Ska, Core (Curriculum), the Devil and More
Mighty Mighty Bosstones bassist Joe Gittleman makes the grades
Image Courtesy of Herb Swanson
The scene is a familiar one. A group of 20 or so students sit attentively in an otherwise dreary classroom at Lyndon State College. Despite the institutional surroundings, they hang on each bit of wisdom proffered by their instructor, Joe Gittleman, who leans casually on a table at the front of the room. At the conclusion of class, Gittleman reminds his pupils of upcoming assignments for the next session, as they dutifully make notes in the ledgers of their notepads. And then … applause?
Now, most everyone has a story about a teacher who really reached them. But in-class ovations? That’s the stuff of legend. Or at least movies starring Robin Williams or Morgan Freeman. Gittleman’s class was engaging, sure. Entertaining, even. But this can’t be a regular occurrence, can it?
“Um, no,” he says, a look of surprised embarrassment creeping across his face. “That was the first time, actually.”
But Gittleman really ought to be accustomed to laudatory outbursts, such as the one that occurs on the day Seven Days visits an Introduction to the Music Industry class. For the better part of two decades, he has been the bass player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, one of the most successful ska bands in history. He has toured the globe several times over, playing everything from small neighborhood Boston bars to headlining slots at major festivals. He’s released records on major labels. He’s had songs in movies. You’d think the dude would be acclimated to acclaim.
As comfortable as he is onstage in front of thousands of clamoring fans, Gittleman seems uneasy facing his small group of students. Then again, it’s only the third or fourth class he’s ever taught.
Gittleman, 41, was hired by Lyndon State College earlier this year to teach in the college’s Music Business and Industry degree program. It’s an offshoot of the college’s traditional business major geared toward those interested in careers in the music industry. The comprehensive program focuses on what goes on behind the scenes rather than on the stage, covering both technical fields such as lighting design and sound engineering, and more service-oriented disciplines such as band management and venue operations. Now entering its third year, the major is among the school’s fastest growing, with a 100 percent increase in enrollment each year.
Before the beginning of this fall semester, Gittleman had never taught a day in his life. In fact, he could probably count on one hand the number of times he’d set foot in a college classroom. Though ivy is in his bloodlines — several of his family members attended and even taught at Harvard — Joe Gittleman did not attend college.
His education comes from a lifetime spent immersed in the music industry. In addition to his tenure in the Bosstones, he has worked as a roadie and as an A&R representative for a small record label, among numerous other positions. Name a job in the music biz, and Gittleman has probably had it. As such, he’s singularly qualified to teach the ins and outs of the music biz, diploma be damned. (However, Gittleman’s deal with LSC stipulates that he finish a degree program while at the school.)
“What Joe brings to the table is something that no one else can,” says Associate Professor Dr. Elizabeth Norris, the department chair and architect of the music business program.
A trained opera singer whose doctorate is in vocal performance, Norris first envisioned the program four years ago when a Lyndon State student won $3000 in a songwriting competition with an album he had recorded in his dorm room.
“My teacher brain kicked in,” she says. “I thought that if students can get that far on their own, then it was our responsibility as educators to provide them with the tools they need to get to the next level.”
Joe Gittleman is one of those tools. And in Norris’ estimation, he’s an invaluable one. “We are so lucky to have him,” she says, beaming.
Ironically, Gittleman’s lack of “traditional” education may be his strongest asset. Though there are business-focused music programs at schools around the country, there is no widely adopted curriculum for the field. Unlike, say, political science or philosophy, which have established course cornerstones, music business is very much a work in progress. That situation owes as much to the relative infancy of the subject as a legitimate field of academic study as to the ever-changing nature of the music business. But it affords Gittleman unusual freedom. And it allows him to play to his considerable strengths.
“I can only think about what I’ve been through,” says Gittleman. “Everything I teach will be slanted through my experience. But that’s why I’m here. I’m here because of my experiences.”
Those experiences lead to classes such as the one Seven Days observes on a recent Tuesday morning. The bulk of the session is spent video conferencing with Ginny Song, the day-to-day manager of Celtic-punk outfit Flogging Molly. Gittleman worked as a producer on a documentary about that band called Whiskey on a Sunday.
The students eat it up. Song, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, is candid about her job and how she got to where she is. She also paints a far more realistic — and hectic — portrait of a day in the life of a band manager than does a reading assignment from the course “textbook,” All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman. Earlier in the class, Gittleman asked for a show of hands to see who had actually read the assigned passage. When only a few appeared, he quipped, “Come on. I would have at least said I had read it.” A rather unprofessorial response, to be sure. But it elicited a few sheepish chuckles.
Gittleman plans to continue leaning on his extensive network of music biz pals to illustrate future lessons. He lights up when he learns his old friends and fellow Beantown rockers the Dropkick Murphys will visit Higher Ground in November.
Though star gazing may be part of this learning experience, it’s not the focus of Lyndon State’s music business program. Its goal is less glamorous: preparing students to get jobs. “We’re all about plan B,” says Norris. “Plan A is ‘I want to be rich and famous’ … What we do here is get kids working in the industry.”
On the morning Seven Days visits, the campus is buzzing with anticipation about an upcoming school-sponsored excursion to help load in the Black Crowes for their show at Higher Ground. These kids are excited, elated, by the opportunity to lug heavy concert gear around. The fact that the band is one of the most popular in the country seems almost irrelevant. Their eagerness stems from the chance to work behind the scenes at a professional rock show.
Eric Zawada is a 22-year-old senior who will graduate with a BS in music business at the end of the current semester. Two years ago he transferred to Lyndon State from the University of Vermont to pursue this degree.
Zawada says he’s always been interested in a career in music. But he was less than confident in his abilities as a performer. Unlike many other schools, LSC does not audition students for acceptance into its program. And, as Gittleman points out, “Most of the people I know in the business are not musicians.”
Zawada’s focus has been on booking and promotion, which he wants to keep doing after graduation. Given his résumé thus far, he stands a good chance.
Through Lyndon, Zawada worked a paid gig for two weeks at Tanglewood in Massachusetts alongside production teams for James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma and composer John Williams. He and several classmates spent a day behind the scenes at the Vans Warped tour this summer. He worked on this summer’s Waterfront shows for Burlington’s Quadricentennial celebration. He helped put together a concert series at Burke Mountain last year, and interned at Big Heavy World, a Burlington music-focused nonprofit run by Lyndon alum Jim Lockridge.
Zawada credits not only the hands-on experiences he enjoyed through Lyndon State, but the school’s supportive atmosphere.
“They’re just welcoming to students who have the outlook of loving music,” he says. “And they want to embrace those characteristics in people and help them move on and succeed.”
“A lot of students are just looking for that piece of the puzzle, whether that’s as a performer or putting [a show] together,” says Gittleman. “The struggle is to find a way to keep doing music. Because if you can’t, then you have to do something else that makes money. That’s why people give up on music, right?
“Or they find a way to do something that’s in and around music,” he continues, and notes that he’s had as many satisfying moments working off the stage as on it. “And that’s the goal. To find a way to do it.”