“98% of our graduates find employment in the recording industry!”
I’d been seeing the TV commercials for weeks if not months, but THAT line was the closer. I was sold.
I was a struggling musician in my late 20s, unemployed, bored, and was looking to make a move that would enhance my music “career” such as it was. This idea was perfect! The Center for the Media Arts (now a long-since defunct for-profit trade school for recording and photography and such) had operators standing by!!!
I made the call, set up an appointment and paid them a visit. This was around September of 1989. It was my ninth September since graduating high school. Every September I felt the pull of higher education and even found myself feeling a deep inexplicable need for new notebooks and pens and binders and such.
Like all for-profit schools, they had a team of Financial Aid experts. Not only did they get the loan paperwork done but, as it turned out, there would also be a small monthly amount coming to me to help with my living and transportation expenses. It was all settled in a matter of days…soon I’d be starting my (non-accredited) 6-month Recording and Audio Arts program.
When I started classes I was still unemployed, but, thanks to the financial aid deal, I had cash! Until I didn’t (it went quick). Then I had to get a job just to be able to afford to continue making it to class. Well, class was from 2 PM to 6 PM Monday to Friday. The job I found was located very close to the school and my work hours were 4 AM to 1 PM. PERFECT! I had an hour to get a little lunch before classes started.
After starting that job, the next week of classes was really rough. It wasn’t because of fatigue, but rather, after 16 cups of coffee throughout the morning and hustling in the wholesale flower market like a maniac, I found it impossible to sit still in a school desk for four hours. Fortunately, I was a natural-born problem-solver. In the hour between school and work I was able to squeeze in a six-pack of beer and a joint. When asked about this practice I explained that it was necessary to change gears so I could sit in class for 4 hours.
Anyway, the Center for the Media Arts was the last place on Earth anyone would question my substance-related habits. Among the teachers I think it is safe to say that 90% of them were bitter, jaded disabled veterans of the 1980s cocaine wars. Keep in mind that the digital age was beginning to dawn and digital music technologies like MIDI and digital audio workstations for recording were just starting to get some traction. All these recording engineers teaching classes at CMA were there for the extra income because the inevitable decline of the once-booming NYC recording studio industry had already begun. By the way, their curriculum was strictly analog…until I showed up.
So, half of these bitter, jaded teachers looked like they just stepped out of a night at Studio 54 and the other half looked like they just stepped out of a 36-hour marathon recording session. While there was no doubt they knew their stuff, whether we absorbed and could apply what they were teaching was clearly not a very high priority. And I don’t really blame them!
Half the folks in my class were straight out of high school and acted like they were in middle school. It turns out they were enrolled against their will by their Moms who then would continue getting bigger public assistance checks. The other half of my classmates were there because they wanted to be there, but many of them could not get accepted to any college due to functional illiteracy and little or no math skills (“They told me there’d be no math!”). Of course that was never a barrier to acceptance at a for-profit, non-accredited school like CMA.
At the time, my weekdays went like this: wake up at 3 AM, get on the subway around 3:30 to make it to work by 4. I’d spend the next 9 hours selling literally tons of cut flowers to New York City’s florists, carrying their filled boxes out to their vans and doing all the math in my head (prices were by the stem and different flowers were sold in bundles that varied in the number of stems per bundle). This was made possible by the availability of free coffee and I’d gulp down between 12 and 16 cups a day while at work. Then I’d spend an hour “shifting gears”, then school for 4 hours. After that I would usually spend the night at a gig or in a studio until at least midnight. 3 hours of sleep and do it all again!
Despite this rigorous and demanding lifestyle, I was getting the best grades in my class and my copious note-taking probably could have been the basis for an income stream – if I had thought of it at the time. I actually forced CMA to up their game after finding out that none of the course modules even came close to talking about MIDI or the digital revolution at all! I crafted a petition to the Dean to include at least a class on the basics of the subject and – lo and behold – it worked!
The lucky teacher who got that unfortunate duty was one of my favorites. His name was Cary, but we called him “Fish Tie”. For some reason all the teachers had to wear a tie (yup…no female teachers) and he wore the same goofy, colorful tie every day that depicted some kind of fish (a bass? a trout? who knows?). Like me, he was at a gig or a studio almost every night, but he was a professional pedal steel player doing really well in NYC’s western swing scene. He started that class by openly admitting that he was told to do this by the Dean and was given a MIDI keyboard to use for demonstration purposes. He had never played keyboard and had never used MIDI before in his life. I can recall having napped through that particular class.
(Fast-forward twenty years….I am now in a band in Knoxville, Tennessee. the other guitar player told us he was bringing a pedal steel player he met to the next practice. Who does he show up with? Old long-forgotten Fish-Tie!!! I recognized him right away – even without the tie – and when I jogged his memory a bit he recalled me too. As soon as we were oriented to our time at CMA he was incredibly apologetic about the shape he was in while teaching there and the appalling lack of education going on at the school in general. He never came back to another of our practices and I think embarrassment was the reason.)
Well, I “graduated” on the Dean’s List and then it was time to go to one of the placement counselors. These were the folks who were responsible for “98% of our graduates” getting placed in jobs in NYC’s recording industry. Of course, at the time, that industry was in decline and everyone I asked knew that a) CMA was the joke of the industry, and b) all these “jobs” were non-paying internships.
My hopes of paying off my student loan from a “job” in a recording studio went out the window, but I went to an interview for a non-paying internship at a “jingle house” just the same. A jingle house is a recording studio where they record the songs used in radio and TV commercials. My new employers owned and operated a million-dollar, extremely well-appointed facility and had clients the likes of Exxon and GM and such.
Unfortunately for all concerned, this particular studio was in a high-rise apartment building basement that flooded during a major rainstorm, so that internship lasted all of three weeks. My last day there was spent running a shop vac to try to get the last of the 2 1/2 feet of water out of the carpet. Fun fact: Bjork’s debut album was apparently recorded there after hours at some point prior to my arrival.
I didn’t go for any more “industry jobs after that, but I did get one more tangible benefit from my time at CMA: a recording session!
CMA needed bands to come to their studio so the students could get real-world, hands-on experience at the controls of a pro 24-track mixing console. I got my band in there and we got three songs recorded for free (minus the cost of a reel of 2-inch tape which I had to buy myself).
The studio itself was very awesome, gotta admit. It was an old fur vault. The building was in the heart of NYC’s fur district and at some point the CMA building was a hub for a lot of fur district businesses. It was three flights of stairs down below street level and far enough away from any subway lines to be utterly silent.
The next time I set foot in a studio was to have my 2-inch master mixed down to stereo so the band could actually listen to it. Yeah, none of us had a 2-inch, 24-track tape machine. So that mixdown was another $100 plus the cost of a reel of 1/4-inch tape. But at least the tracks were decent!
I soon defaulted on my meager $1,200 student loan and by the time it was finally paid off (20 years later) there were fees and penalties and all sorts of stuff that combined to make it an $8,000 student loan. So it goes.
I did learn a lot and can get a decent result recording my own music these days. I had to teach myself all about recording in the digital era, but a lot of what I learned still applies.
You can not only hear the results of my high-flown technical training, but through the miracle of digital video you can even see me in the act! I have a bunch of such stuff posted on our Patreon page here:
Want to buy our most recent CD? GOOD!!! That is right here:
Cheers till next time!
Tom and Susan