Tech column: industry accreditation for HE courses

Tony Andrews, Phil Harding and Steve Parker from JAMES (Joint Audio Media Education Support)
Saturday, June 1, 2024

With a degree now a requirement for many entry-level roles within the music tech industry, how do you select higher education courses from the plethora of choices? JAMES – the Joint Audio Media Education Support group – shares some recommendations

JAMES assessor George Shilling, artist James Passey, and students at the 2019 JAMES Summer School, University of South Wales
JAMES assessor George Shilling, artist James Passey, and students at the 2019 JAMES Summer School, University of South Wales

Mike Banks

Many years have passed since the industry traineeship model provided the traditional pathways into the music industry. Positions such as tape op and runner are now a distant memory and higher education courses have taken their place. The educational models used over recent decades have tended to focus on the technology rather than the social, aesthetic and human skills that the traineeship model promoted. Generally, when a permanent position does arise, employers look to a university graduate to fill the position.

Evidence suggests that some higher-education providers are not furnishing students with the kind of skills and specialisms that the creative industries demand – this is evidenced by the varied employment outcomes across the media industry sector.

Over the past decade, industry-accredited university courses have proven to be beneficial to potential employers and have more-readily prepared students with knowledge, skills and credentials for work in their chosen career path.

In 2006 an agreement was formed between The Music Producers' Guild (MPG) and the Association of Professional Recording Studios (APRS) to create JAMES (Joint Audio Media Education Support). Comprising representatives from each association, the group aims to offer industry-based advice and course accreditation. A recognised PSRB (Professional Statutory and Regulatory Body) for higher education, JAMES looks to ensure that degree courses realistically prepare students for work in the creative music and media industries.

Spoiled for choice?

It is questionable whether there is such a position as a music technologist, and it is important to remember that any Music Technology course delivered at A Level/BTEC may not compare to a Music Technology course offered by a higher education provider. Music Technology at degree level will normally be offered as a Bachelor of Science (BSc). If students are interested in composition, music, and music production a Bachelor of Arts (BA) may be more appropriate than a BSc, although some institutions do offer BAs in Sound Technology. Music Technology at degree level may involve acoustics, computer coding and electronics. Music Production may align more to their school experience encompassing studio production, digital workstations and composition. There are now many specialist areas that a potential music technology student may study. Employment opportunities exist in areas that students may not have considered, or be aware of, for example: audio post-production for film and television; game audio programming; acoustic modelling and spatial audio; digital signal processing; live sound engineering and sound reinforcement; signals and electronic systems design; studio production and audio processing; music production; and publishing and media.

When researching for potential further and higher education courses, a search featured 1,236 Music Technology courses from 209 providers. A UCAS search for university courses showed 450 courses from 102 providers. Choosing a course can be problematical for school leavers; however, UK Music (the umbrella organisation for the UK music industry), together with Joint Audio Media Education Support and the Musicians' Union, has created an online Music Education Directory that is aimed at helping all music students progress their studies post-GCSE. The directory covers all areas of music studies from performance through to songwriting, production, technology, and music business and includes industry links where appropriate. A 2024 update of the directory will arrive in September.

Freelance or freewheeling

The music industry contributed £6.7bn to the UK economy during 2022 in terms of ‘gross value added’ (GVA). Exports topped £4bn, and employment stood at 210,000 (UK Music report This Is Music 2023). It is important to remember that self-employment accounts for 72% of music industry jobs (89% of TV jobs are freelance). In 2016, for example, over 3m people worked in the creative freelance economy. This is where accredited courses come into their own as industry groups and individuals will often contribute to course development and support students via workshops and lectures to make them aware of the challenges of freelance working and the expectations of potential employers.

Insider knowledge

Industry accreditation bodies understand the importance of innovative and subject-specific skills as their assessors are working in the music industry as creative practitioners themselves. Accreditation will also ensure that all academic staff delivering a course will have some creative practice experience and will be able to convey this knowledge to their cohort.

Accreditation seeks to guarantee that courses prepare students for the future they aspire to, and that they can sustain a resourceful creative career for many years to come.

‘Accreditation offers an insightful glimpse into the workings of the music industry, bringing a high level of experience and knowledge that we are always delighted to share and discuss with staff, students, and parents alike,’ says Gary Bromham, a JAMES assessor.

Industry accreditation procedures seek to ensure that the necessary subject-specific skills are embedded in any course, be it technical, production, performance or academic. The £6.7bn GVA the music industry generates annually for the UK economy is a small percentage of the £109bn that the creative industries generated for the UK economy in 2022. Accordingly, it is important that accreditation bodies seek to ensure that core creative competencies and transferable skills are also embedded in any course curriculum, so that graduates are equipped with the ability to transition seamlessly into any creative workplace, either during their course or after graduation.

Note also how the music industry is a service industry. It is client-led, and graduates must be able to handle budgets and timescales when undertaking projects.

These are the types of skills that students need, and, combined with determination and resolve, they ensure that students are equipped for their chosen career path.

Experience in the field

‘Back in 2010, while head of sound at Pepper Post Production, I hired two music technology graduates as runners – they were swiftly promoted to sound assistants. Both interviewed extremely well and clearly had a solid understanding of sound technologies and post workflows, coupled with a refreshingly enthusiastic outlook. I then re-hired one of them a year later when I joined Halo Post Production. He is a very intuitive re-recording mixer; he has a rare but vital ability to zone in on exactly what's necessary. His approach to sound-mixing is both intelligent and highly creative. This combination of skills is rare, and I sense that many of these were acquired during his time on an industry-accredited course.’ Dave Turner, head of bleat post production

‘Our experience of JAMES accreditation at the University of Huddersfield is that it offers three main benefits. First, the feedback from the JAMES assessors during each accreditation process helps us have confidence we are designing courses that are fit-for-purpose and aligned with industry practice. Second, it gives our students the same confidence that, as they graduate, they are prepared for the real-world of work. Finally, it offers additional reinforcement to applicants applying to Huddersfield in terms of the university's commitment to employability and high-ranking graduate outcomes.’ Stewart Worthy, course leader at the University of Huddersfield

‘Industry accreditation has helped to assure the quality of our programmes through discussion with seasoned industry professionals and focused accreditation. Students have continued to benefit, too, through guest sessions from creative professionals and dedicated events such as the Gus Dudgeon Foundation/JAMES Summer School and Classical Recording course. Another example is this year's JAMES Summer School, hosted by the legendary Rockfield Studios in Wales: 12 students from 12 JAMES-accredited university courses will work with the studio's in-house engineers and producers to record a local band. Emulating real-world studio life, the students will demonstrate their ability to work collaboratively to a deadline and exhibit their technical know-how and social skills.’ Dr Paul Thompson, reader in popular music at Leeds Beckett University