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Rock und Roll 101

A new German 'School of Rock' hopes to churn out Europe's next generation of managers, label owners, and pop stars.

By Andreas TzortzisCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2003


After a guitar-heavy intro, Joscha Wittschell grabs the mic, his baby face contorting as he wails out a sugary rock ballad of love and longing in a soundproof practice room in this southern German city.

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"You're like an angel," he croons, and you can just picture hundreds of red-faced teenage girls screaming for the 20-year-old blond.

Maybe this is Europe's next chart-topper. Or maybe it's just another step on what Wittschell and his bandmates are learning is a long road to stability, never mind stardom, in the pop world. Helping them along the way is Germany's first Pop Academy, a Teutonic "School of Rock," that opened its doors in October. School officials and backers, including Universal Music, have high hopes for the three-year academy, where they plan to groom tomorrow's band managers, label owners, and yes, pop stars.

"We will have one or two rock popstars [and] we will have bassists who work with Rod Stewart," says Pop Academy director Udo Dahmen, peering through purple-tinted sunglasses. "But most important to us is that people who go through here can work their entire life in the music industry."

Similar ventures have been undertaken in England, where Paul McCartney played godfather to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. In Germany, where teen stars and pop casting shows have proven to be as popular as in America, the thirst for 15 minutes of fame in the pop world has never been greater.

The Pop Academy wants to take those 15 minutes and turn them into years. The academy's founders, all of them current or former industry executives, hope to teach their students that there are in fact structures to a business where success is often measured by the fickle taste of 13-year-old girls. "People think everything is tailor-made and designed," says Hubert Wandjo. One of the academy's goals is to "disillusion students," says Mr. Wandjo, a label owner and one of the school's three directors. "Being an international superstar shouldn't be their first objective."

Most of the first-year students already seem to have enough experience to know how tough a business they're getting into. Students enrolled in the business major have already done internships or worked at record labels. Some, like Swantje Weinert, are running their own label at the same time they're attending classes.

"I noticed that a certain network of contacts was missing," says Ms. Weinert, who founded her Berlin record label year ago. "I wanted to learn how to make contacts ... and how to write up contracts and develop artists."

Singers and musicians majoring in pop design sent demo tapes before being asked in for an audition. Most have already played at small clubs and composed many a song about love and longing. Two students signed major recording contracts soon after being admitted.

"People have to bring talent with them," says Dahmen, a veteran music teacher who has played with Sting and Sarah Brightman. "We can bring the creative people together so that they learn in a more accelerated manner."

Pop-music design majors have already formed themselves into groups like Wittschell's, jamming in the nearby music school's subterranean rooms. Dahmen and other professionals spend part of the week improving their skills.