Music Industry Dynamos
CSU, Chico prepares students for diverse careers in the music industry
by Laurel Miller
Today, a bachelor’s degree in music industry and technology entails much more than music composition or singing. Advances in technology are occurring at warp speed, and students at California State University, Chico keep up with the times through a multifaceted academic experience. Along with vocal and instrumental training, they learn about music history, cultural exploration, business practices, law, digital technology, audio engineering, artist management, and video production.
Over the past decade, CSU, Chico has garnered an international reputation for the quality of its Bachelor of Arts in Music Industry and Technology, which is defined by two options: music industry and recording arts. While there’s some crossover between the two options, in layman’s terms music industry is about the business side of music while recording arts is about the technical side.
Specifically, the nationally recognized Option in Music Industry features a curriculum that includes such classes as music technology, legal issues in music, and financial accounting. There’s also an experiential learning component via the student-run School of the Arts Productions (formerly Wild Oak Music Group), the artist development, management, production, and marketing arm of the School of the Arts. “They are involved with discovering artists, managing them, discovering new music, and managing record distribution—the various facets of a record company,” says Professor Keith Sepannen, advisor for the music industry and recording arts options.
The Option in Recording Arts is designed for students who want to combine music and audio technology. The curricula of audio and mobile recording, composition with electronic media, and audio for video, plus music industry courses prepares graduates for careers in audio engineering, music production and editing, and music synthesis (composition, performance, sales, and instruction in electronic musical instruments). “A lot of students come in and think that recording arts is just technical,” notes Sepannen. “But the ‘art’ part is important to what we do. One thing we always tell students when they come here is that we don’t teach hardware; we don’t teach software. We teach with hardware and with software.”
The well-regarded Bachelor of Arts in Music also prepares CSU, Chico students for an evolving musical landscape. The BA offers two options, each sharing a common core of classes in music theory and history. Those wishing to teach music in the K–12 system take the option in music education. For the option in general music, an advisor helps a student develop a more wide-ranging course of study including vocal or instrumental performance, jazz studies, composition, ethnomusicology, and music history. Intended to give a “broad brush” view of the music discipline, courses include music technology, conducting, non-Western music, scoring/arranging, and many others.
In the hypercompetitive, rapidly changing, notoriously demanding music industry, a number of alumni stand out at the top of their field. They are demonstrating that persistence, innovation, and a stellar work ethic pay off. Their music industry jobs cover a wide range—from audio engineering and event marketing for some of North America’s biggest music festivals, to managing digital content for a music TV network, to performing as an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano.
The power of sound
Recording arts alums Ryan McLain and John Riddle are leaders in the rapidly changing realm of audio engineering and concert promotion and production. Both men name music industry and technology professor Joe Alexander (also associate dean of Humanities and Fine Arts) as a mentor, and now consider him a peer and friend. “Joe was an engineer, producer, and studio owner—he brought not just industry experience, but challenged us as students to actually work as though we were in the real world,” says Riddle.
“Coming from the industry, I’m used to working hard, and there’s no room for error,” says Alexander, also Music Industry and Technology internship and entry job coordinator. “I’ve told all of my students, ‘It’s not about the A you get in class—how hard you work to get the proper results and your productivity outside of the classroom make all of the difference.”
Alexander notes that professors can teach the fundamentals, but the interface changes. “Anyone who can afford the equipment can call themselves a ‘producer,’ but that doesn’t mean the quality is there,” he notes. “You have to care about standards.
“As instructors, it’s difficult to keep up with the technological progress because the rate of change is so fast and the funding so scarce, but we can try to give students principles to build upon so they can succeed. And they’re doing that, in diverse aspects of the industry. Chico is in the middle of nowhere, but our program is impacted, and students come from all over the world to join it.”
Ryan McLain is one of those students. In 2000, he graduated from Chico with a BA in music with a recording arts option and has worked for Ernie Ball Inc. ever since. He started out as an audio engineer for the company’s promotional mobile stage. Developed by company CEO Sterling Ball, the Ernie Ball Mobile Stage was conceived to give artists a new—portable—venue.
“It’s harder than ever for talented new musicians to gain recognition,” says Sterling Ball. “Ernie Ball feels that the lifeblood of music is in emerging talent. We want to support up-and-coming bands, and give them the opportunity to gain exposure. With the mobile stage, we have taken it one step further: every band deserves a place to play.”
For the well-known family-owned guitar and accessories manufacturer, the Ernie Ball Mobile Stages have proved to be an invaluable marketing tool. McLain says that the mobile stages have been spotted at the Vans Warped Tour, Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar Festival, Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival, Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, and other events. In addition, the mobile stage is home to the Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands, the longest running and largest live music promotion of its kind, he notes.
Nowadays, as the company’s event marketing and stage production manager, McLain is responsible for live events, the company’s two mobile stage trucks, and all in-house video production. He oversees the two Ernie Ball Mobile Stages, as well as a CSU, Chico internship program he developed with Alexander in 2003. “I learned a lot in school, but I felt like there weren’t a lot of great internship programs for me when I was a student,” he explains. “This was a really great opportunity to give back to the Chico recording arts program.”
Since 2003, Ernie Ball has employed more than 20 CSU, Chico students. They learn production and marketing tasks for thousands of bands, and learn firsthand how a major music tour functions. They build stages, run sound, stage manage, and perform on-site marketing.
McLain often creates hands-on learning opportunities for students on the annual summer Vans Warped Tour, renowned for featuring some of the biggest names in punk and alternative rock. “The Warped Tour is one of the top three internships in the music department,” says Alexander. “We’ve been staffing it since Ryan started it, and he’s been an incredible partner.”
One of the most valuable things McLain gained from his time at Chico is a close-knit network of recording arts alums, he says. “We often hire one another for freelance audio and video projects,” says McLain. “For the last two years, I’ve worked with John Riddle at South by Southwest, assisting with audio for the Fader Fort [a venue] and Rolling Stone and Atlantic Records events.”
In addition to maintaining friendships and industry contacts, there’s another key benefit to be had from such relationships, says McLain. “When I was in school, the emphasis in recording arts was on the studio, but by the time I graduated, the industry was starting to change. Many of the best audio jobs were in live sound. Today, I find myself working in video about half of the time. With live video streaming gaining popularity, working with John has turned me on to this fledgling industry aspect. I’m really excited about emerging technology in video.”
McLain says that adapting to a constantly evolving creative industry is what motivates him. “It’s easy to get frustrated that the same opportunities aren’t there that once were—but if you are driven, resourceful, and willing to adapt, then there will be a whole new set of opportunities waiting for you.”
He says his biggest challenge is juggling his different career roles and staying relevant. “To go from traveling around North America on a rock tour running two stages and our company’s onsite marketing, then transitioning to video marketing in the winter can be challenging,” he says. “Being able to cross over into two very similar yet different industries is both rewarding and challenging.”
Bringing live music to the masses
John Riddle is another recording arts grad who has shaped his college and work experience into a thriving career in the music industry. He owns his own audio company, Palantir Soundworks, in Austin. He also works for Apple as a systems analyst and is the audio director for XI Media Productions, a small company with some very major clients.
Riddle (BA, Music, Option in Recording Arts, ’04) specializes in live audio and video streaming music events, most prominently at SXSW (in past years, the live stream of Fader Fort, an invite-only four-day party featuring live performances, has garnered up to 1.6 million views), as well as for clients like Ernie Ball and Madison Square Garden, and artists ranging from Diddy, Big Boi, and Kanye West to Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, and Yo La Tengo.
Riddle worked in a computer shop in high school and was a pianist, flautist, and bassist. Trying to find a way to marry his interests, his music teacher suggested audio engineering. Riddle was sold. “When I was trying to decide on where to go to school, I had a romanticized idea of what audio engineering would be like … I was thinking of recording rock bands,” he says. “There were a lot of audio recording institutes, but they’re not always accredited. Chico had one of the few degree programs at the time (1999), so that’s why I picked it. What impressed me about the program while I was a student was the breadth of experience I was offered both academically and extracurricularly.”
Riddle’s Chico experience was all the richer because he was able to tailor the recording arts option to suit his needs and interests. “I had no background in audio,” he says. “When I got to Chico, I just dived in, was always working it. By my sophomore year, I was the recording arts department studio manager and also working as an archiving engineer for a Native American archiving project, digitizing a series of interviews on cassettes from the 1950s.” That opened the door for Riddle to do audio for the theatre department and led to his being the secretary and chair of the student chapter of the Audio Engineering Society.
As for Riddle’s current career path, it’s on-trend to be the future of live music. When asked if he has conflicted feelings about the digitization of the industry, he’s pragmatic. “The recording side is now more of a promotional tool,” he says. “People are still willing to pay for a concert experience over a CD. But now, that experience has transitioned into a multi-day, multi-band festival instead of just one show, and not everyone can afford tickets to multiple shows.
“Our ideal at XI and Palantir is to make great music accessible to everyone. With live streaming, you can quadruple the number of viewers watching a show. What we bring are bigger audiences to smaller, indie bands. Everyone gets paid at the end of the day by the corporate sponsors, so we all win. That said, music is an art form, and any time you add a corporate entity onto that, it’s influential. We’re always walking a fine line because today everything’s corporate-driven. There aren’t standard conventions for this yet, so it’s kind of like the Wild West right now.”
Despite the ease of live streaming, there’s no chance music fans will completely forgo the live concert experience, adds Riddle. “You can’t compare watching your favorite band on the computer or TV to the real thing.”
On the frontier of music
A music degree at Chico is often useful in combination with another BA such as communications or journalism. This was the case for Matt Kiser, a 2007 grad, who started out as a music industry and technology major but switched to a double major in journalism and American studies when he found the core curriculum of music theory wasn’t for him. Still, he specifically chose Chico for its music program, and his academic and extracurricular experiences have served him well: In 2012, Kiser was recognized by Hypebot, a music and technology blog, as one of the Best and Brightest Music Industry Minds on Twitter.
Kiser was also a nominee for Billboard magazine’s annual 40 Under 40 list in 2012. Part of Billboard’s Power Players series, 40 Under 40 is described as “an elite list of the young executives who are propelling our industry with their artistic and business vision.” Among the notables who’ve made it to that list are radio/TV personalities Carson Daly and Ryan Seacrest.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the music industry,” says Kiser. “It’s so fertile; things move so quickly. In the five years since my graduation, the technology has advanced so much, and I’m learning so much.”
In his LinkedIn profile, Kiser describes himself as “a digital media professional … shaping the future of music and media through innovation and technology.” Most recently, he was the digital project manager for SPIN magazine (2008–2012) and since July has been digital product manager at Fuse TV, a national television network dedicated to music.
Kiser recalls why he chose to study at CSU, Chico: “In high school, I discovered KCSC [the campus’s student-run alternative music station] online and emailed Joanna McNulty, then the station manager, because the idea of being an Internet DJ seemed like the coolest thing ever. At the time, I was living three hours away from Chico, but being able to listen to these tastemakers on the radio via the Internet seemed magical.”
Kiser worked his way up at KCSC from disc jockey, programmer, and music director to general manager in the fall of 2005. At that time, the station—switched to Internet-only broadcasting in 1999—faced budget cuts, old and broken equipment, and a strained relationship with the Associated Students (AS), which provided 95 percent of its funding. The once award-winning station (named Best College Station by SPIN magazine in 1987) was in a sharp decline and about to lose its home, the Reynolds Warehouse on campus that was about to be demolished.
For two straight weeks, Kiser showed the persistence and moxie that undoubtedly has served him well over the years: hauling broken equipment to AS Government Affairs meetings “to show them how much disarray things were in” and playing music in the Free Speech Area from “our ragtag mobile DJ unit” to expose his fellow students to the station and its difficulties. Among his supporters were Ernesto de la Torre (BA, Psychology, ’01), who advised AS programs and the Government Affairs Council, and AS Executive Director David Buckley, who suggested sharing the Rainbo Warehouse space with AS Recycling.
In addition to his work at KCSC, Kiser credits retired professor Paul Friedlander with being fundamental in his evolution as a music industry professional. “Dr. Friedlander was a folk musician, in addition to the other practical experience he’s had in the industry,” he says. “His experiences were fascinating, and in our classes for [Chico State’s independent record label] Wild Oak Records, he taught us everything from how to shrink-wrap to distributing CDs, and we spent a lot of time talking about the future of the music industry.”
Notes Friedlander: “Record labels are no longer unilateral rulers of the music world. Corporations like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft now vie for control of the music delivery pipeline in a future most likely defined by satellites, small mega-storage, and internet-connected personal media devices.”
While at school, in addition to managing KCSC, Kiser became entertainment editor of The Orion and a photojournalist for local music and arts magazine The Synthesis. He also managed the radio and retail charts at the College Music Journal (CMJ), which led to a job offer “about 20 minutes prior to my last final. I was working in New York less than two weeks later.”
He started at SPIN in 2008, when a position was created for him as online production manager. He edited photos, managed the editorial calendar for SPIN.com, and produced all editorial content for the web. With the huge success of SPIN Play for iPad in April 2011, SPIN made the decision to rethink its print business and transitioned from a music magazine into a digital-first media company (that also happens to put out a print magazine).
Kiser became digital product manager, responsible for all of the company’s digital properties, including their website. In February, SPIN completed a full site design and relaunch, and in April released a streaming audio player so readers can take SPIN.com from a “read-first to listen-first experience.”
“My position at SPIN allowed me to influence and help define the future of a publication I grew up reading,” says Kiser.
Now at Fuse TV, Kiser manages user interface and product development of their website and other digital products.
Hitting the high notes
While alums like McLain, Riddle, and Kiser are dealing with cutting-edge industry technology, others, like Jeanette Blakeney (attended ’86–’94), are known for keeping the classical aspects of music alive.
Blakeney, who studied music with an Option in Vocal Performance, has made international headlines as a “Renaissance woman” of music due to the breadth of her talents in various genres. A mezzo-soprano and actress, she’s appeared in a Tony-winning production on London’s West End as well as performed in renowned opera houses and concert halls all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Teatro Communale in Bologna, and Frankfurt’s Alte Oper (Old Opera).
Blakeney’s résumé includes lead roles in Porgy and Bess, Showboat, Madama Butterfly, Carmen, and La Traviata. She also became the first black American to become principal artist-in-residence with Opera San Jose, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Currently a resident of Manhattan, Blakeney hails from Hanford, California. She chose CSU, Chico based upon a recommendation from her high school choir teacher, herself a graduate of the University’s opera program. It turned out to be an ideal fit for the ambitious teen, who says, “Singing is part of my DNA. There was never any doubt that was what I wanted to do.”
Studying on an opera scholarship under the direction of Gwen Curatilo, former CSU, Chico vocal instructor and Opera Workshop program director, Blakeney attributes “every bit of my accomplishments to my academic experience at CSU, Chico. The music department provided a nurturing, supportive haven for me to hone my craft, and I received an in-depth education about music and was given the proper tools on how to embark on a career as a professional opera singer.”
A typical day for Blakeney involves up to nine hours of old-school-style vocal training and rehearsing when she’s building a show, and three to four live performances a week during a run. Yet new media plays a role in her career as well, especially because she doesn’t retain an agent or manager.
“Because of my diverse experience, it’s difficult for them to categorize or sell me,” she explains. “So I’ve always opted to represent myself and been successful at doing it, partly due to my work ethic. I get a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations. My MacBook Pro laptop is my office and studio. I email biographical materials, applications, photos, DVDs, and CDs, and record vocal demo tapes and send them off to people in the industry. I rely 100 percent on technology to run my career.”
Despite her considerable talents, Blakeney says that CSU, Chico made all the difference in her career. “I’m so grateful to have been a music major at Chico,” she says. “The professors were highly skilled, and all of them played an important role in shaping me into the artist I am today. People are always amazed at the amount of training I’ve had and assume that I went to a prestigious music conservatory. That’s the imprint CSU, Chico left me with, and I wear it proudly. I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for the incredible foundation the music program gave me.”
About the Author
Laurel Miller (BA, Communication Design, ’92) is a freelance food and travel writer and culinary educator based in Boulder, Colorado.
From Music Minors to Major Players
Chico State has no shortage of musical legacy from its alumni, even if they didn’t major in music industry and technology. A few notables making headlines in today’s music scene include Robin Bacior (in photo right), Mat Kearney (see article below), and the Mother Hips, who celebrated 20 years together in 2011 and are still receiving critical acclaim within the industry.
Bacior, a songwriter, singer, and music journalist, is from Chico, although today she calls Brooklyn home. A 2009 journalism graduate with a minor in music, she’s been featured in Nylon and Lucky Magazine for her cool vintage style and what she describes as “waltzy folk music.” Bacior writes for VICE and Submerge, a Sacramento-based weekly. Her first EP, Aimed for Night, was released in 2009 and caught the attention of the national folk scene. Her LP, Rest Our Wings, came out in 2011 on her own label, Consonants & Vowels Recordings, and features her trademark sweet, melodic voice and lyrical folk tunes.
Since 1990, the Mother Hips—the original line-up included singer/guitarist Tim Bluhm and guitarist/vocalist Greg Loiacono (both founding members), bassist Isaac Parsons, and drummer Mike Wofchuck—have become Chico legends for their particular indie brand of folksy, laidback “California soul.”
They started as a popular bar and party band (Bluhm and Loiacono were also an in-demand acoustic duo), but with the release of their first CD, Back to the Grotto, in 1991, they started to receive regional radio play. While still students, they began touring the nation, playing and working with industry greats like Wilco, Blues Traveler, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, the Black Crowes, and mega-producer Rick Rubin.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. released a lager, Hips Helles, in honor of the band’s 20th anniversary, and in September 2011, the Hips put out an archival four-CD box set, Days of Sun and Grass: Unreleased Outtakes, Demos, B-Sides and Live Cuts from Chico’s Very Own 1990–2001 (featuring cover art by Sierra Nevada artist Jason Robertson). Today, the Mother Hips are comprised of Bluhm, Loiacono, bassist Paul Hoaglin (who joined in approximately 2002), and drummer John Hofer (who replaced Wofchuck in 1997) and tour nationwide and in Europe, in addition to working on various solo projects. And they occasionally come back to Chico to play at sold-out shows, like this spring when they played at the Silver Dollar Fair to an appreciative hometown crowd.
About the Author
Laurel Miller (BA, Communication Design, ’92) is a freelance food and travel writer and culinary educator based in Boulder, Colorado. She’s old enough to remember seeing the Mother Hips play at Chico house parties.
From touring with John Mayer to having a song featured on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, alum Mat Kearney has come a long way from playing guitar solo behind Acker Gym
by Luke Reid
There wasn’t much of a crowd at Mat Kearney’s maiden Chico “concert” in 1997: a cricket here or rodent there … perhaps an owl whoo-hooing along from the trees above the now-closed racquetball courts behind Chico State’s Acker Gym.
“I would steal my roommate’s guitar and ride my beach cruiser to the racquetball courts and play the three chords I knew,” said Kearney before a show in February 2012 at The Warfield in San Francisco. “I would write about the most intimate, gut-wrenching things and just sit there for hours and sing. That was really the beginning of my music career.”
These days, Kearney plays to packed venues. The former Chico State soccer player (attended ’97–’00) has been touring almost constantly for the past year in support of his acclaimed fourth album, Young Love, which peaked at No. 4 on the charts. On April 6, he was back in Chico, where it all began, to play a homecoming show of sorts at the sold-out El Rey Theatre.
For a few hours before the show, Kearney walked the streets of Chico, reminiscing about one of the three places he’s called home in his 33 years.
“I’m surprised at how emotional this is,” said Kearney. “I was only here for a short time, but it was a very critical time. This place was really home to me. Chico had a huge impact on my life.”
Though fond, some of those memories have also been rendered a bit foggy by time. After walking up onto the front porch of his former home and snapping some pictures, he was grumpily whisked away by the current tenant, who didn’t believe Kearney’s claim that he had lived there while attending Chico State.
“Oh wait,” Kearney said after the awkward walk back to the sidewalk, “it was that one next door!”
This time he was right. He took some time to take a look at the place and snap some pictures of the pomegranate tree referenced in his first single and biggest hit song to date, “Nothing Left to Lose.”
“I can still hear the trains out my window
From Hobart Street to here in Nashville
I can still smell the pomegranates grow.”
Raised in Eugene, Oregon, Kearney came to Chico State on a soccer scholarship. He excelled on the pitch, notching a hat trick (three goals in a match) as a freshman. But his playing time dwindled as his other interests grew. Heavily influenced by Professor Roger Kaye and his experience in the English department, Kearney fell in love with literature and writing.
“[Roger] was just really inspiring,” said Kearney, with an intense passion that often breathes life into his words. His five-o’clock shadow and the driving cap that’s as constant as the gleam in his emerald green eyes enhance that feel as well. “We’d talk about everything. That’s how I found my voice as a writer and realized all I wanted to do was write. These worlds of faith and music and writing collided while I was in Chico, and that was the package that got me headed in the direction of music.”
Kearney took a road trip that changed the direction of his life the summer following his junior year. His friend, Robert Marvin, asked Kearney to help him drive from Eugene to Nashville to set up a studio and become a producer.
“Music had slowly become this intimate thing in my life. I wasn’t performing much, but I was writing a lot,” explained Kearney. “He said if I helped him drive, he would record my stuff. So by July we were recording, and it became something I really cared about. Then there were management companies that heard the demos and were interested.
“There I was, living out of a suitcase in a dump of an apartment, and I knew I couldn’t go back. I kind of shocked everyone because, at the time, I think I had only written five songs in my life.”
Those initial recordings eventually became the guts of Kearney’s first record, Bullet. His catchy blend of hip-hop, rock, and folk caught the attention of record labels, and in a whirlwind of sorts, he was signed to Columbia Records. Many of the songs recorded in those early sessions were also included on his critically acclaimed record Nothing Left to Lose.
“It was crazy,” he says of his rapid rise to fame. “I could only play a song or two on the guitar when I left Chico. But I had these songs in me, and the hip-hop style allowed me to go further. I could tell a story that could rip your heart out. You don’t have to be a great musician to do that. It was those stories that connected with people and put me on the fast track. I had to figure out how to be a musician after that.”
Nothing Left to Lose has sold nearly a half-million copies to date. His 2009 release, City of Black & White, debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Top 200 according to Inpop Records, which released Bullet (2004). And in 2011, Kearney unveiled Young Love, written while falling in love with his future wife, model-actress Annie (they married in 2010 at the home of Christian music legend Michael W. Smith). While they call Nashville home, he’s been touring ever since.
The final song on Young Love, “Rochester,” tells the stories of his grandfather, who ran a sports book out of a fake cigar shop, and his father’s struggle with drugs and journey to faith. Kearney’s own time in Chico still appears in his writing.
“That season of my life comes and goes in my writing because it was a season of finding myself and discovering God and a community of people, and failure, and complete unabashed stepping out in ways that seem crazy now looking back,” he says.
On April 6, Kearney finally returned to where his songs began. Then he jumped in the bus and got back on the road. That’s where he’s from now. But he takes a little bit of Chico with him wherever he goes.
About the author
Luke Reid (BA, History, ’04; MA, Kinesiology, ’09) is the Chico State Sports Information director.
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.