MSUM students prepare for music industry by producing records

This article is from Prairie Business Magazine.

By: Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Eric Jensen spends countless hours in the recording studio trying to create new tunes, the kind of work that could help him make it in the music business.

Jensen is enrolled in a Minnesota State University-Moorhead program in which students earn a degree by booking concerts and producing records.

Although the university has offered the Music Industry and Entertainment Studies program for 30 years, a new generation of students is using it to gain real-world experience in a rapidly changing industry.

Minnesota State University-Moorhead Student Eric Jensen confers with another student as they listen to a music recording on Dec 11, 2013. Dan Gunderson/MPR News

Jensen, a senior from Jamestown, N.D., recently worked on a recording of rapper O’Shay Neal included on a sampler released by the student-run label last spring.

“Some of the instruments are actually digital instruments so we actually created them inside the computer,” says Jensen, who plays guitar. “Other instruments we recorded. The guitar is a real instrument. Actually I think that might be the only real instrument we have in this.”

For students in the program, the assignments are a little unusual: search for local music talent, record and produce a new CD and manage the release for student-run Undeclared Records.

“The record company is meant to be a working laboratory for them,” said Program Coordinator Ryan Jackson who runs a production company. He said students select the artists, sign the contracts and record and produce the music.

Jensen said doing so has helped him learn that the music industry is all about connections.

“I like to try and help everyone,” he said, “so that someday if they become somebody, they’ll say ‘Hey, this guy, he helped me back in the day. He’s a good guy. We should help him out.'”

The music industry program typically has about 80 to 90 students. They experiment with and embrace new technology, using iPads and apps to create and produce music, while collaborating with film students on music videos. They also study business, music theory, law and communication.

Alex Johnson, a senior from Mott, N.D., hopes to become a professional recording engineer. He knows exactly what he’s looking for in the bands he works with: strong musical skills, a sense of organization, good finances and the ability to work well with others.

“Those are all things I look for because if you’ve got a bunch of guys that have no drive or motivation they just sit around and dink around all day,” he said. “Nothing gets done, and then it’s not worth anyone’s time.”

Outside of the recording studio, students manage performances on campus and at local concert venues.

Most of the students have some musical training or experience playing in bands or are somehow involved in the resurgent local music scene in Fargo-Moorhead.

Jackson said the students give the local music scene a boost but also benefit from it. He said they want to promote quality musicians.

“It’s nice to see it kind of swing back to that as opposed to the uber-produced pop star,” he said “These guys are actually seeking people that can play, which is really refreshing for me. It’s not surrounding a look; it’s surrounding a quality that can only be achieved by hard work and practice.”

The program’s ability to help students become versatile is important, Jackson said, because the music industry is looking for people with a wide range of skills.

“Specialization in the industry is really in a downturn,” he said. “They need to be able to produce; they need to be able to play. If a musician gets sick they need to be able to step in and say, alright, I can actually cover this part.”

Jackson said he’s made a lot of mistakes in 25 years working in the music industry. But he learned from them.

That’s why he prefers to stand back and let students make most of the decisions as it’s best for them to fail while they have a safety net. He said the on-the-job experience makes the transition to a real job much easier. Many of the program’s students have found music industry jobs in Los Angeles, Nashville, Minneapolis and Fargo.

“Coddling isn’t going to work,” Jackson said. “I’d rather those experiences for these students be here where they’ve got me on text and speed dial so I can help them rather than when their career their families or their livelihoods are in the balance.”