenting which pulls the foundational rug out from those fields (or will soon). I’m interested in seeing how the current disruptive technology eventually settles into a status quo mode of support, but it just seems things are moving so fast in tech that we’re all scrambling (on both the classical and pop music world sides) to pinpoint “best-practices” that would create something even remotely close to being sustainable.


      1. I believe you’re (sadly) correct. If we’re not in freefall, we’re certainly experiencing LOW gravity and it’s hard to find traction or escape it. But as long as we’re in such “interesting times”, let’s you and I continue to make opportunities, experimenting with making classical for more people the HELL YEAH experience we know it is! Maybe by the time gravity resumes (10 years anyone?), we’ll have a commercial enterprise.


  4. Kinda makes me think about the phenomenon of the “NAMM Whore” those guitarists (usually Berklee grads or dropouts… doesn’t matter as long as you went there and lived in Boston for any length of time), who go around to all these stores and do “clinics” to teach whatever fake technique crap that passes for guitar these days. It’s basically the same thing as a masterclass and has been around for as long as I can remember (since the late 80’s at least). They call them “NAMM whores” because their whole careers are pretty much based on being some shredder guy that can show off gear at a NAMM booth in exchange for so-called “endorsements”, which is really some kind of twisted indentured servitude in exchange for gear. So many times I heard, “I got an endorsement with…”. Apparently, they don’t know the diference between a big name actually endorsing a product and some random unknown guy being SPONSORED by a company in exchange for being their booth whore…


    1. Ah yes, the old “clinics” –I think that was an interesting choice of words for what they now starting to call masterclasses (in the pop world) or have called workshops in the interim. Might be interesting to trace the evolution of these educational initiatives in the pop music world over the years or decades!


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