by Arthur Bernstein

In 1967 the American West Coast rock band, the Byrds, told us in lyrics penned by Jim Mc Quinn and Chris Hillman that being a rock and roll star was as simple as learning how to play the guitar.

So you want to be a rock and roll star?
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time and learn how to play

50 years later the prevailing wisdom has changed little – certainly here in Spain where the entry point into music, most any kind of music, is popularly understood by students and their parents to involve the ability to sight sing traditional musical notation and the achievement of a fairly respectable level of instrumental technique and proficiency.  

If we accept the guitar to be representative of contemporary band instruments such as keyboards, drums, electric bass and  becoming a “rock and roll star” as a loose metaphor for getting involved at a serious, even professional,  level in any of the current contemporary popular music (CPM) genres (i.e. pop, rock, indie, rap, etc.) an essential question emerges. Is serious engagement with contemporary popular music as simple as learning how to play the guitar, or other instrument? Are opportunities and success in CPM genres solely and directly proportional to an individual’s instrumental proficiency as sometimes implied by popular belief?  Or, are there other equally or, perhaps, more important things?

Before we go into the “what” of the question, let’s look at the “where”. Whatever some these other CPM-related items might be (and I will suggest some as part of this series), don’t go looking for many of them in any of Spain’s conservatories. The cultural elites of the realm have made sure that the overwhelming majority of the public resource available for professional music education and training will be spent on classical music fields with some token amounts going to jazz, flamenco and other non-CPM pursuits. The political justification for this allocation of scarce public funding comes wrapped in the entirely justifiable need and responsibility to preserve our national and international musical heritage and train aspiring musicians for careers in chamber, symphonic and other “classical” idioms, while paying token attention to genres such as jazz and flamenco.

The qualitative cultural dimension to one side, the more quantitative, commercial dimension of these fields of music traditionally occupies a minority position in the overall national and international music industry generating, according to IFPI and other industry studies, less than 10% of total music industry turnover. In summary, as a training strategy, the country is essentially investing nearly all the available public resources for music training in fields of professional activity that are limited in their prospects to generate significant commercial value, jobs, returns to the treasury, contributions to GDP or the international trade balance.

With that background in mind let’s return to our metaphoric rock and roll star. I’m confident in stating that success in CPM fields was never as simple as just learning how to play the guitar. In the 50 years that have transpired since Mc Guinn and Hillman wrote their song much has changed with regard to professional practice and its context: Technology, the democratisation of the music industry, the decline of the record industry, globalisation and, very essentially, consumer behaviour and the ways we as an audience prefer to consume music have all conspired to redefine the music industry and, as such, the skills required to engage professionally with the audiences associated with CPM genres. Publicly funded conservatory training in Spain has simply not maintained pace in terms of curricular relevance that serves the needs of aspirants to professional practice in CPM-related fields. The demands for training experiences for these aspirants have, consequently, fallen to the private sector with all of the related consequences associated with the challenges of investment, cost for students and accreditation.

So if success in CPM fields was never as simple as just learning how to play the guitar, just what are the key success factors?  How might training experiences that are relevant and responsive to the current context be designed to facilitate access to sustainable careers related in CPM genres?  

I will be discussing proposals for this in my next post.

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