School of Schlock

Rock legends in the making they may be, but for now the NYU Clive Davis alums may have to stick to YouTube for exposure

One of the biggest misconceptions about NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music is that its students, while learning how to make it in the music business, will be plucked out of obscurity by Davis himself.

For the last four years, the program's first graduating class had expected that the legendary hitmaker would make an appearance beyond his remarks at freshman orientation and at graduation ceremonies. If not during classes or recording sessions, then at the very least, they hoped, he'd show up during the first "Capstone" project panel, a three-day event beginning

May 2 that had graduating seniors making thesis presentations to judges from the music industry.

The world is clearly not enough for brand new NYU grad Tom Schecter.
photo: Alana Cundy
The world is clearly not enough for brand new NYU grad Tom Schecter.

"I'd be sort of surprised if he didn't come, just because it's his program and we're the first," says Julia Wilde, a pop singer-songwriter who had wanted to attend the school as soon as she heard 'Clive Davis' in the name. "I would imagine that he would want to be there, given how much he wanted to create this program and how much he believes in it."

Launched in 2003 with a $5 million check from Davis himself, the department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts is the first in the country that awards students a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in producing pop-music records. The program claims to be unique because it develops "creative entrepreneurs" who learn about all sides of the industry—business, technology, and performance—rather than just one aspect.

Some students specialize in engineering, some in business, and the rest—about a third—are performer-producers who gain training in how to record themselves in a multimillion-dollar studio so that they leave with full-length albums upon graduation. And if the final goal isn't already clear, a wall of photos at the fifth-floor offices at 194 Mercer Street makes the point: There's Davis with Whitney Houston and Carlos Santana. Davis with Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart. Davis handing a gold record to American Idol standout Clay Aiken.

Clive Davis, 75, has made a fortune discovering raw talent, from Houston to Alicia Keys, and shaping it into consumable form. And now the NYU department that bears his name is trying to do that with 28 students in each graduating class, giving them not only experience producing music but also taking seriously the theory behind the craft. Rock critic Robert Christgau, for example, gives a class on rock history that begins with the ancient Greeks (and, in a session two years ago, found him answering a question about the Sex Pistols by ripping off his button-down shirt to reveal a too-tight circa-1977 T-shirt containing the quiz answer).

"We're not like a star academy or something. We don't train the next rock stars," says Katherine Flatt, who handles the program's admissions. And yet, even though the program isn't supposed to be focused merely on musical performance, when you talk with the school's performer-producers, you can't help thinking that with students paying $40,000 each year, it's just a very expensive version of Idol.

On a Saturday afternoon last fall, a long cord ran from the studio's control room, across a hall, and into a restroom, where the thumping sound of a bass could be heard. The bass stopped, the restroom door opened, and out walked Tom Schecter, wearing ripped jeans, a white T-shirt, and a Guns N' Roses medallion around his neck, sporting a mess of bleached blond hair with dark roots. It was the first day of recording an album, The Ageless and the Insane, with his band Dibble Edge, and he thought the reverberation in the bathroom sounded cooler than it did in the studio.

image
Jennifer Newman contemplates a future in a music business free of assholes.
photo: Alana Cundy

Schecter has spent a large part of his college education honing his rock-star persona, which he fully expects will pay off when he becomes the biggest rock star in the world. He wears sunglasses indoors and punctuates his sentences with a slight growl. He talks incessantly about his craving for whiskey.

"This is my last free shot to make it without paying through the nose," Schecter says, referring to the fact that the 40 g's in annual tuition is also paying for his studio time. Recording in such a professional studio, he hopes, will convince a major label to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at him to go on the road after graduation.

A lanky freshman with glasses named David Pollock, who fronts an indie-rock band, is busy in the studio setting up the microphones around a drum kit. In the control room, Schecter looks on with Josh Silberberg, a senior specializing in engineering. Silberberg tweaks knobs and adjusts the shiny silver faders on the console. "It's given me a purpose in life," Silberberg says about the program. "I was going to be a psych major. Now this is homework."

"My name may be first," Schecter remarks about his album, "but I couldn't do it without these guys."

"Do you have two bucks for duct tape?" his drummer asks. Schecter slaps some cash into his hand.

Schecter continues talking about the band's selling points: "We're all good-looking guys, and I think this is the kind of band people will take a chance on. Musically we sound better than anything on the radio right now. I want it badly. Now here I am. This is the first day, a big day.

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