UK's premier pop music college sets up shop in Oklahoma to show the USA how to get students into jobs

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The Independent Online

Its name has long had musical associations, but the state of Oklahoma is better known for its cowboys than its boy bands. Not for much longer. Unlikely as it may seem, Oklahoma City is the newest outpost of the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) – a largely unsung British educational success story that, since 1995, has been quietly training up and securing deals for the next generation of pop stars and impresarios.

Last month, 161 aspiring musicians and executives enrolled on the academy's inaugural course in Bricktown, a once down-at-heel railroad district whose recent transformation into a warren of arty warehouse and loft conversions has drawn comparisons with the facelift Hoxton underwent in the 1990s. Against this backdrop, the 16- to 18-year-olds will study for a two-year associated science degree adapted from the diploma and higher diploma courses the academy runs in Britain, and validated by the University of Central Oklahoma. Their aim is to emerge with the technical and business knowhow to forge lasting music careers – in front of the mike, or behind it.

Launching the US-based centre marks the academy's fourth overseas expansion – with partners in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bologna already delivering its courses. Steve Lavington, the director of international business for the ACM in the UK, says this is just the start: "We have relationships with two schools in Japan, are talking to Australia, and have feelers out in Scandinavia and the Middle East. I'm aiming to create a global network of schools, with students able to transfer freely between them."

Conquering America has been an enduring fixation for UK musicians and record labels since the short-lived British invasion of the mid-Sixties. All the more remarkable that it should now have been achieved by a small, not-for-profit training provider whose showpiece campus is based in a hotchpotch of buildings on a roundabout in Guildford.

Sipping tea in his first-floor office in a futuristically converted former car-making plant, the academy's founder and director, Phil Brookes, projects an air of boyish excitement as he contemplates his latest foreign foray: "When I was teaching in my mum's garage, I never imagined we'd go on to win a Queen's Award for Innovation in Education, meet the Queen, or go to Oklahoma."

He started out with chart aspirations himself, playing guitar with a long- forgotten combo (Calamity Sax) before becoming a jobbing musician and a consultant to the further education sector on vocational music teaching. From here, he used a £3,000 grant from the Prince's Trust to set himself up as a private guitar tutor. But it was his FE experience that persuaded him a crucial "bridge" was missing between the worlds inhabited by people who wanted to work in the music industry and those who did.

"I observed a self-perpetuation of music training programmes divorced from the industry. Students would take a course, find the industry hard to break into, then go back to college to teach. The industry didn't see much value in the courses. I wanted to bring students and the industry together."

A glance at the profiles of the academy's 70-plus tutors suggests he's accomplished this. Ranging from voice-coaches and bass players to accountants and "movement and stagecraft" experts. "Big name" contributors – some regular, others occasional – include singer Sam Brown, legendary guitarist Steve Vai, several members of Jamiroquai, and drummer Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who sponsors the main drum suite.

ACM's progression statistics are impressive: three out of four graduates have found paid employment in the industry. Of the 1,200 students on its books at any time, a third are seeking openings in marketing, management or production. Many find these through placements.

A growing number of wannabe singers and musicians are securing publishing and recording deals through the business and artist development centre that the academy opened five years ago to provide on-site A&R support. The academy already has two chart-toppers among its alumni: Sugababes singer Amelle Berrabah, whose duet with hip-hop artist Tinchy Stryder, Never Leave You, went straight in at number one in the UK singles chart last month, and singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner, who reached the top spot two years ago with his debut album, Hand Built by Robots.

Nigel Elderton, managing director of Peermusic, the independent publisher that signed Faulkner, says he was impressed at their first meeting by the singer's savvy about getting his work professionally published – rather than rely on word-of-mouth internet sales: "Conversations we had in the early days were more mature than we're used to at that stage."

Little wonder America wants in – and that the academy has secured patronage there every bit as prestigious as its endorsements in Britain. Chief executive of the newly christened ACM@UCO is Scott Booker, manager of Grammy-winning Oklahoma-based alternative rock band the Flaming Lips.

A UCO graduate himself, Booker says he'd felt "an obligation" to give the next generation a hand-up for some time, but it wasn't until he bumped into the academy's representatives at MIDEM, the world's largest music industry trade fair, in Cannes that he found the right vehicle.

"What impressed me was they weren't there trying to recruit students – they were finding their existing students jobs," he says. "Since getting involved, I've had many parents say to me, 'My child's never been interested in traditional careers. I don't know what I would have done without this'."

So what do students say about ACM? Ruby Fard knows first-hand how tough it is to crack the industry, having spent five years working for free in successive placements while studying for her degree at ACM and, before that, at Croydon's BRIT School (where her contemporaries included Katie Melua). Her efforts eventually paid off when Sony hired her as a £25,000-a-year international marketing assistant: "Early on I fell in love with the business side, rather than performing, but because I didn't know anybody I couldn't get my foot in the door until I went to ACM."

Stories like these are moving other influential figures to lobby for ACM's model to be adopted across further and higher education. Feargal Sharkey, one-time front-man of The Undertones, now chief executive of the umbrella association, UK Music, says: "For people wanting to get involved in this industry there's never been a classic career path."

In a strategy document out next month, "Liberating Creativity", he says UK Music will argue that industry and government must collaborate to develop a systematic training structure: "The shortened version is simple: British music begins and ends with people's ability to write great songs and produce great music. We're the second largest exporter of music in the world. We need to ensure our workforce, our profession, gets as much support as any other."

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