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, Drummer’s Review Xtra 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…
DR: 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.
DR: 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.
DR: Do you have any plans to expand into the ever-growing market for online tuition?
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.
DR: 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.
DR: 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.
DR: 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