Education Is the Next Punk Rock
Legendary musician Martin Atkins teaches a new generation how to make it
Austin Convention Center, Room 15
Say the name Martin Atkins in rock circles, and the response is often reverence. As a drummer, he played with some of the most legendary punk, metal, and industrial acts of the Eighties and Nineties: Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails. Not exactly the first name you'd think of as a college administrator. But after nine years as a fixture at SXSW Music, this year he's flying in to Austin a few days early to make his SXSWedu debut as the chair of music business at SAE Chicago, a respected creative industries professional-development school.
The transition is just another stage in a career that Atkins describes as "grasping the nettle." A decade ago, he was organizing a tour with his band Pigface, and it was the typical gargantuan logistical nightmare: "Five bands, three buses, 80,000 promotional postcards, 10 different partners, promotional CDs. I'd heard about this intern idea, and I thought, 'I'm going to go get some.'" He went to Columbia College in Chicago, to convince staff that this was a serious learning opportunity for their students. "They said, 'This is fantastic, when can you start?' I said, 'Well, I need students now.' They said, 'No, no, no, when can you start teaching the business of touring?'"
It's easy to see why Columbia, and then SAE, would want him. Not only has he been involved in the marginal business of independent and alternative music for decades, but he's also run his own label and studio. That's why he teaches music business, not music: Any jobbing musician can play, but it's much tougher to make an artistically fulfilling career out of it. "Everything comes back to money," he said, "but also to me it has nothing to do with money. If you want to be creative and market yourself, you can do more of that with a $2 T-shirt than a $10 T-shirt. You can't give away many $10 T-shirts. There's plenty of room for someone in the band to understand recording and studios, and not just save money but create your own unique voice."
The shift from touring musician to department head is not a complete change from his days seeing cities around the globe from behind a drum kit. He said, "SAE has 56 schools around the world, so it's a great fit for me to go and visit all these campuses while I'm on my travels."
The classroom hasn't changed Atkins. Instead, he's changing the classroom. After all, there aren't many lecturers with their own tour T-shirt, but he's created one, emblazoned with the simple mantra "Education Is the Next Punk Rock." His approach is simple: If you're teaching the next generation of musicians how to survive, teach them how to survive right now. That means tearing up outmoded received wisdom – literally. He said, "I walked into the first class, someone handed me the textbook, and it was something about theatrical touring in 1962." His response was to write three textbooks of his own – Tour:Smart (2007), its upcoming prequel Band:Smart (to be published this year), and Welcome to the Music Business: You're F**ked! (2012) – and he takes a similarly disruptive, DIY approach in the classroom, with an emphasis on practical results. Atkins doesn't grade classes on a curve: Instead, he has students organize shows, and he judges whether they're a failure or a success by how many paying customers they get through the door – just like the business does. For his first Columbia course, the last day of class had the students hands-on when the Pigface tour rolled into the Chicago Metro. He said, "They loaded in, they smelled the road crew. It was a Sensurround experience."
The experience of joining academia had its own learning curve for the professional punk. He said, "I would walk into a lecture hall at the University of Memphis, or the University of Cologne, and say, 'Fuck.' In music business circles, it's neither here nor there. But in a lecture hall, there would be a collective intake of breath. I kind of liked that." He even raised eyebrows with his tactic for kickstarting Q&As: Toss questioners muffins. He said, "In a world of GWAR and bands that throw shit all over the place, to throw muffins at a musical event would just be ridiculous. But to throw muffins at a serious lecture, at the risk of sounding kind of ridiculous, is kind of anarchic."
It all comes down to student engagement. Atkins said, "As someone involved in theatre, and working with an audience, I'm hyper-conscious of if someone's eyelids are drooping." In his classroom, his solution is more radical than muffins. After all, what's a lecture without stage pyro? He said, "You have to engage students first, and I want students to still be here in week five. If it takes a firework display week one, and actually getting hands-on, hands dirty, that's what I do."
Atkins will also be at SXSW Music, presenting Band:Smart: 50 Ideas to Make $100K More This Year, Wed., March 16, 12:30pm, ACC Ballroom E.