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Play Me the Song of Structural Change – Ten Years Pop Academy

Popakademie Mannheim An experiment celebrates its anniversary: in 2003, the Mannheim Pop Academy opened its doors to offer young musicians henceforth comprehensive and professionally-oriented training. It sees itself less as a substitute for a university than as an alternative to it, with a high degree of reference to reality and plenty of network nodes for the start of a career.

An expressive performance is an important issue for a pop artist – a young student on stage. photo by Pop Academy Baden-WürttembergAction is part of the business – a vocal student on stage. Photo: Pop Academy

The long building in the Mannheim industrial harbour is a monument to structural change. No raw materials trader or shipping company uses the cube with the façade of bright colour fields. Until a floor was added to the building, “Pop-Akademie” and, somewhat smaller, “Baden-Württemberg” stood on the edge of the roof, visible from afar – a white-orange illuminated sign for one of the most dazzling higher education start-ups of the last decade. The founding of the Academy in the summer of 2003 was looked upon as quite an experiment: can street culture, which stands for both charts and commerce, rebellion and artistic experiment, be translated into an orderly training programme? After all, its quality can be measured only in difficult-to-evaluate criteria such as credibility and coolness. Can “pop” consort at all with “academy”?

Pop meets academy

Prof. Udo Dahmen, head and founding member of the Pop Academy Baden-Württemberg, photo by Pop Academy Baden-Württemberg But the founding team around artistic director Udo Dahmen refused to be deterred. They designed a two-track curriculum. One focus is musical training and advanced training, here called “Pop Music Design”. Then there is the more commercial offering, addressed to future label makers, agency managers and other service providers. In a joint project workshop, musicians and music marketers realize concrete projects under start-up conditions. Flexible teaching materials take into account the movements of a rapidly changing market. In the early years, the major Berlin label Universal Music supported the Academy financially and sent its junior employees to Mannheim to be trained.

Trying other instruments is part of the education at the Pop Academy, photo by Pop Academy Baden-WürttembergThe teachers, in turn, came almost exclusively from the music industry. Practice was foremost. Academic discourse was left to others. At the same time, it was intended that the appeal of pop music should not only give new prospects to the neighbouring Mannheim district of Jungbusch, but also re-define the look of the industrial region. Since then, trend terms such as “creative industry” and “exploitation chain” are making the rounds at the mouth of the Neckar. Unforgotten is the nationwide advertising campaign of 2004, which modelled its posters on the famous Abbey Road Beatles cover, using the main figures of the Mannheim Academy.

Continuity of change

Famous artists are part of the education. In summer 2013 the singer of the pop band BAP, Wolfgang Niedecken, discussed his experiences with the students. Photo by Ralf Dombrowski So it was no wonder that those responsible were quite satisfied at the tenth anniversary of the Pop Academy in July with what had been achieved. From the makeshift solution in quadratic downtown Mannheim with just fifty-four students in its first year, the Academy has become a functioning educational institution for over 300 B.A. and, since 2011, M.A. students. Around 500 graduates have successfully completed a pop music training. Including the song-writers Maike Rose Vogel and Konstantin Gropper, who, with his complex arrangements and his band Get Well Soon is also on the move internationally. From the music business section comes Konrad Sondermeyer, whose Berlin management company Guerrilla Entertainment discovered the charts balladeer Tim Bendzko. Or Sebastian Schweizer, head of the Stuttgart Chimperator label, who markets the mask rapper Cro. Part of the pragmatic Mannheim approach is the imparting of functioning business models. The Academy in the industrial harbour has less the star system in its sights as the unglamorous middle-range, where graduates can land jobs as tour or studio musicians.

Networking break outside the class room. Photo: Pop Academy Baden-WürttembergNetworking break. Photo: Pop Academy

Regional vs. national focus

This certainly doesn’t make Mannheim into “the new Jerusalem” that Xavier Naidoo, in one of his usual unctuous songs, postulated it to be shortly after the turn of the millennium. So far the Academy has strengthened the regional scene, which Naidoo and the versatile band collective Söhne Mannheim (i.e., Sons of Mannheim) also promote to the best of their abilities. Only recently the twenty-two year-old Jules Kalmbacher, an Academy intern, made good as a co-producer of the current Naidoo album Bei meiner Seele (i.e., By My Soul). He simply passed on the ideas, says Kalmbacher. It is stories like this that feed the Rhine-Neckar myth. The city is currently beefing up its infrastructure. The Mannheim Musikpark has been established in two buildings in the harbour zone, near the Pop Academy. It is a business incubator in the form of a public-private company, which can offer affordable rents to creative companies. About sixty smaller companies, ranging from merchandising providers to law offices specializing in copyright are using the park as a launching pad. The Southwest Broadcasting and the youth channel Dasding have their local editorial offices here.

Practicing, playing, jamming – basics of the Pop Academy. Photo: Pop Academy Baden-Württemberg In this way, a creative feel-good zone is being expanded through which raw Mannheim is seeking connections to the metropolises. The Pop Academy itself has striven for ten years after the transition to becoming a full-fledged university. As part of the restructuring of musical training in southwest Germany, it is planned that the Academy be fused with the Mannheim Conservatory, which would then, for its part, completely drop artistic and educational training in the area of classical music and focus exclusively on jazz, pop music and dance. It would be an upgrading for the Pop Academy, whose head Dahmen has long desired to strengthen the institution’s scholarly orientation. There are also plans for internationalization, an archive for the documentation of pop music in Germany and a Chair for pop music, which could also supervise doctoral students. The classical conservatory, however, has vehemently resisted the cutting of 300 study places. A turning point in Mannheim.

Ralf Niemcyzk
writes since the eighties about music, pop culture, sports and urban development. Since 2011, he works as an editor for “Rolling Stone” Magazine.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2013

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