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.
MANNHEIM, GERMANY — 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.
"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.
The rest of the week is spent in classrooms where the glitz of their future profession is nowhere to be seen. Huddled in a too-small lecture room, students stare at overhead slides as Wandjo holds forth on the realities of the business. "Being able to sing real well is not a guarantee for making money," he says.
But maybe lectures such as "How to produce a hit," or "How to form a band," by people like the head of Universal Music in Germany, will do the trick.
After one year in the classroom, students will be turned loose to record labels and music publishing houses for on-the-job experience. Along the way, classes will require them to, among other things, work in teams to win a contract for a real pop group, learn to deal with the media, and unravel entertainment law.
Most important, say school officials, is teaching the students that their future industry is in a state of change. Though interest in music continues to rise, the future of the industry is looking shaky, as more and more listeners head online. The changing nature of music distribution, property rights, and methods are major topics for the pop academy's students.
"There are going to be new people needed to help change the business," says Wandjo, whose music business majors will pick apart artist rights' and contractual lawsuits. "At least one of the objectives of this place is to be a laboratory in which we can accelerate that change."
What students come up with are not just academic, but quite possibly practical solutions to problems faced by school backers like the Universal Music record label. The label's president is a lecturer at the academy, and the company recently transferred its education and training wing to the Mannheim school, five hours south of its Berlin headquarters.
Sponsors, the biggest one the state of Baden-Wüerttemberg, have so far pumped 2.2 million euros ($2.5 million) into the academy, with an additional 3.9 million ($4.5 million) for a new building at a newly constructed Mannheim media park.
The Pop Academy has been received with bemused interest by the small circle of academics in Germany who concern themselves with the pop-music business. Some think that the academy needs to make sure it doesn't promise its students too much in the way of stellar careers or years in the spotlight. Others wonder if a bachelor of arts degree in pop is worth as much as a business degree and an internship at a record label.
"There is no formal training to prepare for the music industry. The way in is mostly haphazard," says Thomas Mönch, a University of Würzburg professor who specializes in pop music. "That also makes sense, because those that work in the industry need a certain drive," that an academy can't always provide.
To their credit, the students seem to be able to distinguish between reality shows that promise soaring, yet fleeting, careers, and the moxie and dedication it takes to last. "So much of success [in pop] depends on bringing out the right song at the right time," muses Wittschell, before scribbling down additional chord changes for the bassist. "But I do think that it's possible to learn a lot about it up to a certain point. The rest ... is luck."