The turbulent ’60s had just ended and the disco era was about to begin, when some leaders of Nashville’s growing music industry looked around and realized they needed a certain kind of talent to really grow the industry.
Not singing talent. Not songwriting talent. Not musical talent. Nashville had plenty of that – and its place as a magnet for musical talent was secure. No, what Nashville needed was people who knew how to operate music industry businesses – operational, administrative and technical talent.
Nashville was a different city back then – it didn’t necessarily embrace the music industry in quite the way the city does today. The leaders of the time hadn’t come to realize yet – at least not to the fullest extent – that “Music City USA” meant a true sense of community, and it was just the kind of well-known brand most cities would kill for.
At the same time, just off the end of Music Row, there sat Belmont College, a small and struggling Baptist-affiliated school that was looking for a way to attract students and money, help the school stay afloat, and then grow.
So when the music industry leaders came to Belmont looking for help, a hit song was born.
In 1971, Belmont created a music business program to prepare and educate students to fill positions in fields that were more business, but without losing the parts of the program that offered courses on the creative. For the music industry to thrive, it needed strong leaders suited to every aspect of the business of making music.
That program established in the early ‘70s grew into what is Belmont’s current Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. So named in 2003, Belmont continues to provide Nashville and the world beyond with students trained for success in all aspects of the entertainment industry. The Curb College within Belmont University attracts top-notch students from around the country, and its proximity to Music Row has resulted in a two-way street of talent, with the Curb College’s faculty reading like a “Who’s Who” of Nashville’s music industry professionals.
But it didn’t start out that way.
For Don Cusic, one of the premier historians of country music and currently a professor of music business at Belmont, the story begins with Ed Sullivan.
“You can start with the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles were on,” he says, “because what happens is the Baby Boom generation has a connection to music. The music industry was something someone else did, it was distant, but it (Beatles performance) got close to them then, and they wanted to be part of it.”
At the same time, Nashville was emerging as a major music center, and Belmont was sitting there “at the top of Music Row … trying to attract students and raise money.” Belmont’s president at the time, Herbert Gabhart, “was doing anything he could to pay the bills,” and so he was open to the music industry.
Cusic, author of more than 200 books, says Gabhart had heard a tale about Roy Acuff accidentally leaving a lot of cash in a hotel room, and he had realized there was money in the music industry. About that same time, a group of music industry executives, including Bill Denny, Francis Preston and Joe Talbot, met with Gabhart and asked him to get Belmont involved with educating future executives for the Music Row.
“They had big-picture vision,” says Cusic. “They knew there was going to be plenty of ‘pickers and grinners’ – how about attracting the executives.”
So Belmont did. “They started it in the School of Music, which was the wrong place for it to be,” Cusic says. “Not too long after, the program was moved to the Belmont’s business school, because nobody else was interested.”
Cusic says the program then “becomes part of the country music industry” primarily through its internship programs, which allow Belmont students to, in effect, audition for jobs in the music industry. “Next thing you know, the industry is full of Belmont grads. You go up on Music Row and swing a dead cat around, and you’ll hit a Belmont grad. And so, that kind of perpetuates itself.”
James I. Elliott, assistant professor, credits Bob Mulloy – who is often described as the founder of the music business program – as the visionary architect of the program.
Mulloy “very wisely put together a board of advisors – he got industry leaders and executives to be on a committee to advise even developing the curriculum.” Elliott says Mulloy deserves credit for putting the program in the school of business, so that graduates had a business degree.
Eventually, the program became a school, and now a college.
Wesley A. Bulla, Ph.D, Dean of the Curb College, says three things propelled the rapid emergence of the program – the proximity to Music Row, its “openness to new ideas,” and “an industry that’s looking to expand from a business perspective, knowing that artists are really fairly easy to find but somebody that knows copyright law, marketing, management, those types of things, are much more difficult to find.” At about the same time, in the late ’60s and early 1970s, NARAS, the National Academy of Recordings Arts & Sciences – the organization behind the Grammy Awards – was trying to get schools to start music business programs, because it intended to become the accrediting organization for such programs, Bulla says.
The combination of NARAS’ interest, Belmont being “open to the conversation,” and industry leaders who saw the value in it, “was really the perfect storm,” Bulla confirms. “I’ve got documentation of probably three or four different people that claim they started the program, and in reality they all started the program. There were lots of people that came together with the same idea – being a training ground for the next generation of music industry professionals – not just artists and performers but the business people behind the scenes.”
In its early days, the program was a hybrid program of both music and business – students had to take 32 hours of music classes. That’s no longer a requirement.
“Clearly, when Brad Paisley came here, we couldn’t teach him anything about music,” Bulla says of Belmont’s most well-known music business graduate. “He wrote a lot of his early hits when he was here on campus.”
The program’s impact on Music Row is undeniable, with a growing roster of both artists and executives listing a Belmont degree on their resume. Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, and Josh Turner rank high among the many talented and successful alumni of the program, while Music Row is populated with many Belmont grads in offstage roles – people like award winning producer Frank Rogers; Mark Wright, President of Show Dog Records/Universal Music; guitarist and producer Dann Huff; publishing company owner Doug Howard, who is president of the startup 101 Ranch Records; entertainment attorney Tiffany Dunn at Loeb & Loeb, Kay Clary, former executive director of media relations at BMI, and many others.
Overall, Belmont’s music business program has elevated the artistry of the Nashville music industry, says Robert K. Oermann, longtime music industry journalist, current weekly columnist at MusicRow Magazine and the author of eight books, including his latest, “Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales of Romance and Tragedy,” published in 2008.
“There’s no question that it’s elevated the artistry – just look at the graduates,” Oermann says. “I really think the industry would have grown as it did with or without the program at Belmont … but there’s no question that they’ve provided a tremendous wellspring of talent to Music Row.”
The professionalization of the music business in Nashville is one area where Belmont’s program has had an impact, he says.
“That is a contribution,” he says. “When I got into this, there was no degree – you just learned it on the street. You learned it in the bars. You learned it from people that were working in the business, and that’s how I learned it. Now, these kids they graduate knowing what clauses are in a recording contract and what the structure of a publishing agreement is.
“When we came to town – my generation – we did not know any of that, and these kids do. They have contributed to the professionalization of the business, no question.”
In the early days of the music industry in Nashville, it grew by “native intelligence” of the people who founded the first businesses – people who just figured out a way to make it go.
These days, however, Music Row wants people who have a college degree and are trained in the business. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s increasingly less common for a person with just ‘street smarts’ to make it.”
Looking to the future, Bulla says the next evolution of Belmont’s music business will be adding graduate programs. Undergraduate programs are oriented toward producing an educated workforce for a specific field, he says, while graduate programs typically focus on “solving the big problems.”
For the music and entertainment business, the “big problems” include the way digital technologies have upended the traditional business models.
Oermann says to the extent solutions can be found for such problems, people who have a music business education may have a leg up in finding them.
“There are people who say you can’t teach this stuff, that the only way to really understand the music business is to just do it, and there is some truth to that,” Oermann says, “but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an educational background.”