Launchpad to the Future of Pop Music

Jam with Chaka Khan? Perform with Elton John? It’s part of the USC Thornton popular music program experience.

March 10, 2016 G. Bruce Smith

Its alums sing with multi-platinum-album bands, win major industry awards, sign recording contracts, tour worldwide, and perform on television and film soundtracks. Dubbed “cutting-edge” by Rolling Stone, USC’s Popular Music Program may have only just graduated its second class, but it’s already influencing the music industry—and it’s gained the industry’s respect.

“USC was completely integral to everything that happened to me since I moved to LA,” says San Francisco native Rozzi Crane, 22, who signed a record deal her junior year with Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5 and a judge on NBC’s The Voice. She went on to sing with Maroon 5 on the Hunger Games soundtrack and toured with the band and Kelly Clarkson. And she’s just one of the first stars to emerge.

A drum lab, soundstage and recording studios give young musicians the tools to perfect their craft, and it’s no wonder the program has spawned more than 50 student bands. Pick any day of the week and you’re likely to find several of them performing shows on or of campus.

Launched by the USC Thornton School of Music in 2009, the undergraduate program offers a uniquely entrepreneurial climate and gets applications from all over the world. Pop, alternative, folk—whatever the genre, hundreds of aspiring musicians submit video auditions. From those, about a third are invited for a live audition. Admission is based not only on the applicants’ musical ability but also their academic record. Each year, 25 of the most promising students make the cut.

“What we’re trying to gauge in applicants is student success rate,” says Chris Sampson, ’91, MM ’96, founding director of the program and vice dean of the contemporary music division, who also oversees the jazz, music industry, music technology, film/TV scoring and studio/guitar programs. “Our curriculum is challenging, and it doesn’t help anyone to set them up for failure.”

School of Rock it’s not. Students follow a rigorous music curriculum that includes music theory, ear training, performance (the centerpiece) and drum proficiency, a first for music programs nationwide. Seniors even have to write a business plan as their final project.

The Popular Music Forum brought in icons including Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, John Fogerty, Randy Newman and Elton John.

Sampson’s Popular Music Forum—which he calls a kind of Inside the Actors Studio for musicians and music industry reps—has brought in icons including Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, John Fogerty, Randy Newman and Elton John to immerse students in the craft and business of music. After one of the forums with Mike Love and Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys, students had the opportunity to open for the band at a concert later that evening. The forums have also called on industry heavy-hitters such as songwriter/producer Benny Blanco (who’s written for Katy Perry) and Capitol Records CEO Steve Barnett, as well as successful arrangers, recording engineers, managers and publicists.

Students benefit from an artist-in-residence as well. This year’s artist, prolific sound engineer Young Guru, helped entrepreneur and hip-hop mastermind Jay Z shape his sound.

Just as music industry VIPs influence students’ experiences at USC, they also give students a chance to see the business firsthand. Internship and related programs include a mentoring program with BMI, a leading music rights organization in the U.S. “Commitment to study and creative discipline [in the USC program] is extraordinary,” says Barbara Cane, BMI vice president and general manager.

Sometimes the connections spring from faculty. Rozzi Crane, for example, got backup-singing gigs for Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes and the Eagles’ Don Henley through one of her professors. Brett Fromson—whose Americana sound blends folk and country—had one of his teachers co-produce his first album, Heartbreak Like a Train, earlier this year.

“The program has been life-changing,” Fromson says. “Not only did I grow as a musician, I’ve met a lot of people. And the Trojan Family is a real thing.”

Although the Popular Music Program bills itself as a “music degree program for the rock, pop, R&B, folk, Latin and country artist,” these labels are too restrictive, Sampson says. Music and instruments themselves will no doubt change over the next two decades—for example, someday musicians might not use guitars to crank out a rock song’s wailing riffs, he says—but graduates will be well prepared for these shifts.

“The thrust of the program is to be creative,” Sampson says. “I want the students to carve their own path. We put these students through this mind-set that their career is theirs to create.”

Bilal Akhtar, a songwriter and music industry major who transferred from UC Berkeley and just finished his junior year, relishes his freedom and the challenges posed by the program. “I’ve really seen that it encourages you to explore, to find your own voice, to make your own sound,” Akhtar says. “We don’t need another Prince, we already have that.”

Karina DePiano, a keyboard major, sees power in the camaraderie among the students. “Whether you’re a producer, songwriter, vocalist or instrumentalist, we all work together to create something bigger than we could have done alone, and that to me is inspiring,” DePiano says.

Pop stars need a crowd to put their creativity and sounds to the test, and the USC students get that too. Almost every day, students do gigs at Tommy’s Place and Ground Zero Performance Café, creating a new, vibrant campus music scene. They also regularly perform at storied LA venues like The Roxy, Whisky a Go Go and House of Blues. Students put on their Senior Showcase at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, in the same spaces where Janis Joplin and The Doors once growled.

The live shows build their fan base, an increasingly important step toward a successful career at a time when savvy use of the Internet is a more likely fast track to success for young artists than the long shot of signing early with a major label. (At a recent forum, Capitol Records’ Barnett told students the label receives 10,000 solicitations a year, and “we sign maybe two.”)

Each gig and collaboration builds buzz and momentum—and program organizers designed it that way.

“That chemistry you see and community you see is part of our process,” says Patrice Rushen, who became program chair in 2012 after serving as artist-in-residence for three years. “When we select students we’re also careful to look not only at musical abilities but also how they get along with each other. We push them hard to play outside their comfort zone, and they often fall on their face and need to feel comfortable doing so with other students.”

But even with the many advantages of USC’s program—the curriculum, the contacts, the location in the heart of the nation’s pop music business—Sampson acknowledges some students will end up not as performers but instead as arrangers, producers or managers. And some will not work in music at all.

“The lifestyle of the professional musician is not for everyone,” says Sampson, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical guitar performance. “I maintain that music is a great platform to learn about the world. And I’m just as proud of the student that might go on to become a lawyer, educator or businessperson.”