The music industry stands at the crossroads of collapse and opportunity.
Problems like near-catastrophic revenue losses from free downloads and plummeting CD sales, as well as piracy battles, are roughly matched by the promise of new business models, exciting technology and near-universal access.
Students at McGill University have a chance to explore the question the industry and fans have been asking for the last 15 years or more: How can it stay viable?
In pursuit of answers, one course offering sees some very different heads put together.
Part lecture series, part design competition, The Treble Cliff: The Remonetization of Music and other Promiscuously Transportable Media Objects sticks management, law, information studies, computer science and music students in a room and gets them to develop and study projects and policies that address the conflicts and opportunities of digital music and media.
This multidisciplinary approach, says course creator and legendary record producer Sandy Pearlman, avoids the potential tunnel vision of seeing a challenge through only one lens.
And for management students, working on complex issues with students and professors outside their field is great training for the real business world.
"For me personally, it touched me to see how we can work together and see the perspectives, because it's really easy to be one-sided on the issue," said Charmaine Lam, an MBA student in McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management who took the course last winter.
Mr. Pearlman's presence at McGill came about as a result of a lecture he gave there in 2004, which addressed similar issues as the course.
He became a visiting scholar at the Schulich School of Music at McGill in 2006. Before that, among other things, he produced many important rock records, including those of Blue Öyster Cult.
This pass-fail course is guided by a group of professors, as well as many guest speakers, and admission is quite selective.
Mr. Pearlman explains that he saw the potential of interdisciplinary learning through his involvement with Silicon Valley start-ups.
"It wasn't just engineers and it wasn't just code jocks and it wasn't just MBAs ... but it was actually a real wide spectrum of people, many of them emanating from the humanities," Pearlman said. "And when you got all these people together in one force-fed, high-pressure environment, interesting things could, and usually often did, happen."
Students are divided into groups organized around their backgrounds. In the past, teams have tackled projects such as the development of recommendation engine software and social networking sites for music.
In Ms. Lam's case, her group took a closer look at the practice of audio sampling.
Long before the "Under Pressure" bass-line re-appeared on "Ice Ice Baby," lifting riffs and other snippets from recordings was an established technique. Digital technology, of course, helped the practice become a defining feature of the pop music industry's artistic, ethical and legal topography.
Ms. Lam's team developed a workshop for teenagers that teaches them to use sampling software, with an emphasis on classical music.
We wanted to "basically integrate the old and the new and see if it would spark some new creativity and interest in the high school students," Ms. Lam said.
Ryan Nelson, an information studies master's student who is interested in intellectual property issues, was also part of an educational project.
His team researched copyright teaching materials, which they discovered were largely informed by the recording lobby. Instead, they produced a curriculum that emphasized the value of the public domain.
Mr. Nelson also helped develop a business model for a social networking music website that helps bands organize tours.
Both Mr. Nelson and Ms. Lam said they thought the course, in its uniqueness, was a valuable part of their education.
"There's a lot of noise about this course, not just in Canada but in the U.S., as well, " Mr. Pearlman said. "And one of the outcomes is that people who have come out of this course have wound up getting really good jobs."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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