Music — Looking for the Berklee label?

Looking for the Berklee label?

By Seth Hoy

Local bands may name drop, but it’s no guarantee of quality 

If you walk out of Hynes Convention Center T stop near Boston’s Back Bay Area, you’re more than likely to catch a glimpse of a tall gangly kid with a guitar strapped to his back, a kid carrying a clarinet case or a hippie jam-band girl complete with bandana, dreded hair and patchworked pants.

And this is just a small cross-section of the crowd who call themselves Berklee kids. More than your average band geek, the kids who attend Berklee College of Music, diverse though they may be, all have one thing in common — they want a career in the music business — even if it means dropping out to tour with a band that may or may not make it.

Due to Manchester’s proximity to the mecca of music schools, Berklee-membered bands tend to play the Queen City music scene. And somehow, through the course of conversation or open dialogue, the line always comes up, “Yeah, I went to Berklee (pause for recognition).” Can we have a round of applause? Is that factoid supposed to blow my socks off? The Ivy Leagues aside, how much mileage can you really get from your alma mater? Does it make you a better musician?

Singer/songwriter Michael “Whit” Whitaker of Those Who Wait graduated from Berklee in 2002, majoring in songwriting. Whitaker met bassist Dave Sheaffer at Berklee, found non-Berklee drummer Mark Pozzo and formed a band. Those Who Wait have played gigs in Nashua at Drifters and in Manchester at the Hogs Trough Saloon and Milly’s Tavern.

According to Whitaker, dropping the Berklee line as a stamp of quality is probably a way to make up for a lack of musicianship — similar to the “guys who drive big trucks” analogy.

“It really doesn’t come up much for me,” Whitaker said, “unless people want to know how we met. Sometimes people try to throw that line out there and that’s frowned upon. I guess if they need Berklee’s name for validation, it says something about their talent. Not everybody at Berklee has talent. A lot of kids are there for different reasons.”

Whitaker went to Berklee because he thought he wasn’t good at anything other than music and saw the music school as his only real chance to make something of himself. The drummer, Sheaffer, majored in music production and engineering. While some of his classmates dropped out to pursue a semi-successful band tour, Whitaker made a point to graduate — to finish what he started.

“Probably a quarter of the students don’t graduate,” Whitakers said, “I think it’s something like 60 percent of students drop out. If your band starts doing well, you can’t be in school. It’s half that and the other half of students just came to Berklee thinking it was going to be a breeze. It’s a lot of work. A lot of people thought they could just smoke pot and play the guitar and it doesn’t turn out to be like that.” 

It’s not that easy for all students to graduate. Like many private colleges, Berklee’s tuition is inching toward $30,000 and could easily be more if you add music equipment and technology.

 Jimmy Magoon graduated in 2001, with a performance major, but it took him eight years. Magoon went to Berklee off and on, saving up money and working jobs so he could to foot the bill. He now teaches guitar and bass lessons at Daddy’s Junky Music in Manchester. According to Magoon, his Berklee degree is part of what got him his job.

“Tuition is just getting more expensive,” Magoon said. “I worked through school to graduate. I was interviewing for this job when I was 21 and there were plenty of other guys here who probably had more experience than I did. I was in school at the time and actually playing and learning the guitar. I think they liked that.”

Magoon went to Berklee because he wanted to be a musician and learn the guitar better. Like a lot of Berklee students, Magoon also went to network and make contacts with a lot of future big names in the music industry. With majors such as film, music and television scoring, music business management, song writing and performance majors, you’re bound to see some big names.

And for some, like Jesse Gallagher, vocalist/bassist/guitarist for Boston-based band Apollo Sunshine, success really had nothing to do with Berklee. Apollo Sunshine plays gigs in and around southern New Hampshire and are steadily on the rise.

Gallagher attended Berklee in 1999 and 2000 to major in songwriting, but dropped out when he didn’t think the instruction was valuable.

 “I dropped out because it was a weird experience for me,” Gallagher said. “I had written for years and years, then I went there and wrote less songs than ever. I’d write lyrics and the teachers were like, ‘It needs a chorus. Go back and change this and that.’ So I was like, ‘Go f-ck yourself.’  Not to mention $20K to go there.”

“At the time I was booking little crappy tours and playing tiny clubs in Boston,” Gallagher continued. “I wasn’t going to pay more money to learn how to write songs when I already knew how to write songs.”

But the Berklee connection isn’t totally invaluable to Gallagher. The idea of the Berklee degree doesn’t validate Gallagher’s songwriting ability, but it does play a part in the networking scene since it’s where Gallagher met up with his current bandmates.

“There are always musicians all over the place,” Gallagher said. “It’s a real geek-o fest over there. If you get into Berklee, you’ll see a weird networking scene and a bunch of people with a passion for music. It’s a little bizarre.”

So to all those bands out there that think dropping the old Berklee line automatically makes you talented, you might want to can it. Degree or no degree, bands have talent that people will see and hear regardless. And in the end, every fledgling band is in the same place — survival mode.

- Seth Hoy

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH