Today, the MTSU Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. John Dougan of the recording industry department. Dr. Dougan teaches classes on music business, popular music, and the history of the recording industry.
Thanks for agreeing to interview today! So how did you become interested in recording industry management?
I didn’t pick it, it kind of picked me. My background in the music industry isn’t directly music related. I started out as a music journalist; I was a writer working for newspaper and magazines as a freelancer for years, starting in the late 70s/early 80s. When I went to graduate school, American music and popular music were my areas of interest, but my degrees were in American studies, so I used American music to look at other parts of popular culture. When I was hired here at MTSU, I was hired primarily because I had a Ph.D. and because I had considerable experience writing about music. Also, when I was in college I worked in a record store, so I knew about selling and marketing music.
What made you decide you wanted to teach?
I think I had always wanted to teach. My undergraduate major was English, and at the time I thought I was going to be a high school English teacher. However, it seemed very young to graduate from undergrad at 21 or 22 and go get a job in a high school where you’re teaching people who are only four or five years younger than you. I felt like I hadn’t matured enough, that I wasn’t very good at managing a classroom, so I drifted away from that and decided I wouldn’t teach then. But in the back of my mind, I always felt like teaching would be a good profession. Later in life, I had a friend who taught and who invited me to come speak at a few of his journalism classes, and he told me I was good at it and encouraged me to go into teaching. When I went to graduate school, I made the decision that the end result of my going to graduate school would be me teaching. It had been in the back of my mind for years and years, and finally, I thought “Now I’m ready to do it”.
So you went back to school as an adult student?
Yes; I had been working for years in nonprofit arts administration. I was living in Minnesota at the time, and I’d worked for the Minnesota Children’s Museum and a literary center in Minneapolis; I was a director of marketing and communications, and I enjoyed all that work. It was very fulfilling. But my wife had just finished a master’s program, and I saw how much she enjoyed it. I could’ve continued to do the work I was doing, but I think as I got older it would’ve been the law of diminishing returns. There are certain positions you’ll take in your life that you may age out of. You take them when you’re young, in your twenties, and you think “I could do this for however long”, but after seven or eight years the job may top out. You’ve gotten all you want to get out of it. I had reached that point where I felt like the window of opportunity for graduate school was closing on me, so I took the opportunity and jumped at it, and I’m glad I did.
Where did you go to college?
For graduate school, I went to William and Mary in Virginia. For undergrad, I went to Westfield State University in Massachusetts. It was part of the state college system. I didn’t go to a particularly prestigious or rigorous high school; I went to a regional high school in central Massachusetts, back when a lot of people didn’t go to college. About half the graduating class would go to college, and half would go into a vocational track, like construction or auto mechanics. For those of us who went to college, we were first-generation college kids, and we were funneled into the state college system. Every medium to large city in Massachusetts had a state college, they were all over the place. And it was affordable; you could work part time and go to school and graduate with very little debt, unlike now.
What’s one of your favorite memories from college?
Well, this isn’t really a specific memory, but I grew up in rural Massachusetts in a very insular town of about 1100 people. And even though the town I went to college in wasn’t a huge city, I met a much more diverse group of people there than I had ever encountered in my hometown. Most of the people in my hometown were white, working-class, and Catholic. When I went to college I met kids who had grown up in big cities, kids who had very sophisticated views of the world, far more so than me. So it’s not a specific memory, but I remember that as I progressed in my undergraduate career, I met so many people who fundamentally changed the way I looked at the world. That includes professors; I had great professors as an undergrad. In graduate school, again there wasn’t one specific moment or memory, but it was just one of the most thoroughly enjoyable experiences I could’ve had. I think that as an older student, I was more focused and committed. I had a child, so I was more responsible; I wasn’t in the dating pool, I wasn’t going out and getting “lit” every Friday night, I was just very focused and I wanted to finish my program. I got a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in six years, which is pretty fast, and that experience also really expanded my understanding of the world. I would say that I probably enjoyed graduate school far more than undergrad, but again, as an undergrad I was in my late teens and early twenties. I wasn’t very mature, and not really tuned in. It’s lucky I picked up the things that I did.
What’s something you wish you’d done in college, or that you wish you’d done differently?
I wish I’d been a better student. I was a thoroughly mediocre undergrad student. I got better towards the end, but I was not a good student my first year in college; I was actually on academic probation. I think part of it was because I was ill-equipped to live on my own. I was 17 when I went to college, so I just didn’t know a lot of things. When my son went to college, my wife and I had him doing things on his own at home that we knew he’d have to do on his own in college. We told him “okay, your mom’s not going to do your laundry for you anymore, you need to do it”, or “come into the kitchen, I’ll show you how to cook some things”. Little things like that. My son goes to school 900 miles away, so he has to be able to take care of himself. It’s not like if he has a lousy week he can just come home on the weekend spontaneously. So if I could change something about my undergraduate years, it would just be to be a better student and know how to take care of myself on my own and pay more attention to my professors. When I have students now who exhibit that unfocused behavior, it frustrates me because I know what that’s like. That’s what I was like, so I want to tell them to just focus. To take things more seriously.
If you could recommend one class that you teach for all students at MTSU to take, what class would it be and why?
I would say History of the Recording Industry. I teach that one a lot because it’s a required course in our recording industry management program. But I say this knowing that many students who take the class don’t enjoy it and don’t want to take it because they don’t like learning about history. Which I don’t understand at all; can you imagine being in any program where you don’t want to know the past of that program? I have students who feel like history has no relevance to them just because it’s old. They feel like it’s too many names, dates, and song titles, and I tell them, “I don’t expect you to memorize all of it, but comprehensive knowledge is a good thing”. I try to make it more than just an endless series of names and dates. I think history is an ongoing dialogue, past present and future, and that’s what history of the recording industry is about: knowing how popular music affects society, how it shapes culture, and how it reflects history. That’s why I like teaching this class. Why wouldn’t you want comprehensive knowledge in the area you’re going to work? Why would you want to be ignorant of major parts of your field? Also, I’m not impressed by people being able to look stuff up on their cell phone. If my cat had opposable thumbs, I could teach her to look things up on a phone. What I think is impressive is one’s ability to just sit down and talk to somebody about a genre of music and the background of that genre. That’s comprehensive knowledge. Who cares about your ability to look something up on your phone? It is frustrating sometimes, but even with that resistance, I still love teaching the class. Every once in a while you get through to students, and you can see their eyes light up, like “Oh, Miles Davis really was cool” or “Jimi Hendrix is actually neat”. Knowing the history of American popular music is important for people who work in a recording industry program. When I have a student who is resisting the class, I tell them to just relax and have fun.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to students to know?
If a student comes to me and asks, “How is this going to help me get a job?”, I’m not interested in that. What I teach is important; all knowledge is important information. If you spend your college career wondering, “How is every class going to affect my paycheck?”, maybe you shouldn’t be in college. Just enjoy it, learn as much as you can. Why does everything have to be so monetized? I think that’s a larger problem in education. I think a lot of students who come to college and universities are too focused on what they want to get out of in a paycheck. They miss out on the experience of college while they’re in the middle of it. Don’t go to college and turn your entire college career into some tedious pursuit of employment. For many people, these are the last four years of education they’ll have in their life. Why turn it into drudgery? Sure, everybody who goes to college wants to have a job when they graduate; but my point is, why would you be so focused solely on getting a job that you ignore all the great opportunities for learning that you have in college? Some students come in here with blinders on, ready to ignore information that they think won’t contribute to them getting employed. Their mindset towards everything in the classroom is “Why do I need to know this? Is this going to get me a job?”. Why would you partake in four years of intellectual exercise and squeeze all the fun out of it like that? You’ve got plenty of time to work. People in their twenties have forty-five years of work ahead of them, so what’s the rush?
Last question: have you ever worked with any famous people?
Well, probably the most famous student I’ve had since working at MTSU was Hillary Scott, from the band Lady Antebellum. She was my student about twelve years ago or so; I was teaching a survey of the recording industry class, and at the time she was just another undergrad in my class. Then a few years later I heard of a band called Lady Antebellum, and I realized “That’s Hillary!” She was a really great student.
If you’re interested in taking a class with Dr. Dougan, or you’d like more information about the recording industry management program, click here to go to the department’s homepage.