We Interview Recording Connection
By Rip Rowan
It was with great interest and trepidation that I interviewed James Petulla. Jimi is the mastermind behind several career-building programs: Radio Connection, Film Connection, and Music Recording Connection. These programs are designed to help newcomers to these professions to get internships with radio stations, film companies, and recording schools.
When I first found out about Recording Connection, I had to hold in a giggle. "Wait a minute," I thought. "People pay these guys for low-paying or free internships? Where are these people? I've got a bridge to sell them."
But they wanted to buy banner ads on my site, and I happily took their money.
So when I was asked to conduct an interview with James Petulla, my face fell. Here at ProRec, we call 'em like we see 'em, and the Music Connection sure looked to us like a scam. I guess I could kiss their ads goodbye.
However, I thought about it for a while. Here was the perfect opportunity to uphold our journalistic integrity. ProRec would "expose" the Great Music Connection Scam, lose the advertising, and demonstrate our integrity to our readers.
With my jaw set I called James Petulla on the phone for our interview.
What I learned over the next hour was that James Petulla is no scam artist. He firmly believes in his product, and clearly understands the role he plays. At the end of the interview, I was convinced that the Music Connection is a sound business model that can actually add value to the internship process.
Most importantly, Jimi impressed me with his honesty, candor, and earnestness. This guy really believes in what he does. What follows is a transcript of our interview. I think you'll find it as interesting as I did.
Tell me how you started the Music Connection.
I started working in radio broadcasting in high school. I started working in radio stations when I was fifteen years old. I was the kid that hung around at the stations. The DJs would say, "get me some smokes" or "turn this knob" and I did it. By the time I was 22 I was a program director. So I had no idea that people went to school for these kinds of careers. You just do it, I thought.
I moved out to San Francisco, and it was sort of by accident that I started this business. I got approached to do some commercials for the Columbia School of Broadcasting. They wanted me to do their commercials, then they asked me to come talk to their students. I was a 23-year old hippy, and these students were paying five or six thousand dollars to learn how to do radio, and I'm thinking, "what is this?"
So I went off and wrote a course that teaches you broadcasting, and started getting people into radio stations by paying program directors to train them. And it sort of took off. That was in 1984. I had a couple of friends who were general managers at radio stations, and I'd tell them that if they'd run my ads on the air for free, I'd split the tuition with them. At the time I was charging US $1800 to learn to be a radio announcer. So he would get an intern, and US $900.
But what was different from other internships where you'd just be making coffee and emptying ash trays is that there was a course involved and you'd actually be doing assignments. I'm actually paying the person to be a mentor. This is radio, where the whole thing involves having a good demo tape. So the program director spends a few hours a week critiquing the intern's tape, and teaching how to use the equipment. At the end of the course, you've got a demo tape, a relationship with a real program director, and some experience "behind the doors" of a real station.
Were there tests?
Yeah, in the radio program they're all voice and writing assignments. The intern writes 10 commercials and records them at home. Then they work with the program director, and when they're ready, they go into the studio and record the commercials the right way. So that's an assignment. Next week he does a newscast. The next week he does a sportscast. So you not only learn how to do this stuff, you're also developing a solid demo tape that you can use to get a real job. And of course you're building a relationship with a program director, and in this business, it's all about having a great demo tape and a great recommendation.
The fact that we tied payments to the completion of assignments helped us keep the program manager honest. And if a student complained that they weren't getting the mentoring that we promised, we'd get them another internship where they would get the attention they deserved.
How did the Radio Connection become the Music Connection?
Well, now it's 1990. I was in LA working with some of the guys there at Goodnight LA, andthey gave me the idea that this thing that I was doing with radio internships could work in recording studios, because its such a similar process.
So the first thing I needed was a course. I've been doing radio since I was a kid–I wrote that course. It was easy for me. But I'm not knowledgeable enough to write a course for recording.
Sherman Keene goes way back to Gladys Knight and the Pips. He wrote this home study course back in the 1970s the Sherman Keene Engineering Course. You get a bunch of audio tapes and textbooks and study at home. So I got a hold of this thing and made a deal with him to buy his course and have recording engineers facilitate the course, just like the Radio Connection.
I had a little problem with the course, so I hired John Sundeberg in Denver to write our own program. That was about six years ago, and it's been continuously updated. We think it's the most up-to-date course around.
What's different about our approach is that when someone calls us up and says, "I want to be a recording engineer" I can't just say, "OK, pay me the three grand and you're in." I have to first qualify them. If some blue-haired old lady calls me up and starts talking about how she loves music, you know what I mean, this isn't going to work. So first I qualify them, then I set up an interview at a radio station or recording studio in their town. And the studio has to accept them.
That's what's so different about my program. By the time they start, they've already had to clear two hurdles. If the studio calls up and says the student isn't good enough, the student can't get into the program. So you have to be accepted. Of course, most recording schools say "we don't accept just anyone." Well, sure they do. Why wouldn't they?
One of the things I've learned is that secure, talented engineers love to teach what they know to bright, excited young people. It's sure not the money! I'm only paying them, what, US $1500 over the duration of the internship. Then, if they wind up hiring the intern there's another US $500 bonus at the end of the thing. The course is six to eight months. These guys that are mentoring for me can make that kind of money in a day!
What do you have to say about the recording schools or colleges?
I'm not knocking college or schools like . Let's face it, a lot of people go off to school to get laid. It's not about "I want to get a job right away," it's about growing up, meeting people, whatever.
When a guy is enrolling in some kind of college, you're paying US $25 grand and up. It's logical to think, "when I'm done with this, I'm going to get a job. I'll have my diploma, now I'm going to get a gig." But the reality is that when you finish , or NYU, or wherever you go, you get out only to go and have to work for free for a while. You still have to go an intern, and offer your services for free until you get offered US $10 or US $15 per hour to work as a second engineer.
Now I'm not knocking these colleges. They have their success stories. But their success stories are people who realized that they were going to have to have an internship. I think if these people knew going in that when they got out they were going to have to work for free, it would change things.
I'm real honest with people too. When a guy calls me and says, "Why do I need you? I've got a home studio, I've been playing for a while, and I've got a good ear." I tell him, "You don't need me. Get off your butt and go find a studio and get an internship. Go find a studio owner and show up at five in the morning and tell that guy you want nothing more than to work for free and learn what he has to give." But how many people are that motivated? But I'll be the first to tell people they don't need me to do this. You know what I'm saying.
Well, no. I didn't expect you to say that.
Oh, absolutely you don't need me to do this. I've had people call me up and say, "Jimi, I can't afford to get in." I tell him, "OK, you don't have money. What can you offer the guy? Maybe you can you paint his house, I don't know." (We laugh). In fact I give out a free video and we explain what we do, and what it costs. At the end of the video we say, "Now, if you can't afford to do this, go out and do it on your own."
That's the thing that blows my mind. You and I know that most of the people who are successful in the record business never went to school. That's the first thing out of my mouth when I talk to a Mom or a Dad. They ask, "What about your diploma? How's it compare to this or that?" and I tell them, "Forget about the diploma. It means nothing." You get a diploma from my program, it means nothing. You can put it on the wall and you can get laid, but I guarantee you that it will not get you a job. I tell them that. And it blows their minds.
I have to say it's refreshing to hear you say that. A bunch of guys here on our staff were expecting you to talk about how you have this magic angle on how to get a job in the recording business. It's good to hear that you don't have that opinion of yourself.
Rip, all I've done is stolen something that's hundreds of years old. In the twelfth century, if you wanted to be an artist or a carpenter, you didn't go to school, because there were no schools. You went to work for an artist. But what you really did is your family paid for the privilege to have you work for free. Because what your family knew is that if you hung around with the master, you would eventually be like the master. All I did is reinvent something that was already there.
I personally think that the term "engineering" is a huge misnomer for what goes on behind the console in a recording studio.
Right. It's artistry. I tell my guys that all the time. Ultimately, you don't know if you have it or not. I am very passionate about that. One of the first things I do with people who are interested in the program is find out what their background is. And if they have no background at all I tell them, "Then you don't know if you have an ear." And they start arguing. "Oh, I've got an ear." So I press them, "How do you know?" And they'll go on about how they heard some song on the radio and they knew it was going to be a hit. Like they discovered it!
And they get discouraged and say, "So does this mean that I can't do recording?" I tell them, "Not necessarily, it just means that you don't know if you have an ear. And you don't know if you're going to be able to do this." And they're blown away.
So that's the thing about the new computer age in music. The technology is the easy part. The ear is another thing entirely. Everybody thinks that they can just make a hit record in their home. Maybe they can, maybe they can't.
The fact is, some can. But the other fact is, most won't.
Right. And how'd you like to drop US $25 grand in a recording school only to do your first internship and find out you don't have an ear? I'll do just about anything to talk someone out of spending US $25 grand at a school to learn audio engineering.
Now, I won't argue with the guy who says, "I think I'm just going to get a home studio and learn it on my own," because that guy can do it–if he's motivated and if he's willing to get off his butt and if he doesn't have that big of an ego. You know what I mean. And if you're motivated, you could grow a home studio business into something professional, or you could learn enough to get an internship at an established studio. But why go to school only to have to get an internship, when I can get you the internship now?
I'll even tell parents the same thing. Why spend US $25 grand to send the kid off only to find out they can't do it? You're better off getting the kid a bunch of gear and reading ProRec. At least then if the kid can't do it, you can get some money back from selling the gear.
The reality is that most people who go to these schools don't finish and never pursue the career. But I can honestly prove that about 80% of the people that go through my program wind up getting some kind of job. Because we're wonderful? No! Because they showed up–they wanted to do it. I just got them in the door.