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Culture

Learning To Be Britney

A new school in Germany aims to put its students on the road to pop stardom. But the Pop Academy is teaching about more than just midriffs and lip-synching, students there will learn how the pop music business works.

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Role models for Pop Academy students: German girl band No Angels.

Students starting classes on Monday in the city of Mannheim’s new institute of learning likely won’t be cracking the history books or balancing chemical equations. Instead, they’ll be sharpening their dance moves, getting their voices in shape and learning how to negotiate a record contract.

The Pop Academy, the first of its kind in Germany, is giving its 54 students the skills it says they’ll need if they want to make it in the pop music world, either as performers or behind the scenes as producers.

There are two degree courses on offer. In the “pop music design” track, students can learn to write and produce songs and maybe, just maybe, how to become the next Christina or Justin. Those who opt for the “music industry” degree plan will pick up the basics of managing a performer, drawing up a contract or booking gigs.

“It might all look glamorous, but it’s really hard work and discipline,” Udo Dahmen, head of the Pop Academy, told the German news agency DPA. “We want our graduates to be able to make a living with music their entire lives.”

Die deutsche Stimme 2003 - Casting-Report: Kai Böcking und Andrea Kiewel.

The school’s concept has found resonance among a German populace which has been inundated with shows promising to find the next big thing in the pop universe. “Star Search,” “Germany’s Superstar,” and “The German Voice 2003“ (photo) are just a few of the recent offerings on German TV that show young people taking their best shot at 15 minutes of fame.

Tough competition

Some 700 people from Germany, Switzerland and Austria applied for the 55 spots available for the Pop Academy’s first semester. Hopefuls had to take entrance exams to get in and those going into the pop courses auditioned in front of a jury.

In the end, only 54 people showed the right kind of “lateral thinking” to get a place in the school, according to Dahmen. In three years these young people, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree and real-world skills that are necessary to make it in the often dog-eat-dog world of bubble gum pop.

“A band, a studio team, these are businesses,” said Dahmen, adding that students will leave the academy as professionals on both the commercial and artistic level.

For €500 ($585) a semester, potential pop stars and impresarios will mix theory with practice, attending classroom lectures and taking internships at music companies. Some of the courses on offer include “How To Build an Act,” “How To Produce a Hit,” “Starting a Business” and “Image, Stage and Performance.”

Headmaster Dahmen insists the school is not a factory for pop music clones and stresses that originality is one of the top priorities. Nor does he have any illusions that every graduate is going on to Britney-style success. “Stars are rare creatures. A star is someone who can recreate pop,” he told reporters.

From rock to pop

The academy can trace its origins back to 1997, when the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Mannheim is located, founded the “Rock Foundation," set up to promote the regional rock and pop music scene. After four years of negotiations, the state government decided to set up the pop school, with degree programs recognized by the German Higher Education Framework Act.

The school’s budget, approximately €1.8 million ($2.1 million) annually, will come from a combination of state and the city funding in addition to funds provided by various sponsors and the public broadcaster Südwestrundfunk.

Leiter der Popakademie Baden-Württemberg Udo Dahmen

The people behind the Pop Academy are well-known fixtures on the German music landscape. The principles, Dahmen, Hubert Wandjo and Dirk Metzger (photo), are all music managers or working musicians. There are about a dozen other instructors on staff as well as freelance teachers, including the popular German R&B artist Xavier Naidoo.

“The students are particularly interested in the mistakes made by such well-known people in their early days,” Isabel Palmtag, the school's spokeswoman told reporters.

Business before pleasure

But for today’s savvy students, that interest extends just as much to the business side of things as to artistic considerations. “You simply need to know how the art business works,” said Palmtag, and that’s why the Academy is putting the emphasis on the commerce of art just as much as on the singing and dancing. In other pop music programs, such as those offered more and more frequently at music colleges, the business end is just a sideline. The Pop Academy puts it right in the center, reflecting what the industry itself has already done.

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