Well whaddayaknow?

Fri, Dec 18, 2009, 00:00

When a lecturer in a third-level music management course offered to set a Christmas exam for Ticket journos, we took up the challenge. Last Friday, Jim Carroll, Tony Clayton-Leaand Sinéad Gleesonsat down to two hours of longhand hell. But are they swots or slackers?

EARLIER this year, Michael Murphy, lecturer in the Institute of Art and Design Dún Laoghaire’s course in Popular Music and Music Management approached, The Ticketwith a question. How would your music journalists do in the exams our students sit? Brilliantly, we retorted, with only a hint of bravado.

But, despite my immediate conviction that our team of music hacks was as good as any, this was an interesting question. Journalists are typically well versed in the here-and-now, are speedy researchers, and can cram like Leaving Certers several times a day. But how is our base knowledge, our historical know-how? How wide-ranging is our expertise?

I asked for three volunteers (you, you and you). I didn’t include myself, as I’m only an editor and not a musical expert. Besides, somebody would have to sit in the “exam hall” shushing people and making sure they didn’t sneak off to the loo to examine notes written on their forearms, and generally enjoy the power trip.

Three brave but nervous souls – Jim Carroll, Tony Clayton-Lea and Sinéad Gleeson – entered the top floor of The Irish TimesBuilding last Friday to sit a two-hour test.

We conducted the exam with scrupulous fairness. The paper was kept under wraps until the moment the clock started ticking. And once it did, a hushed frenzy of scribbling descended on the normally giddy rock hacks. Not a whisper between them.

As the exam dragged on and my invigilator power-trip wore thin, darker thoughts came. What if they fail? Do I convert this feature from a 2,000-word, front-of-book double-page spread to 200-word panel on page 31? If they pass, does it mark our music-writing team as a bunch of – for want of a better expression – squares, man? Would Lester Bangs have passed this exam? Would he have turned up? But these thoughts passed.

On completion, their answer books were numbered (not named) sealed in an envelope and dispatched to the examiner. After he had scored them, they went to an external examiner.

The provisional results came through last Sunday morning, as I lay in bed. I sat back and thanked Lordi. Our writers are geniuses. Or maybe academia is dumbing down.


STUDENT 1: JIM CARROLL


The chuckling was unnerving. Everyone I talked to in the days leading up to this date with academic destiny regarded the notion of me doing a music exam to be the funniest thing they’d heard in ages.

C’mon, I said, I know this stuff. I’ve written about music for years. I’ve worked for labels, big and small, and know more about contractual sub-clauses than I ever wanted to. This will be a doddle, right? But they still laughed.

Like most people who work or have worked in the music business, I’ve never actually done a course in the subject. The music business has always been a place where experience counted for more than a piece of paper. You learned much more in an hour on the job than you ever could be taught in a classroom.

At the back of my mind, though, there was a nagging doubt. Was this when I would be unveiled as a spoofer and chancer? What would happen if all the questions were about opera and/or heavy metal? I did absolutely no preparation whatsoever – unless you count a lunch beforehand with a record label chap.

Yes, there was a question about the differences between French and Italian opera (uhm, the French sing in French?), but there was also one about the roots of hip-hop. Away I went, writing about Kool Herc, his sister Cindy and a party in their gaff in the South Bronx.

Critically assessing an Irish music festival had me scrawling away about the Electric Picnic. After 10 minutes, I started to wonder if some of the stuff I was mentioning was even in the public domain, but kept going anyway. Let’s hope Festival Republic never get sight of that paper.

More critical assessment followed. This time with U2’s career in regard to changes in the music industry and technology came under the microscope.

At the end, my hand hurt, my brain was sore and I was still largely unconvinced that a course in music business was any substitute for real experience. However, the questions did present a challenge, not least in how to be objective and leave your opinions aside for two hours. Let’s hope that the examiners thought that’s what I was actually doing.

Examiner’s comment:Outstanding depth of analysis. Impressive breadth of knowledge. Outstanding use of references and fluency of use. Comprehensive. Master’s level work in that it adds to the body of knowledge on the topic. Very strong critical analysis of U2.com. Watch for tiny details which may read in a confusing manner.

Overall result: 79%


STUDENT 2: TONY CLAYTON-LEA


What’s with this handwriting lark? I’ve been writing/thinking/cutting and pasting/deleting on computer screens for well over 20 years, and haven’t written more than my signature in longhand in that space of time. Having to write down the answers to these music exam questions made me think about the writing process almost as much as the content of the answers. Writing on a computer gives you the freedom to key in words virtually by free association in that you know if a word or paragraph doesn’t fit then you can always change or delete it. Longhand writing – even with the benefit of a bath of Tippex – simply doesn’t give you that luxury; you have to think out your answer before you write anything down, otherwise you’ll spend more time than you ideally want erasing words or lines.

All this considered, I liked doing this exam. We received a sample paper some weeks back, so we had a good idea of the structure of the questions. But not (of course) a notion of what the questions would be on the day of the exam.

I had it in the back of my mind to study various areas that I thought might crop up, but I was at Dingle’s Other Voices event in the week immediately preceding the exam, so, unusually for this writer, I was totally unprepared.

Section 1 (Introduction to Music) had the benefit of four questions I could have a good stab at and one I didn’t know anything about – Italian and French opera. My first choice in Section 1 related to the history of punk rock. I may not know the difference between a grommet and a grimalkin, but I certainly know the difference between The Adverts and Television, so I felt I did quite well with this question.

Section 2 (Popular Music Management) comprised five questions I knew I could have a reasonable go at, but I chose two – the decline of the showband era in Ireland, and the critical assessment of the career of any Irish band over the last four decades with reference to changes in technology and the music industry – that I felt I knew more about. Again, I sensed I did quite well with these two questions.

Ultimately? A good and salutary exercise in structural thinking. I just to hope to God I achieved higher marks than Jim Carroll, otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it!

Examiner’s comment:Very strong on the social and environmental factors for the punk movement. Short answers exclude waffle but may exclude additional points. Very concise presentation of material. Encyclopaedic knowledge matched by strength of logic.

Overall result: 71%


STUDENT 3: SINÉAD GLEESON

The last exams this writer took were in college, but at least with university exams, you have a rough idea of what to cover. Surely you just read the books and critical texts and bang out some answers, no? Then it slowly dawned on me. This was an exam about a music business course that I haven’t actually done. My knowledge of said business is based on obsessive record-buying, musical autobiographies and going to gigs. Ask me about the state of the music industry, and I could rustle up some opinions, but are they what this mysterious examiner is looking for?

Having cheerily accepted the challenge, I began to have “the fear” that I hadn’t a breeze about this. A few days wasn’t enough to cover the history of music beginning with cavemen drumming around fires.

No phones were allowed, so cheating was out and I’m not a banker, so I ruled out bribery too. Then I remembered that Jim Carroll is a walking, talking music encyclopaedia who will score about 150 per cent. Pitting my music biz knowledge against his, is like asking me to enter a penalty-taking competition with Ronaldo.

The day arrived and we gathered in The Irish Timesboardroom. Multiple pens. Check. Wine Gums (kindly provided by The Ticket Ed). Check. I turned over the paper and – eek – it was much harder than I expected. My heart shuddered and I was briefly transported back to Leaving Cert 1992. If only – the panoramic city view from the seventh floor was proving more distracting than a dreary school hall and the acne-addled neck of the boy who sat in front of me. And my dear departed granny isn’t around to burn umpteen candles for me.

Ok, get a grip, I told myself, and just started writing. After half an hour, my fingers were angry and the muscles in my wrist were aching. The questions were either extremely broad or so specific that fakers would be found out. Two hours later I had answered three questions, but only after trawling my brain for usable nuggets like an old dredger. Brain exhausted. Hand wincing. Sugar high from too many wine gums. Conclusion? Exams are evil.

Examiner’s comment:Magnificent on overall context impact of technology and musical trends since the 1960s. Could have stuck more closely to the original question for higher marks. Insightful discussion of the tension between the touring model and the income generation from traditional sales. First-class cultural analysis of showband era. A little more on the financial/business side of the industry could have been an addition.

Overall result: 73%


EXAMINER’S REPORT


The exam was in Popular Music and Music Management. This is one of the modules in the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology’s BA in Business Studies and Arts Management. Students study standard business degree subjects and also music, theatre, visual arts and event management.

The exam was set by Michael Murphy, lecturer and former music industry impresario.

“I graded this as if the candidates were final-year students,” Murphy says . “I marked them as hard as I would a real exam. This did disadvantage the candidates, as real students would have been exposed to the course during classes and projects, and would have been offered tuition in how to prepare for exams.

“I do not normally grade out of 100 like the Leaving Cert. Once you achieve 70 you have the top grade. I did not expect all three to do so well; normally about 7-12 per cent of students would attain the highest grade in fourth year. For these three to come and score so highly, without preparation, is remarkable.”


THE PAPER

You should answer three questions, including one from section one, one from section two, and one from either section. You have two hours to write the three answers.

SECTION 1:

Introduction to Music


1. Describe and discuss the major differences between Italian and French opera.

2. The popular music industry is impacted by changes both in technology and musical trends. With specific reference to any British television show, discuss the impact of technology and musical trends since the 1960s.

3. Describe the origins of hip-hop music. Your answer should include details of the social and political conditions of the time, the originators of the genre as well as the four elements of early hip-hop culture.

4. Discuss the main features of gospel music and spirituals. Include details of the history and experience of African-Americans.

5. Describe the history of punk rock from 1976 to the present day. Include reference to a number of sub-genres of punk, as well as the business decisions behind the movement.

SECTION 2:

Popular Music Management


1. The music promoter considers profit as well as legal and social issues. Critically assess the success and key issues of any Irish music festival with reference to those factors.

2. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of change in Irish society. Discuss the factors which contributed to the decline of “the showband era”.

3. Discuss the development of reggae music in Jamaica with reference to musical, industry, social and geopolitical factors.

4. Artwork plays a vital role in the music industry. Describe the evolution of artwork in the music industry since the 1920s. Include analysis of any album artwork you feel is significant.

5. Critically assess the career of any Irish band over the last four decades with reference to changes in technology and the music industry.