Is Certification In Music Production & The Industry Really That Important?June 11, 2021
UK Progressive House Icon ‘Blue Amazon’ Talks Music Education
Blue Amazon – Lee Softley is a name that has been associated with quality for several years and considered a great contributor to electronic music. He’s a very active figure in music and continues to push in many areas.
His production works have included the progressive club classic – No Other Love, The Javelin album – remixes for the likes of Sasha, Skunk Anansie, New Order, Placebo through to artists such as Madonna. Underground club collaborations with Alex Flatner and Robert Owens on Kling Klong Records, collaborations with Disscut from Germany, Louie Le Fink, and of course Zak Gee with their interpretations series and more.
As a DJ he has also been very proactive over the years whilst outputting his creative style of mixing, producing a DJ style that cleverly merges Progressive, Electro, Techno, and House elements in a unique way. He’s featured on many dates worldwide including dates in Germany – Tours in India – USA – Mexico – Australia – Europe and he’s currently resident at Joy Techno sessions Leeds with guests such as Joey Beltram, CJ Bolland, and Dave Angel.
He’s consistently working on new projects and forward-thinking ideas, labels such as Convert, A Rec, and Radiate, and the ultra-dynamic Resonate Together. Involved in 3rd party music labels, music publishing, artist development, and many other aspects of the modern music industry.
What some don’t know, he’s been consistently involved in the education sector whilst studying to lecturing and mentoring. Topics covered in IT/multimedia to Music Production and Music Business. He recently posted a direct and compelling advice post for anyone considering music education. Highlighted some of the financial issues vs benefits and effectiveness.
His post has resonated with people (including myself) who have been left with similar questions after taking higher education in music production.
We wanted to catch up with Lee for further insight.
Mike Mannix: What prompted you to highlight and question music education and the options available?
Lee Softley: I’ve been around the education system for long periods of my life and have formed many opinions and conclusions. I think it’s important for potential students, parents financing, and mature students to think about what they are doing before committing. There are too many stories of students that have come out of the higher education system who felt it wasn’t worth it. Many prior students say most of what they learnt was self-taught and it wasn’t effective in securing desired employment.
We have to keep in mind that higher education is business, it’s not free and dependent on student numbers to fill the financial expectations. Often being accepted into an educational institute can be pitched like ‘you’re one of the chosen ones”, “you’re part of an elite group”. In certain subjects, this might be more fitting like medical or high-level science but not music. They can dress it up as much as it is, but it’s still a business, an expensive business, and dependent on the old quote “Bums on Seats”. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great tutors who are very passionate about what they teach. Some higher education centres have fantastic resources and facilities.
The system itself is questionable, quite generic and especially when it comes to what is considered creative
Over some time, I’ve personally seen some very odd out-of-date methods, content that will be further out of date when students graduate, and little progressive thought process. Music and related subjects can’t be treated like education in science, medical, or other traditional subjects, it just doesn’t work.
Taking all of this on board, I took it upon myself to research the other options available. Took notes on how they were taught, the content covered, and how they were assessed. I found that many private and streamlined music-related courses were more progressive, less generic, and purposeful at less cost/time.
It’s important to get this right and not waste your time or money. Education can be effective with the right questions and considerations. I’ve experienced this in IT, where the courses were streamlined, effective and students were all in IT employment after completing their course.
MM: How did you develop your music production, did it involve any formal higher education?
LS: When I started things were very different, there wasn’t an abundance of music production courses or music business courses available. I had to follow the tried and tested musician method – try – fail – try again. When I left college I started working in Electronics/ engineering and hated it, but it gave me money to buy vinyl and I was able to invest in some basic music equipment. I owned a Roland sampler, a basic mixing desk, and a naff Yamaha keyboard that had some sequencing options. I had no music experience, no piano playing skills, or other.
A little bit later down the line, a friend told me about a studio in Huddersfield that was hosting an introduction to sound recording week and it was subsidised. I took time off work and paid to attend. It was like an overview of a studio, how it was used, and some techy stuff like Cubase sequencing. It was here I met James Reid who was a trainee sound engineer. He told me that the studio also had a small programming room with Cubase and few other bits of equipment. It could be hired cheaply, So I would book the odd Saturday afternoon in that room and try to work on ideas, James would help, he became integral and that’s how the Blue Amazon project started between us.
Later down the line, there was a full-time academic music production/sound engineering course hosted in Huddersfield and I applied. I wasn’t accepted because I wasn’t a trained musician and only had limited GCSE qualifications at the time. They also really drilled me about not being taught binary at school and said I wouldn’t be able to manage this course; it would be far too difficult for me.
On reflection, it was the best thing that happened because I continued doing what I was doing and being around some great musicians, engineers, and people actively working in music. I learned heaps and progressed very quickly. The guy who interviewed me for that course, years later asked me to work for him. He didn’t remember who I was and was quite funny.
I’ve talked about this before, I progressed quickly from being around people who were also developing or professional.
It was like the best education you could have but with results because it was learning whilst being proactive.
This was the same for both my music productions as well as music business activities.
MM: You mentioned in your post that music courses are padded out with unnecessary duplicate content and odd assessment criteria. Can you expand on this?
LS: From my experiences, there’s just not enough content to cover to fill a whole year or three years of study. For example, you might have 4 or 5 different modules in one year’s course all labelled differently but repeatedly cover the same material. It’s good to reinforce a topic, but doing the same subject again across different lectures becomes boring for students and wasteful. If your studying Sound Engineering and your covering the principles of EQ five or six times across multiple modules, isn’t that just going to put you off the subject of EQ and have a negative effect? It’s the same in other areas as well such as the music business and marketing.
In addition, higher education courses have modules that are questionable to how they relate to the subject you are studying. Bordering sociology classes and assessed with assignment-based work, but your studying music production or music business, etc.
I understand that it might provide a more rounded education, however, awareness in these areas is sufficient and more time could be allocated on the topic of concern. I was advised when attending college (after school) and studying electronics, that I was wasting my time. If I wanted to be involved in music thats what I should focus my efforts on doing. This advice was from a very straight up lecturer who said – go away and spend the time on what it is you want to achieve and not add things that you won’t use. The point is not to be wasteful and work as much as possible on the main objectives.
To be very blunt the higher-level music education I have seen and experienced there is a high % of for want of a better word – JUNK. It about fulfilling dated academic criteria and padding out the time rather than being useful. There are some odd and generic group assessment criteria included based on business pitches and presentations with examples of the Dragons Den.
It’s like suggesting you can study how to be successful on the X factor. That’s not real outside of TV and these things don’t happen in the real world
For the majority of the music industry, it would be a joke to do something like that. Yet, this is part of a very expensive EDU system. This coupled with other borderline childlike exercises and assignments, really questions the integrity of it all.
MM: Higher education is very expensive and lengthy; how does that compare with private education? Which is better?
LS: If you asked me this question a few years back I would have been skeptical of the private music courses. I often thought it was more of business activity. After research that isn’t the case and
a lot of private education or self-funded music schools are very good. They produce outstanding results, have great music networks, hands-on, advice, and mentoring from people proactive in the industry
The courses are more flexible and affordable, cutting yearly educational fees down to third per year. It’s also very likely that you wouldn’t need to take more than a one-year course period. Some of these courses are progressive and have advanced VLC systems. They are cutting edge, they cover the next wave of music tech including the likes of Dante looks set to be the future of audio recording.
It’s a less generic education, more personal and when they are hosting an equivalent degree course (which can be SLC funded like universities) – their assessment criteria are more logical and relevant.
MM: What other options are available to potential students, is it possible to self-study and gain experience?
LS: It possible to self-study and learn the majority of this yourself, but
you need to be self-motivated, be around music and others in music
Being proactive with what you do and create examples of what you do. This could be as simple as uploading your music to a SoundCloud page. All the information is out there and, in the majority, free to access but take a few pointers and advice from others to reduce wasting time on tutorials that are not so great – this will help.
I would still suggest taking some shorter courses and even online that are relatively cheap. There are lots out there including software tutorials that are around the £30 mark but very good. You will also need to put yourself forward for related activities. This could be asking someone or a band to have a go at mixing their track, free on spec remixes, get involved with other music projects and people similar to yourself.
All of this is just as essential as learning skills and craft – don’t limit yourself just to specific areas of interest – try and experiment in other areas.
In terms of course options –
Point Blank have several courses both self-funded and some are via the student loans system – both online and in-house courses. Their content is very good and they also have a great VLE system. They have some very flexible courses that reasonably priced for the length.
Paul Nolan – Make your transition course has a great reputation and I believe he does take on some direct one-to-one training.
Born to Produce – have some very good and reasonability priced software course in such as Cubase.
ADSR – have several online courses available which are not excessively priced.
LinkedIn Learning – heaps of software courses
RED Tape Central Sheffield – again are reasonable and have a good reputation.
I’ve been following Shaw Academy – Sound engineering course which covers some great topics both historical point of view and modern – Lots covered on sound principles, microphones and more. Their subscription system is a bit confusing but they are flexible if you ask.
I’m a fan of the Slate Digital Access all subscription, not only do you get a lot of (regularly updated) useful plugins /software – synths and samples packs, their academy tutorials that come with the subscription are very good.
Check out DANTE and the free course from Audinate.
There are so many good courses out there and not over expensive. There’s course to suite everyone to the modern producer or live recording. Again, that will multiply if you also look at USA based. It’s a matter of digging around and ask others who have done similar.
MM: How important is certification in music production or the music business?
LS: In terms of certification as opposed to experience and a good body of reference work. Little importance.
The majority of opportunities in music or music business are based on evidential materials, i.e. music you have worked on and what it achieved, running a label and its impact, etc might secure a licensing deal, etc. The music industry as a business is very blunt in many ways – Do you have something of value that can be taken further? What is the evidence of that?
Why would the opportunity or meeting arise if you weren’t already proactive and already doing it?
It’s largely based on creating interest for what you do or your prior track record. I’m not suggesting that it’s not important to learn and gain experience but having a certificate that says you do won’t cut it.
With the record labels I’ve been involved in, I’m not particularly interested in your prior release accolades or reputation. I will take the music on what I solely hear, But, many labels and the music businesses are interested in what you have done previously and stats. They are not interested in what you studied or a certification.
This begs the question “do you need certification?” Or is knowledge, experience, and a proactive attitude more than enough?
I have also seen similarities in IT and multimedia, you can have an office with several staff who are certified or have degrees. Then there’s also several staff without but have experience and some related qualifications. Yet all the staff members are paid the same, doing the same job but some are carrying debt.
MM: If it was your son who was looking at these options, what would you advise?
LS: If it was that time or when that time comes, I would be very mindful and encourage him to be very mindful. I wouldn’t want him to be carrying up say 50K of debt into the career stage of his life unless it was worth it, like a medical or high-level science studies degree/cert. I also wouldn’t want to be wasting that type of money if I was funding it either.
In terms of music and especially for any self-financing parent, I would encourage looking at the options available. How self-motivated your child is and determined.
I would look at how much money would be spent on a full-time education course over 3 years (paid or student loans – 45 to 50k with living cost) vs investment into equipment / set up and shorter effective courses. Investment in equipment is there for many years and can be used throughout their development and progress.
I would also look at what shorter courses are available, that being a collection of or even a one-year’s study with additional addons. It not all about saving money, but as it stands it would cost a fifth (including equipment) of a three-year higher EDU cost or debt.
MM: You are involved in private mentoring. Can you tell us more about that?
LS: Well, first of all, none of this was about creating an advertisement for my activities, albeit part of what I do is motivated by some of these issues.
I’ve started private mentoring sessions online via Zoom, sharing screen/audio, working live on student’s music sessions, and more. What I do is very personalized and tailored to the student. It’s based on what they want, what they need, and their development. It’s not about excessive costs or unnecessary clutter. I try to minimize the fuss, explore options, ideas available, and inspire motivation.
I had some pointers and help from a good friend Simon Gordon who is also very proactive in private mentoring and tutoring.
It’s still early days but rewarding seeing the development of the people I’ve been online with. Some, are at starting level but yet within a few sessions they are writing and producing music at some level already. Being inspired is a massive motivation in music and can carry people very far. It makes everything so much easier to achieve, relative, and learn.
MM: Anything else you would like to add?
LS: Above all, we want to encourage people to make the best decisions and not be disappointed later down the line. Ignore the shiny Boucher and studio tours at first and dig a bit deeper into what it entails. A lot of these in-house studios and equipment are nice to experience, but realistically its doesn’t exist in the real world anymore or very limited.
As mentioned EDU is a a business at some level and being sold to you – since you’re the buyer – take your buyers options and research carefully.
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