MSUM music industry program helps students prepare for changing field

Instructor Ryan Jackson, center, tries some different adjustments to some music recorded by Jack Stenerson, right, as Niran Dangol watches and listens in the projects and studio production class at Minnesota State University Moorhead. The students are seniors at MSUM and use the studio to record their music. (Dave Wallis / The Forum)

By: Sam Benshoof, INFORUM

MOORHEAD – Last month, aspiring musician Rachel Jane released her first album of music.

Jane also appeared on “The Christopher Gabriel Show” on WDAY 970 AM to talk about and play some of her songs, and a few weeks later, she hosted a full CD release party at Studio 222 in Fargo.

There’s just one thing about Jane’s situation that was a little different than any other local musician trying to build up a fan base: The whole thing was a part of her studies.

A senior in the music industry program at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Jane organized, planned, booked and marketed the party. She also wrote and recorded her own music as well, which she describes as “folk-pop.”

“The party was an interesting experience, because I was the artist and I was also the organizer,” Jane says. “It was an amazing experience to have because without the school or the program, it would financially have been too much to do.”

Jane called the party a “senior recital/showcase” for her music industry major, a way of presenting the work that she’s done in the program, which has been offered by MSUM for about 20 years and is more commonly seen at larger, coastal schools, according to coordinator Ryan Jackson.

Students in the program aren’t required to record an album or host a party, like Jane did. But most find some sort of out-of-class project to apply the skills they’ve learned – the combination of musical talent and business savvy – from their studies.

‘Continual adaptation’

The four-year program in MSUM’s music department offers classes that mix musical theory, history, legal and business issues, performance and more.

While many schools might offer programs touching on similar topics and courses, Jackson says MSUM’s goes a step further than most.

Specifically, the program’s inclusion of both musical theory and business curriculum helps to set it apart, Jackson says.

“You’ll find places that do certificates or bachelor’s degrees in one (topic) or the other, but rarely both,” Jackson says.

A few private schools in the Twin Cities area offer certificates similar to MSUM’s program, but Jackson says to get a bachelor’s degree like MSUM’s, students might have to go to big-name universities on the East or West coasts.

And like the programs at those larger schools, MSUM’s major continues to evolve. Even though it was offered when Jackson himself was a student there in the early 1990s, it has continued to make changes to its curriculum to match the dynamic music industry, he says.

For example, the department recently hired a new professor who brings experience as an entertainment lawyer (and also as a classically trained composer) to enhance the legal and businesses classes.

“It’s been a continual adaptation. We’re as proactive as we can be,” Jackson says about the program’s curriculum. “We don’t know what the industry is going to do, but we know what it’s not going to do.”

Part of that adaptation, he adds, is making sure students get the interactive experience and skills necessary to ensure that they’re prepared for a career once they graduate.

“Before students leave, they will produce albums, write music and have a business background so they know how to promote themselves,” Jackson says.

That kind of hands-on focus can be seen in Tyler Gardin, a 2012 graduate of the program who helped Jane produce her album in the MSUM recording studio earlier this year.

“She wanted to record an album, and she came to me with her piano, guitar and her voice,” Gardin says. “From there we built an album.”

Gardin also recorded his own CD during his time in the program, as most students do, but he says he was more interested in producing, not performing.

“I prefer making everyone else sound good,” he says.

Gardin recently started working as a recording engineer at Bedrock LA, a Los Angeles-based recording studio.

Although Gardin is still getting his career started in California, he’s already confident that he’ll have what it takes, in part because of the unique nature of MSUM’s program.

“I feel much more prepared than I think a lot of people who went to specific programs do,” he says. “Because we (at MSUM) get the music degree, for example, which most record engineers don’t get.”

Additionally, Gardin found the field requires people to have diverse skills.

“You can’t live just off of recording,” he says. “Because of the program, I have the music theory, I have piano, guitar – it’s enough that I can branch out.”

Beyond his new job, Gardin is trying to get into composition in Los Angeles’s film industry.

For Jane’s part, as she looks to graduating in the spring, she hopes she can get into the business part of the industry, looking at concert planning or venue management as just a few potential options.

But before she gets there, she plans to keep performing around the area. She has at least one upcoming show scheduled, and thanks her studies at MSUM for helping her be in a position to do so.

“The music industry program has so many unique opportunities that if you take advantage of them, there’s a plethora of things available to you out there,” she says.