School of Schlock
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.
"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 industrybusiness, technology, and performancerather than just one aspect.
Some students specialize in engineering, some in business, and the restabout a thirdare 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.
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.
"I can't believe I went to college for this," he adds. "I'm still grinning like an idiot."
While Schecter dreams of selling out stadiums, other students have already had real-world success. Carter Matschullat, tall and open-faced with shaggy reddish hair, runs an indie-rock label called Dovecote Records, and can afford to have an office/recording studio on St. Marks Place because one of his bands, Aberdeen City, signed to Columbia last year. (He's also in a hardcore band, Bed of Arms, with other students from the department.)
Matschullat had finished his freshman year at Duke, and then repeated his freshman year at the Clive Davis program because he wanted to attend so badly after reading the program's press release. A major perk for him has been taking classes with Nick Sansano, who recorded and co-produced Sonic Youth's Goo and Daydream Nation. "When I heard he was teaching here, I almost couldn't speak, I was so happy," Matschullat gushes.
But Matschullat isn't without complaints. He thinks the program is too focused on success at major labels. In a music business class taught by Lauren Davis, Clive's daughter, he says she complained that the budget he'd listed in an assignment was too low. But the numbers he was using were from an actual, working marketing plan for an indie rock band. "It's all taught from the super mega major label standpoint, when that's all like, dying," he says.
All of the students seem to admire Bo Pericic, because the DJ regularly jets off to parties in places like China and Ecuador as a part of the duo Filo and Peri, recently ranked number 77 in the world by DJ magazine. Pericic says attending the NYU program has helped him meet people he might not otherwise associate with, like Eric Lumiere, who writes sentimental love songs on his acoustic guitar. Pericic remixed Lumiere's song "Anthem," sold it to the world's number one DJ, Paul Van Dyk, and it's being played at dance clubs around the world.
Two years ago, engineering student Evan Moore started his own production company, Thunder, Lightning & Lightning. A rock drummer, Moore is one of two senior class representatives; the other is Jennifer Newman, a singer-songwriter who is a second cousin of Randy Newman. Their positions were created after complaints from students piled up in the program's first two years. But Moore says the bugs have mostly been worked out. And he says he's learned much more outside of school than from his classes. "One of the big realizations I've had . . . is that, well, I think so many of us going into this program thought thatit sounds so sillybut that it would bring them fame and fortune. You know what I mean? Like this is the coolest program ever. Like it's going to teach me everything I need to know to be successful in life. And it's just not true about any college program. It's still just school. It's not actually a part of the music industry."
Moore partly blames the school for giving students the wrong impression: "Our freshman year, all our events were catered. We were treated like rock stars, and it really got it into everyone's mind that they were rock stars. Like if we had any kind of meeting with the classI mean regular school stuffit was catered. They all just seemed so pleased with all of us. It was all about how all the students were so amazing and accomplished and bright. And some people ate that up."
One recent evening, Moore and Newman met up in the school's studio to mix the album she was preparing for graduation. Newman, who was wearing preppy pearl earrings with her Tool concert T-shirt and jeans, was paying several thousand dollars extra to get her album just right, and she had hired Moore to help her. Conversation ranged from her concept for her album's cover ("quirky sexy") to how cool their adjunct instructor Tony Maserati is because he's worked with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé, to the one class they take together with the other seniors, the Capstone Colloquium.
Students prepare a final project for the culminating event that includes an artist's statement and a 25-page business plan mapping out their careers for the next 10 years. Moore had missed a class that called for students to make a short speech about what had inspired them to make music.
He wasn't sorry that he'd been absent that day. "I'm not going to say what inspired me to do music in my senior thesis," Moore said, disgusted.
"I think it would be good for you," Newman replied.
"It's too show-and-tell-y to say what I learned in college."
"We all hugged," Newman said, clearly still glowing from the warm feeling it gave her.
Moore burst into laughter.
"It kind of felt like therapy. It was like we finished an AA meeting. It made me realize how far we've come."
Moore laughed even harder.
"You're so sarcasticthat's why it's good you weren't there."
"Nobody I know was there," Moore countered, referring to Matschullat and the engineering clique.
"It was good all the assholes weren't there," Newman responded. "No offense. It's just not conducive to people sharing how they feel."
Most faculty and students seem to agree that of all the performer-producers in the senior class, Mario Spinetti is the one most likely to succeed.
Spinetti wears his brown hair in a curly eccentric pompadour and has a big, beautiful singing voice inherited from his opera-singing parents. He plays the piano and other instruments, and composes and arranges his own music. He records himself with gospel choirs and orchestras, and incorporates dancers into his live shows. He describes his sound as chamber pop and loves rock opera.
Spinetti counts Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Prince as inspirations, and has dreams to fill stadiums with people chanting his name. "I'm not much for money, not at all. I just want to survive. I want to be able to support myself and do what I love. Um, it just so happens that the place that I want to be, if I do get there, I would be loaded. You know, like, there would be a lot of money at stake," he says.
The only thing holding him back, it seems, is finding the right star persona. At the beginning of the school year, Spinetti was performing under the alter ego Aiden Eve. But by the second semester he dropped it because he'd rather be himself.
"There's been a lot of pressure leading up to this year. In my head at least. I wanted to know exactly what I was going to be by the time I got here. Which is even deeper than recorded music. It's like, know thyself by the time you're 21," he says.
Spinetti had entered the department with the dream of scoring an audition with Davis. But as each year went by without seeing the department's namesake, his hopes dwindled. Still, he figured Davis would make some kind of appearance at the Capstone panel.
"It's kind of pitched as a scout program. Like, oh, he's fostering these new artists and new producers, but he's not there. And none of his people are there checking us out. It's not to say that what he's done isn't monumental and great. It's just not exactly as it appears on paper. Is he going to be there? I'm sure. But is it going to be for the reason everybody thinks? Probably not."
Over the final three days of school, the stu dents pitch their business plans and play their albums during the Capstone to a panel of experts.
None of them is Clive Davis.
Disappointed, Spinetti gamely goes to the piano to begin his presentation. Dressed in black, he turns down the lights, and sits behind the judges. Some turn around to watch him, others don't. He plays "I Was There," a song he says was partly inspired by his parents' divorce. Then he gets up and gives a short talk and plays the album version of the same song.
The judges let him know they prefer the live version to the recorded one, which includes a choir. Overall they are enthusiastic about his voice and his piano playing, but they can't figure out how to categorize the rest of his actthe pompadour, the orchestra, the choir, the dancers, the chamber pop. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright are tossed about.
"It's a question of direction," says Lesley Bleakley, who oversees British indie labels such as XL Recordings and Mo' Wax as CEO of The Beggars Group U.S. "Is it the show-tunes route you want to go? Or is it alternative? Is there a direction you want to go?"
"I basically want to perform music for the rest of my life," Spinetti answers.
"What's your direction?" Bleakley asks again.
"My direction is rather general in my mind and in my heart," Spinetti responds. "I want to perform for as many people as possible. I enjoy live music far more than recorded music."
Steve Smith, founder of Acme Partners Ltd., who has worked with Pink Floyd and the Who, chimes in, "What's your style? How can I characterize you when I walk out there and say, hey, that guy Mario sounded like fill in the blank."
Spinetti has no idea. And suddenly they can't help him.
"I think some of us feel we see a road for you to go very easily," says the last judge, Celia Hirschman, founder of Downtown Marketing. "And that road has been well laid by some very talented musicians who are doing really well now, but it's not contingent on us. . . . You have to tell us who you are. And with that, we can help get you there."
"Otherwise it's manufactured," says Bleakley, "like American Idol."
They all laugh, except for Spinetti.
After Tom Schecter finishes taking a final exam on the decline of ancient Rome, a part of his general education requirements, he hurries back to his dorm room to get ready for the biggest day of his academic career. He puts on his black leather pants, spikes his brown hair, slips on his sunglasses, and struts over to the studio, where all day the seniors have been pitching the albums to the Capstone panel.
Schecter feels certain his record will win over the judges. "I'm not expecting to walk out of here with a deal or even a 'we'll call you next week,' " he says, speaking with authority and confidence. "I'm walking in there with the expectation of, OK, I'm going to rudely in troduce myself to these guys, and when they hear from me again, they will be offering me something in a few months."
Out of the studio door bursts Eric Lumiere, the singer-songwriter who had the dance-club hit. His eyes are red from crying. A few paces behind him, his mother follows, also in tears. And a few paces behind her is Lumiere's equally teary-eyed professor, Nick Sansano.
"They didn't understand me," is all Lumiere manages to choke out.
Lumiere had just finished pitching the pop album he self-produced. While the school is cautious to refer to these panels as merely an educational exercise, the starry-eyed students see it as something elsea chance of a lifetime to score a record deal. But the judges are brutal. They call Lumiere arrogant for comparing his sound to that of U2, Coldplay, and Damien Rice. They call his business plan a wish list.
Lumiere walks off, leaving his mother to explain, "They said they liked his music, but they didn't say that until the end." She and Lumiere's father had flown out from Los Angeles to watch the big event that has not only ended with them in tears, but also with faculty members in the room crying as well. "I guess that's real life," she shrugs.
Schecter tries not to focus on the wreckage in front of him. He walks up to the studio door and then gets down on his knees and says a prayer.
"Tom! Tom! Tom!" a professor calls from inside.
Schecter struts in with a full swagger into the middle of the semicircle of judges. He takes off his black leather jacket and swings it over the bar stool in the middle. Then he gives his opening.
"All right. So I'm the last one. You guys have been here for a while. I appreciate that. So I'm gonna make this as brief as possible. Hand to God, you're not going to be here for more than another two hours."
The boast gets a big laugh. He cocks his eyebrows, tucks his chin down toward his chest, and stares them down with his rock-star gaze. He's the bad boy and they love him. After playing them two clips and giving a pitch, he has the panel hooked.
"I love this kind of stuff," says Susan Dodes, manager, producer, and a&r executive of SuLeDo Music, who describes herself as "a rock chick from way back." "Your presentation is really good in that you have the whole story there. You say you've been to rehab already and you're not even signed. You've got your rock persona and you've got the attitude." But she adds, "I want to know, do you kick ass live? What is the audience reaction like? This is rock and roll, man. It's a way of life."
"At the risk of sounding cliché," says Denise Brown, an attorney and former Senior VP of Warner Bros. Records, "You had us at hello."
"So, what's my next step?" Schecter asks, fishing for good news.
They tell him to tour, go out on the road, and build a fan base. Someone suggests doing a YouTube video. Schecter leaves, confident he'll see them all again soon.
On the Sunday after the panels, at an end-of-the-year awards ceremony called the Remmys, the students gather in an auditorium, where prizes like Best Production or Best Song are announced. And less serious awards like Best Hair and Best Dressed. One citation, the Tom Schecter Rock Star of the Year Award, obviously goes to Schecter.
"It's been a long four years and I wish I remembered more of it," Schecter cracks in his speech.
On the back of every certificate is the face of Clive Davis and a slogan: "Congratulations, now you're going to be famous."
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