School for headliners

Producers are artists and stars in the modern music industry, with business acumen.

Sophomore Dominic Castro's studies in music production relate directly to his work for Blueprint Records, his own label. Photo: Brian Stethem

Dominic Castro was a 17-year-old senior at Moorpark High School when he got some investors together and started Blueprint Records, his own label. He couldn’t open a business bank account at the time without an adult to co-sign the paperwork.

When it came time to apply to college, Cal Lutheran was a natural choice. Castro wanted to stay home and liked the idea of a small school. But it was the music production major that sealed it.

“Everybody is there to help you achieve and help you learn. You really learn to use the studio,” he said.

The roughly 50 students in the major take classes in music performance and theory, but the bulk of their coursework is in recording and producing music. They also learn about the business side of the modern music industry.

A common field at technical and trade schools, music production is less common as a major at four-year universities. Cal Lutheran’s program started in 2012 and is preparing for a big step next summer with the opening of a state-of-the-art recording studio in “K” Building.

The 2,500-square-foot project by Walters-Storyk Design Group, one of the leading architectural firms for studio spaces, will be completed in two phases. The first, which is set to open in 2019, will be a commercial-quality analog recording studio. Phase two will be a smaller studio with a digital console and a Dolby Atmos immersive sound mixing system.

The remodel will give music production students their own space, rather than shared space in the campus television studio.

For aspiring recording artists like Aubren Hickernell, who goes by Aubren Elaine as a singer-songwriter, the addition will mean more time to do creative work in a studio setting. She chose the program because it let her focus on the craft of songwriting.

Music professor Mark Spraggins, the program director, thinks that in the years after the studio opens, the major could double in size to 100 or more students. The department could add a major in the music business, or in songwriting, and a graduate program is also a possibility.

“This new space enables us to dream big,” he said. “This is a very popular field among students, and we’re at our capacity now given our current facilities.”

The rise of music production on campus has coincided with the rise of the producer in American popular music. A star is now as likely to be found behind the mixing board as in front of the microphone.

This isn’t entirely new. Phil Spector was a bigger star than the artists whose records he produced, Brian Wilson turned the Beach Boys to his vision through his studio wizardry, and Kanye West went from producing hit records to rapping on them. 

But in the rock era, producers’ names didn’t appear on album covers. Producers worked behind the scenes as technicians, whispering in the artists’ ears to coax the best performances out of them: George Martin with the Beatles, for example, and Rick Rubin with early-career Beastie Boys, mid-career Tom Petty and late-career Johnny Cash.

“In the old days in the music industry, you had the person hanging out in the studio, watching the artists, making a few comments and reporting back to the record label,” Spraggins said. “Those days are pretty much gone.”

Today, producers like Diplo, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Skrillex and Danger Mouse are famous and thought of as artists. In the hip-hop and electronic music genres, the producer and songwriter are frequently one and the same person. While it would be a scandal to find out that Glyn Johns, and not Keith Richards, wrote the riffs on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, it’s completely accepted that Dr. Dre, and not Snoop Dogg, crafted the beats on Doggystyle.

“These days, a music producer is somebody who’s on the creative side,” Spraggins said. “They also have to be entrepreneurs. They are essentially independent contractors in most cases. They have to think creatively about how they will earn a living from this, and they have to have a broad skill set.”

These artists need to be businesspeople in addition to mastering technical skills and performing. The dream of signing to a major label, letting the label worry about business, and raking in the cash from record sales is long dead.

“Of course, that was all an illusion anyway. You never made that much money selling records,” said Peter Gordon, a former session and touring woodwind player who joined the music faculty in June. Gordon graduated from Berklee College of Music and in the 1990s opened the college’s L.A. office, which is devoted to fostering ties with the music industry. At Cal Lutheran, he serves as the department’s director of new initiatives.

Today, Gordon said, record sales are even less important than they were in that supposed heyday, and concert revenue is the way most artists make a living. Their albums and singles exist mainly to drive audiences to live shows.

The way listeners experience those albums and singles has also changed dramatically. Vinyl records and CDs were replaced by digital downloads, and now downloads are on the way out, replaced by streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Though it’s harder than ever to sell records, it’s easier to distribute music and easier for listeners to find it. Spotify’s library is bigger than any record store’s, and the average teenage DJ has a recording studio’s worth of software on her laptop.

“What technology did was democratize the ability for artists to get their work in front of fans,” said Jon Irwin, a Cal Lutheran Board of Regents member and veteran tech executive. From 2009 to 2013 he was the president of Rhapsody, a music stream service that has since been rebranded as Napster. He said he’s a big supporter of the growing major in the music department and its emphasis on technical production skills, business know-how and industry connections.

The program matured quickly after its launch in 2012.
Jacob Munk ’15,
 who now works as a producer and sound engineer on major label recordings, watched his major grow in size and also quality. “By the time I was graduating the program was leaps and bounds past where it was when I started,” he said.

The program’s most famous graduate to date, Abhi Sridharan Vaidehi ’14, arrived during the same period. A rapper who goes by Abhi The Nomad, he was the first music production student to be offered the university’s Visual and Performing Arts Scholarship.

Abhi The Nomad recently released an album called Marbled on Tommy Boy Records and played this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where he is now based. He fits the modern mold: he writes, produces and performs his own material. Like Castro, the teenage record label owner, he
arrived at college having already recorded his own music.

“Abhi is a good example of one of these kids who has very eclectic interests,” Spraggins said. “What I saw was a kid who came in with a tremendous opus of music that he’d created. He gave me a portfolio case with maybe a dozen CDs that he’d produced, just on his own. They had very high production value, and it was original music. You could tell this kid has something to say.”

One of the keys to Abhi’s appeal, Spraggins said, is the rapper’s ability to incorporate elements of rock, jazz, R&B and reggae and make them his own.

“He’s incorporated these things into his music in a seamless way,” Spraggins said.

Abhi’s future as an artist is up in the air. Born in India, he is seeking a visa that would allow him to keep performing and working in the United States, according to Texas Monthly. He was not available for interviews at the time of this article’s writing.

Rahuldeep Gill, an associate professor of religion, met Abhi when he was a student and has stayed in touch. In the fall, Gill will begin teaching an honors class on religion and hip-hop culture.

“Musically, it’s really interesting and broad,” Gill said of Abhi’s album. “Lyrically, it’s very introspective and emotive. … He talks about having conversations with a God he’s not sure exists. He’s talking about really personal things. It’s an act of meaning-making.”

The vision for Cal Lutheran’s music production program is keep helping the musicians of tomorrow to make meaning, while also preparing them to make a living.

“There are many students in high school who are creative, who are musical, who don’t have a place in traditional music programs,” Gordon said. “They’re the kids who want to write beats and write songs, who want to play music that isn’t stage band or concert band or traditional choir or jazz band. We have a chance to be a destination for those kids who are really creative in a forward-looking musical way.”

Tony Biasotti is a freelance journalist who lives in Ventura. His work has appeared in the Washington PostColumbia Journalism ReviewVentura County Star and Pacific Coast Business Times.

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