No matter what role you play within the music industry, be it performer, teacher, salesperson, studio engineer etc., one thing we all have in common is that at some point in our lives we all engaged in some form of musical education. Whether it’s GCSE through to degree, instrumental lesson through to doctorate, education has in some way shaped our path into our chosen fields. With so much negative reporting on the state of music education within the school system featuring recently in the media, MIN’s Nick Carter spoke to Marcus Allen, director of Midlands-based educational facility Teach Me Music Academy to find out what it takes to be an independent educator in the UK currently…
MIN: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Marcus, could you start by giving us a brief history of the company and how you got started?
Marcus Allen: Well, it’s been a bit of a crazy journey really. I followed the same route as most musicians and studied at college and university in London and came back to the West Midlands after that. Throughout my time at University I taught private lessons and when I returned to my home in the Midlands I carried on. I didn’t really know at this point it would turn into a fully-fledged business, but I realised one day that I could use my passion for teaching and learning to do more than I was. There are hundreds of routes you can go down in the music industry, but I chose education as it’s something that I know, and I wanted to pass on the skills I’d learnt to young people: give them the opportunity to have a platform for them to move forward. It became obvious fairly quickly that I wanted to start some kind of academy or school, and there were some things that I wanted to implement that I thought were unique. I realised that I couldn’t do this alone and that I needed a business partner: someone who was as invested into education as myself, so I went through various friends and contacts and met Steven Swift, who has been my business partner since the beginning. We do now have another partner, who I’ll come to in a moment, but Steve has been by my side from the very beginning. We started in a little rented studio in Stourbridge in the West Midlands, we got a website up and running and it was just this little business in the middle of nowhere that was doing a few music lessons per week. It then started to really grow, and after about 6 – 7 months we realised that demand was there for what we we’re doing. We then moved into Kidderminster into a little facility with a few separate rooms and we started to really get the business off the ground in the local area. From there it was really just a case of expanding the business: looking at different areas we could grow, and after about two years we were fully stacked out – we had tutors working for us teaching a variety of instruments, and we decided to push things further. We moved into a new, bigger complex, and started to really focus on what we could do to make our services and facility unique. This is where our modern, contemporary approach came in.
MIN: Could you expand on that approach a little more? What do you feel makes you stand out from other instrumental tuition services?
MA:Well because we have the space we’re able to offer a flexible approach to learning – for instance, students can come for lessons on a subscription basis which fluctuates depending on how often they want to come; included in all of our prices is free rehearsal time so that any students that need to can come and practice in our studios outside their lessons at no extra costs. We view it as more of a community academy where we provide support and guidance for a range of students – for example, we have students studying for GCSE’s or College courses and we have tailored support for them in place. Alongside this, our new first floor facility which we’ve just finished is for our artist development program which is aimed at more avid musicians – people who perhaps don’t study at college for whatever reason but are serious about music. We’ve also got a really good relationship with Trinity College London and we’re one of their main exam centres in the area so we’re able to provide that aspect of vocational training for our students. We’re just really trying to create what could be best described as a hub for music education, and it’s great to see the student numbers increasing, and the passion for music from both our students along with our staff which ultimately creates a great customer experience. We also utilise things like our online booking system which also automatically reminds students of their lesson times via automated emails; we send out monthly newsletters, extra weekly content to all of our drums/guitar/vocal students, we do loads in the local community and have just started our roadshow in our large printed gazebo which takes our academy out on the road and is getting a great response. For us, it’s all about getting young people (or adults) into music for an affordable price in a great facility so that they can just enjoy the subject.
MIN: You’ve mentioned that you offer drum, guitar and vocal tuition – what other instrumental tuition do you offer?
MA: Well, we started with drums (myself) along with guitar and bass (Steve), and we now, five years later, have over 12 different instrument options with a team of 14 tutors and staff members. We have four full-time staff (three directors; me, Steve and Joe who recently joined us, alongside our manager Jarod) who run the business as well as teaching, with the rest being contracted tutors as well as a handful of students who work part-time for us to help run the facility. This works fantastically for us and the students involved as it gives them an opportunity to learn a little more about the industry – they get to repair instruments and see how the business works, and it’s great for their C.V. as well. We’re also in the process of recruiting a full-time videographer. We offer one-to-one lessons, we have group sessions for several instruments, we put on showcases in the local community and we have summer schools and roadshows, so we’re really aiming to get as many young people into our hub as possible.
MIN: You mention you’re recruiting a full-time videographer – does this new appointment give an indication as to the future direction of what you offer?
MA:Yes – we have realised that there has been a shift in the industry in the last ten years, and it’s dramatically changed. There’s a number of online platforms that have launched – things like Drumeo, Pianote, Jam-Play…it’s really amazing to see these companies flourish online and these guys are so important for the music industry because they’re getting people into music who otherwise might not be able to access it. Relating this back to our business, we’ve noticed that with the shift in technology and the fact that everything is so accessible, young people these days are using technology for almost everything and we’re looking to harness this alongside what we currently offer. I think it’s important to note that one-to-one music lessons are never going to go away – people are always going to want that experience – but we’re in the process of opening a new facility in a new location (I can’t say exactly where as yet as contracts aren’t fully finalised), which we’re planning to duplicate our current business model of our current facility – lessons, group sessions, practice facilities etc. – but we’re also just putting the finishing touches to our new media suite. This will be our Teach Me Music Online development room. We’re planning to launch our academy online – probably in the UK first – and the plan is to film lessons for the most popular instruments. We’re going to start with the basics; drums, guitar, bass, vocals and keyboards, and keep it nice and simple-yet-contemporary. We’re planning on it being a ‘Netflix’-style subscription service, where you pay a monthly subscription fee, for which the student will have access to all of the lessons for two instruments of their choosing. The reason we’re bundling two instruments together is that through our work here at the academy, we’ve noticed that a lot of people play more than one instrument and that students will drift between two instruments; piano and vocals, drums and guitar etc. So, for a flat fee we’ll give them access to two instruments. We’re going to spend the next two years recording entire series of video lessons, which will be available on our new website along with tasters and free content on YouTube. We’re looking to develop that fully over the next three-five years, and we’re also planning to tour the UK with our roadshow to promote what we can offer. We’re also now members of NAMM and we’re excited to be heading out to the Winter show next January to do some more research into this area as we hope to expand worldwide once we’ve road tested the model in the UK.
MIN: Alongside your plans for developing the online side of your business, how important are things like social media to you as a company?
MA:Social media has completely changed the way in which we operate our company. When we started six years ago, Facebook and Twitter etc. existed but it’s really moved forward and developed even in that time, and it’s such a staple part of people’s lives now to pick up a mobile phone and scroll through a Facebook or Instagram feed. It’s massively important for us as a business to make sure that people see the content that we’ve got. In our offices we have a social media plan, and Jarod, our manager, develops all of our content. We try to keep the content fresh, relevant and engaging, and when it comes to our social channels, it’s all about engagement; the more engagement you get through your content, the more potential customers will see your business and hopefully will book lessons. It’s really helped our business flourish.
MIN: Speaking currently, there are numerous reports in the media of funding for music education being cut throughout the school system. Has this affected the numbers of students you attract as a private education facility?
MA: The short answer is yes! Government cuts are having an impact on everybody, and it’s difficult to say on a larger scale as I can only speak about our local area, but most people that search for lessons outside of the school environment will usually find us and what we have found is that people who come to us are quite surprised to see what we offer for the cost. They then soon realise, and I don’t want to bad mouth the school system or the people who teach in schools as it’s almost constant bad news for them at the moment through no fault of their own, is that when they come to us after being at the schools they find our service a lot more user-friendly and certainly more flexible. For example, our payment options are more flexible than in schools where you’re fixed into terms. A lot of people who come to us tend to stay with us, which is great as it also means we have more demand for tutors, so we can provide more work to our contractors, and the whole business grows as a result. A lot of musicians I know – many of which are friends – rely on teaching work during the week as their ‘bread and butter’ income, with weekend gigs being a top-up, and it’s such a shame how the education system is declining, particularly for music and the arts. Another aspect of learning to play an instrument that funding cuts affect is that the equipment in schools is falling apart as they just simply don’t have the resources and funds for repairs/replacements, which is bad for students as it doesn’t offer any inspiration for students to learn. This is where an academy like ours can offer another unique selling point as all of our equipment is fully maintained. We don’t use cheap equipment, rather favouring good-quality intermediate level instruments from reputable brands, and the kids love them! The students that come to us after having school lessons are often blown away that the drums, for example, actually sound like drums, and it’s great to see the kids enjoying, and flourishing, on good equipment. In fact, in the early days there were times when we didn’t make any money from the business as we invested everything into upgrading our equipment as we agreed we’d prefer to have the gear rather than the money to make sure our students got the best that we could offer. It really makes a difference when kids come for lessons and they use professional equipment; it shows volumes in the progress they make and the enjoyment they get from learning.
MIN: So as an educator, do you think that the companies within the MI industry support educators enough at the moment?
MA:I think for certain suppliers the answer would be no, because we’ve approached several suppliers directly about working with us and got a resounding no, but from others, a definite yes. I think it’s all down to the fact that the companies that do work with educators have woken up to the fact that education is a massively growing sector of the industry. They realise that in a few years time a lot of smaller, independent music shops may not exist, and aside from the big retailers, a lot of students might not get the chance to try equipment for themselves. By working with educators and studios etc., the suppliers can actually generate more sales. We’ve had a lot of support from the companies we work with regularly, even down to supplying one kit or amp at a time for students who want them, however, we’ve spoken to other suppliers directly who have said that we’d need to place a £10,000.00 order before they’d even consider us as a retail partner. What they fail to realise is that many businesses like ours can’t afford to carry large amounts of stock, or place large orders, but might have a lot of students that will be looking for equipment sporadically. I don’t know if this is because they have contracts preventing them from dealing with smaller businesses, but the MI is predominantly a freelance industry with a great many small companies or individuals – studios, rehearsal rooms, teachers etc. – that could offer retail opportunities in an otherwise diminished sector of our industry.
MIN: What advice would you give to teachers starting (or looking to develop) their own teaching practice?
MA:One area I feel is lacking in the music industry is education relating to the music business itself; people often don’t understand how to monetise their skills or products within the industry. Our business is flourishing at the moment, but that can all change as you never know what’s around the corner, but that’s where hard work and problem solving comes in to ensure you’re providing a good service that people want to use and continue to use. A key thing here is providing a good service; what can you do to provide a good service – little things like making students and parents tea and coffee; having a solid booking system that people can easily access – there’s lots of things you can do that lots of teachers don’t even think about.
MIN: It sounds like you’re very driven by your passion to help young people gain access to music and musical education…
MA:All of us do this for the love of what we do, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. None of us are millionaires, none of us are driving around in big fancy cars; that isn’t the motivation here. Our motivation comes from making a difference to young people, and if we can do that, then that’s enough for me!
Massive thanks to Marcus Allen and the team at Teach Me Music Academy for sharing their valuable time with us. For more information regarding Teach Me Music Academy, visit: teachmemusicacademy.com