I’ve Been a Music Educator for 30 Years. And I’m Deeply Concerned for My Profession

We recently received this email from David Smolover, founder of the National Guitar Workshop.

He agreed to have it reprinted, verbatim.


Original Message:
From: David Smolover <_________@_________.com>
To: news@digitalmusicnews.com
Date: Wednesday, June 20 2012 12:03 PM
Subject: another digital casualty



I have been an enthusiastic follower of Digital Music News for a number of years and truly enjoy your commentary on our industry. Your fight for a musician’s right to open a royalty check rather than an eviction notice is admirable.

Since 1984 my wife and I have operated the National Guitar Workshop, a summer music program for hobbyists and aspiring musicians. It started as my attempt to make a living as a musician without living in my car.

We were lucky.  The idea hit just as the guitar reached its zenith of popularity.  Over the next 25 years, we grew from one campus with 160 students to an international program with campuses across the U.S., Canada and Europe.  At the height of our programs, we hired 500 musicians each summer to teach nearly 6,000 students.  The business was the foundation for two other companies – a music instruction publishing company, Workshop Arts Publications, and an online music instruction site, WorkshopLive.  We have over 25,000 alumni, including Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Dr. Luke, and Grammy-award winning songwriter, Robert Lee Castleman.  All in all, a very good way to spend a quarter of a century.

The natural progression of a business occurred.  Success breeds competition. Others entered the market, but we were all able to survive and even prosper.  Then the recession hit.  Even though it devastated many summer enrichment programs, we were able to survive.  Cut backs, trim budgets, you do what you have to do to keep breathing.

But something very different is happening now and I thought I’d share our cautionary tale.

Today you wrote that “the recording has effectively become worthless”.  Turning music into a commodity has far reaching implications that go well beyond the destruction of the record industry.  One of the results is the overall devaluation of the music experience.

As educators our “product” has always been our love and knowledge of music.  If we could share this passion honestly and fairly, we could provide a valued service and maintain a livelihood.  Unfortunately this premise is based on the idea that people value the service that you offer.  When music became free, it had an unintended and insidious consequence.  Instead of becoming more valuable by providing unlimited access, it became less valuable.  At the risk of sounding as old as I am, when you had to work, or beg, for the money to buy an album, music was connected to the effort you made to acquire it.  By your effort/work/begging, you inherently ascribed a value to it.  It may have been only $7.95, but when you were making $2.50 an hour, it had true value.

We have witnessed a change of behavior in music students, our clientele.  An expectation now exists that all experiences will ultimately be on YouTube and will ultimately be free – be it a concert, a master class or a simple lesson.  It doesn’t matter.  With so much supply, literally hundreds of thousands of YouTube lessons, you can see their point.  I have always made the impassioned argument that being in a room with a great teacher and other passionate students is a life changing experience.  But when passion is less important than convenience, you’re pretty much talking to the wall.  So that which decimated the recording industry is about to cripple one of the remaining opportunities for musicians – instruction.  More talented musicians and dedicated teachers looking for another gig.

I better stop or I’ll start bombarding you with stories about guitar students enrolled in respected JAZZ college programs who don’t know who Charlie Christain or George Benson are. (Oh and they’re both on YouTube.) When everything’s free and the only filter you have is your friend’s playlist, the cream doesn’t necessarily rise to the top.

Thanks for fighting the good fight.

David Smolover,
National GuitarWorkshop


35 Responses

  1. contextiseverything

    I expect the “talented musicians and dedicated teachers looking for another gig” have always done so given the subject matter is summer instruction which does not provide sufficient income to be a sole gig. Adapt or perish…

    • loltard

      “adapt or perish”

      Did you or do you “beat your chest” when you type that?

      Are you like, Ghengis Khan or something…..really?

      Do you drool when you talk? Big loping forehead?

      It’s 2012 and gaining, I’m pretty sure ‘we’ (not you) can do better than that.

      If ‘that’ is the only admonishment the ‘internet’ has to offer, “adapt or perish”…to an ever changing, non-standardized field, you’ll be on the run yourself, and forever. And the internet wouldn’t be worth it, if it has become the sum total of ‘value’ in your life even at 20%, you are a sad sack of crap. We should be able to pull the plug now, and you know what, everything WILL be all right. IT’S NOT that big a deal.

      Again, we can do better than this. The way it is now, is just a blip of an accident and slow reactions to an event.

      It’s NOT manifest destiny any more than Russion Roulette..and…we can do better than that as a society.

      Maybe not you and yours, maybe your generation is a wasted wash that can’t think outside of it’s ritilan induced cradle and crib, rock a bye baby, go taddle and suck your thumb.

      Did you put ALL the everybody wins trophies on the mantle.

      Do you even know what “adapt/perish” even means I wonder.

      That’s all you got? This is ‘your’ generations plan…”adapt or perish” is it like 4000 bc or something?

      Grunt, snort, booga-booga.

      • contextiseverything

        Like it or not, ‘value’ is decision made by the buyer, not the seller. If you fail to adapt, meaning innovate and differentiate, then you become obsolete. There is no shortage of supply or demand for music. There are many ways musicians can earn money yet the majority I know have no clue how to market themselves effectively and generate revenue from different income streams. Most have an “it’s all about me” perspective when it’s not about them, it’s about the customer. Professional musician wannabes would be better served taking some business classes along with music lessons, or they can remain hobbyists – it’s a choice so quit whining.

        P.S. I like your ratty “I Teach For Yesterday” t-shirt – it’s so retro!

        • FarePlay

          “Context-is-everything”. Interesting that you have chosen this name. It is really the only shred of truth in your vitriolic diatribe.

          You have kind of gotten off on the wrong foot here, because you appear to be kind of a mean spirited individual, but that’s okay because you have brazenly demonstrated your lack of understanding of both business and the whole point of this conversation.

          But before I make my case, I want to thank you for inspiring me to create what I think is a new word, “entitilist”. Yes, I just Googled it, I’m good, how exciting. Paul, please take note.

          Ordinarily, your basic premise of the buyer creates the value not the seller, is correct. But in the case of music your premise becomes somewhat difficult. Unless, you want to change that pesky, establishment word, buyer.

          Now we’re really getting into a fascination discussion, what word would you substitute for buyer? We’ve heard to many times that “thief” makes the “entitilist” community uncomfortable.

          And I must admit, you guys have spent long hours shifting the truth ever so slightly to make a point, my favorite being “get over it, adapt. You even kind of alluded to that here didn’t you?

          But I really think in your “Context-is-everything” kind of way, underneath it all, the best you can really do is “its’ not my fault technology made me do it.”

          So when you come up with that other word for buyer, let us know. We’ll be waiting.

          Will Buckley, founder, FarePlay http://www.facebook.com/FarePlay

          • contextagain

            The most common synonym for buyer is customer, or, as applied to music(ians), fans. As for labeling me ‘mean’, pls re-read loltard’s comment again carefully before you make such a misplaced and erroneous judgment.

            Regarding Mr. Smolover’s claim “So that which decimated the recording industry is about to cripple one of the remaining opportunities for musicians – instruction”—this is simply false and short-sighted. There are a wealth of opportunities for musicians if they choose to identify and pursue them, and the vast majority exist outside of a label deal.

            The Internet does not make me do anything. I have never illegally downloaded music and never plan to do so. I made a fortune as a marketing exec in business before I became a music teacher because teacher pay, and music teacher pay in particular, is abysmal. I do it for fun as an alternative to retiring at age 48.

            Finally, for the record, my students do not exhibit any of the “wasted wash that can’t think outside of it’s ritilan induced cradle and crib, rock a bye baby, go taddle [sic] and suck your thumb” traits posited by loltard. To think the simple concept of “adapt or perish” incited such angst is mind-boggling. Clearly, the truth hurts yet most people prefer to be hurt by the truth than deceived by a lie.

          • hmmmmmmmm

            Well, you’re right. There’s no shortage of demand or supply of music. The point is, those who “demand” the music want to take it for free.

            Please enlighten me on how to “adapt” when the customer still wants the same thing, but they don’t need to or want to pay for it anymore. The value of owning music doesn’t cross the minds of many of those consuming because even streaming access is free. The only thing they can’t get for free (legally) are the devices.

            Music is the art. Music is the product we create. Music is what takes many hours of training, experimentation & production to produce. Music & Movies/TV is the WHY many people purchase the devices they use every day. How does the business recoup costs to continue making music (which is the product that the consumer wants – they don’t spend hours looking for new bands’ t-shirts) when the product is stolen or given away for free?

          • But

            Music is the art. Music is the product we create. Music is what takes many hours of training, experimentation & production to produce.

            Music is different things to different people, whether that be the creator, or the person appreciating, supporting or consuming it.

            That said, art and commerce are two very different things and always have been. Where they have met in the past was a bit more straightforward, but that’s not the case now.

            For some, it is the process that takes many hours, for others not so much. Technology has changed many things, those processes included and there’s no denying that.

            What might take a few more hours now of research for most is how they will work through this time. The answers are constantly flowing in through sites like this and others dedicated to the new concepts.

            Some will do the work, some won’t. Many will need a new source of income to supplement and support the creation of their art, others will complain and mourn the state of commerce and blame it for the death of their art.

            There’s a lot of work to do, and not a lot of answers, but those who are willing to parse through it will find some, and perhaps even create some themselves.

          • CraigFerguson


            “There are a wealth of opportunities for musicians if they choose to identify and pursue them, and the vast majority exist outside of a label deal.”

            I hear this statement often on editorials and blogs yet very few people post actual data to demonstrate this “wealth of opportunities”. What do you think is the percentage/ratio of income that most independent musicians earn teaching vs. other opportunities?

            On an average month my percentages are:

            60% – teaching

            20-25% – gigs

            15-20% – merch sales, production work, ascap income, etc.

            If I quit teaching tomorrow, do you think I would be able to replace 60% of my income working the same amount hours in other aspects of the industry?

            Or, would I have to work 2x, 3x, 4x the hours to replace that income? (4hr bar gig for 50$ anyone?)

            Would the costs to invest in those other oportunities increase my bottom line to an unsustainable level?


          • context

            Don’t quit teaching (unless you hate it), but look to add revenue by diversifying. Will you have to work hard(er)? Absolutely. As unsavory as it may seem, I have kids making $400 a day busking and hawking their CDs on the city sidewalk for a few hours, which is far better than a $50 club gig.

    • Morgie

      Why is everyone so mean spirited on the internet? You wouldn’t speak to someone like that in person so why does everyone revert to such scummy behaviour? There are ways of debating a topic without being so negative or without taking stabs at someone. Can all the internet trolls please grow up and maybe get laid or something so your not trying to unload your unhappiness on everyone? Please.

      • Anonymous

        Where’s the “Like” button next to this post? =)

  2. Dedry Jones

    Thank you.
    Thank you.
    Thank you… for expressing what the truth that many overlook. I have tired of trying to explain a lot of the listed points to people who don’t seem to understand the true “value” of music. Love the letter – going to Tweet it, FaceBook it and if you like I will run it in my online magazine.

    Dedry Jones
    The Music Experience

    • dsmolover

      Dedry –

      Feel free to distribute on your online magazine.


  3. gaetano

    So, while I have the utmost respect for your association and and concerns, as a professional musician and educator it is hard to agree with the idea that the enormous amount of exponential change we’ve seen in the past decade is devaluing the music experience as much as it is merely changing it (albeit to something that does not work for your establishment).

    To be fair, I absolultely shared your views and opinions here even as two years ago. Fortunately when it came down to surviving and feeding a family, it was acceptance and adaptation that led to a new understanding, and in turn passion to find a way to make it all work.

    You say passion has become less important than convenience, unfortunately those two qualities while already hard enough to quantify are very subjective at best.

    As a player, and professional it’s my passion for music, people and professionalism that fuels my career. The talent is nice, but that has always come second in the end. This is something that music school can’t teach you, all the information (paid for or not) won’t get you the gig (or the record deal), and defintely won’t help you keep it if you do get it.

    As an educator, I’ve embraced technology and trying to understand how it’s changing the art and the craft (without judging or comparing to how I grew up). The most important thing that I’ve come to understand though, and this is what keeps my students coming back and new ones fighting to get in, is that I’m not selling information, or even passion.

    I’m offering inspiration, empathy, motivation, understanding, hope, enjoyment, confidence and joy.

    My enrollment and retention is the best it’s ever been, even better than when I was working at a well known NYC School. I chalk that up to my own responsibility for helping people feel good about themselves, and not pointing fingers to why it’s not the same as when I was coming up.

    Best of luck.

  4. WILL

    At LeWeb in London recently the CEO of Evernote was talking about how the company generates revenue. They have 24 million users and only about 1.7 million pay for the service. Most of those started on the free plan, became fans and then started to pay.

    Music artists and services may need to take the same approach. Win a fan, keep him/her and eventually, they’ll see the value in the product and pay. Gotta hope artists can be prolific enough in getting material out there regularly enough to warrant this approach

    Long term strategy needed

  5. Gary Catona Voice Builder

    I believe Youtube lessons can be helpful. Though there is more competition in the digital marketplace, the good educators will rise to the top. There are now opportunities for subscription channels and online distritubtion networks that can help teachers if they are willing to embrace the technology.

    • Farley Grainger

      “There are now opportunities for subscription channels and online distribution networks that can help teachers if they are willing to embrace the technology.”

      Interesting point, but can you (or others) flesh it out? What are the subscription channels and networks educators can use? How are they best utilized? Is YouTube an opportunity, or a problem?.

  6. @mclff

    So that which decimated the recording industry is about to cripple one of the remaining opportunities for musicians.

  7. Iain Scott

    Do none of the “adapt or perish” enthusiasts want to deal with one of David’s central points, the “overall devaluation of the music experience”, or are they just going to deny that’s the case and shout “Loser!” to anybody who suggests it might be?

    • Visitor

      One man’s Devaluation is another man’s Reevaluation.

      • Iain Scott

        Neat but wrong. Try operating in any environment where the scales of value are constantly shifting … and see how far you get.

        • Visitor

          I’m doing just fine, and so are many others who are forced to innovate and adapt as opposed to victimizing themselves and blame others.

          Best of luck pointing fingers at each other in the tarpits.

          • Iain Scott

            Dear ‘Visitor’, good to know you’re “doing just fine” but was the sardonic nature of your reply really necessary? Just because somebody questions aspects of this ‘brave new world’ does not mean they are a dinosaur.

    • dealing with it

      The line “overall devaluation of the music experience” definitely caught my eye. The more I thought about it the more I realized there is just more to sift through. Yes, there is more crap out there than ever before. There are lousy youtube teacher videos and lousy artists. The good news is the talented ones will prevail if they adapt. Adapting is definitely about the long-term strategy. We have to bite the bullet for a while and join the free culture movement. Once you’ve built a fan base, they will hopefully be loyal and begin purchasing what you have to offer.

  8. mdti

    The net makes us beleive we can be lazy and have everything…

    Would Air Guitar heroes exist without the net and tubes ?

    probably not 😉

  9. whatever dude

    “We were lucky. The idea hit just as the guitar reached its zenith of popularity. Over the next 25 years, we grew”

    David was able to take advantage of cultural trends and fill a need in the marketplace by providing a service that was in scarce supply. Then he developed and expanded his company’s core competencies. Sounds like a smart business man who deserves all of the success he has seen over the last 25 years.

    So why is he crying foul now? Simply because he has lost his competitive edge? Perhaps his problem is less YouTube and more that he is possibly out of touch, and can’t identify with or understand a new generation of customers. Or that he won’t adapt to the changing business environment and won’t embrace new technologies at his disposal.

    “The natural progression of a business occurred. Success breeds competition. Others entered the market …. But something very different is happening now”

    Is this really the case? It seems Something else, called the Internet, is at the zenith of its popularity. It has entered the market, and radically changed the landscape of ALL business and industries. And as consumers we are very much the better for it….. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this guy that in our modern age information and knowledge flow freely and can be accessed by all? It’s a bad thing that I can go on YouTube and learn how to play guitar, build a deck, cook, perform CPR, or empower myself to be able to do almost any damn thing in the world without having to pay someone to teach me?

    Of course, the firsthand one-on-one instruction he can provide will almost certainly be more valuable than watching an instructional YouTube video, and he should concentrate on adjusting his services, marketing, and business overall to compete with the cheaper and lower quality products offered by this new competitor. Sorry that your industry operates differently today than it did 25 years ago…. Join the club.

    • Iain Scott

      But he’s not “crying foul”, and he’s certainly not crying or asking for our sympathy. Not as I read it anyway. To me he is asking ‘where are we going with all this?’

      And to answer your rhetorical question: “It’s a bad thing that I can go on YouTube and learn how to …. do almost any damn thing in the world without having to pay someone to teach me?”

      Well, if that means you don’t understand the value of the skills and effort that it took to get to the position of being a worthwhile teacher, then “yes” is my answer.

      • Visitor

        Fortunately what it takes to be a “worthwhile teacher” is up to the student now. The degree on your wall or the years of dedicated service to the art mean nothing if you’re not reaching or inspiring people.

        If all those youtube clips are generating interest in the art, and possibly generating more income and work for people who are breaking through then we should be all for it.

        Sorry if you feel you’ve been sold a bill of goods, and the dogma attached to it.

        Or, perhaps you can go on youtube and do it better.

        • Iain Scott

          I’m not sure if you’re the same ‘Visitor’ as above, I guess that’s the problem with anonymity, but you seem to be of the same or similar mind set, so I’ll assume that you are.

          I agree 100% with your 2nd sentence: “The degree on your wall or the years of dedicated service to the art mean nothing if you’re not reaching or inspiring people.” Absolutely. Who said otherwise?

          It’s your 2nd para that worries me. “If all those youtube clips …” & “possibly generating more income …” (my emphasis). That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? We don’t know, and there is insufficient proof that the new systems (such as they are) are working, or even that they can.

          The old system, flawed though it might be, of recognising and defending a value in the actual product, whether that be a recording, a performance or the acquired skills of teaching, was at least understandable. Too much of what I see of the new systems are old-style patronage in new-style clothes, the Emperor’s New Clothes if you will.

          By the way, please don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not asking for sympathy and you just come across as smug.

  10. CLebLabs*TM

    It is a shame that Teachers and Authors, expect the same royalty from a Book as an E-Book. I tried to negotiate a fair and reasonable deal with my Principal Music Consultant for years, and in the end scrapped the idea of including his work, for which I had already paid him $10,500.00 for his services. We are now goning down the path of making Music that simple that a two year old will be able to compose in perfect Harmony, with the aid of their Parents. Musicians and Authors must realise that the Tablet market alone is growing at the rate of 56.5 Million potential customers year on year, with the PC and Television becoming fully interactive in 3D. So what is the bitch. If things don’t change they will not remain the way they are, they just become obsolete. Don’t let that be you, adapt and learn new skill sets.

  11. akmbirch

    Thank you David for expressing your thoughts. True professional musicians, those that make their living from playing and teaching music, are facing some challenges. The turning of music into a commodity is resulting in the overall devaluation of the music experience.

    As a professional musician for over 40 years I have seen the changes that technology has brought. I have played many roles, session musician, pit-orchestra, broadway, stock arranger, sideman, and more… and as an educator/mentor I have mentored and taught hundreds of students.

    On the comments about adapting to the new environment and music education:

    Becoming a good musician/player takes time; many, many years. Central to that development is “developing the ear”. The predominately visual environment of the internet is not unhelpful to that development, it’s a very big subject so I have pasted links to some some of my posts on the Jazz Guitar Group below.

    IMO, Many have jumped into providing visual online music lessons because they are lucrative not because they are the best method or effective. They ignore the research on:

    1/ How we learn music

    2/ The effectiveness of online music instruction versus traditional methods

    Learning Music [Was: On-line Lesson]

    The problem IMO, is the media used for learning.

    On-line Lesson

    Visual Learning

    True Guitar Students vs. Guitar Surfers

    Alisdair MacRae Birch



  12. Electrotype

    I can understand your concern about devaluing music as a commodity, and your link to that and “free” music and lessons is an interesting one.

    However, you’ll be the winner in the end, and here’s why. My mother was a piano teacher, and in my growing up there were many half-baked piano “methods” or courses or videos or teaching keyboards (ones with built-in lessons and light-up keys) that promised that you didn’t need to “waste” your time with all that theory stuff and that you could be just as good by following the easy course. Guess what? She always loved it when these came out because when the people who’d buy into the easy-way-out methods were disappointed, they’d come to her to sound like “real” pianists. It taught me that there were no shortcuts to great musicianship.

    The point is that people with real dedication and talent will not be satisfied with the crumbs of YouTube. We know there are no real “overnight sensations”, and so there’s no instant success with learning an instrument. It’s similar to crash-dieting: you can be one-sided but in the end what works is a simple but dedicated regimen of diet and exercise (in this case, practice and consistency). Passion comes with the pride and satisfaction of accomplishment. Music is truly a mentoring profession. Even when I’ve taught myself through books (and I know what I’m doing) I’ve always found that I learned more from direct contact with other musicians.

    Keep fighting for your position, but in the end they will come to you.






  13. Chris Amati

    Can you run a restaurant by giving away food? The mass ‘dine-and dash’ is on. I don’t plan to give away a damn thing and I don’t plan to sell MP3s because the quality is terrible. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to ‘busk and hawk’ Musicians are not beggars- there’s no hat full of nickels in frnot of me. How many expect their paycheck every two weeks but want thier music for free. The modern music ‘lover’ is going to hve to grow up. This also entails the end of free music- musicians are going to have to forgo convenience for quality and patience. Unrippable formats are a start. I am no electronics engineer but if I have to go to a more cumbersome way to distribute my art so be it. If the audience is there , I think they will follow hint_I am not making music for the iPod generation

  14. Please

    Check back in with us, I’m very intersted to hear how your endeavor pans out. Perhaps we can all learn something from you.