“The whole thing about taking an English-speaking artist to Japan, via virtual reality, at a Tokyo campus of a Philadelphia university… It’s like place and culture don’t matter at all, isn’t it?” Jean-Julien Aucouturier
Students learned not only fundamental musical digitization skills but also how to put them into action by developing a new channel for a real musician.
Learning is a funny thing. While it’s possible to prepare to learn by studying, raw knowledge doesn’t stick or become whole without being put into practice. The best way to learn, then, is by doing. That’s also how to set about doing something that’s never been done before.
That’s the basis behind a revolutionary class at Temple University, Japan Campus. Partnering with acclaimed Philadelphia hip hop artist, Legrand, Dr. Jean-Julien Aucouturier, challenged his students to figure out how to launch Legrand’s Second Life music career as a way to help build audience awareness before Legrand’s upcoming 2010 Japan tour. Whereas a traditional approach for teaching a class like this might focus on technical skills development to produce machinima, animations, avatar and instrument designs, or the recording skills necessary to digitize a musical performance, in Dr. Aucouturier’s class, students not only learned these fundamental skills, but also how to put them into action by developing a new channel for a real musician.
Legrand and Aucouturier met last year thanks to Duane Levi, who organizes the annual Kansai Music Conference (KMC) in Osaka. KMC is designed specifically to help foreign artists break into the Japan music scene which can be tough without a grassroots following. Legrand, was chosen to appear at KMC 2009, and he’s also the first season winner of “Who Wants To Be A Rap Star,” a 10-week reality series challenge in New York City, and has recently signed a single with Internet Records.
Via the KMC, Legrand learned of musicians staging concerts in Second Life to extend their audience. He also heard about an idea from Professor Aucouturier about working with students as part of a class to create a Second Life presence. Legrand volunteered. It was a perfect match. Legrand’s willingness, dedication, and professionalism, paired nicely with Aucouturier’s forward thinking on how educational institutions can help break new ground through the learning process. Together they set the foundation for a ground-breaking experiential learning experience for all involved.
Professor Aucouturier, known to his students as JJ, believes the current landscape of the music industry is ideal for collaborations between artists and universities. “Many of the independent artists that populate MySpace or Reverbnation are incredibly talented and creative, but they cannot rely on major production companies to invest in them.” JJ sees the independent artist audience as being eager to follow many short, playful projects which require increasingly complex technical skills, and strategic risk. But how to manage this with little or no money?
“Major acts like Nine Inch Nails,” JJ says “have gone independent after being nominated for several Grammys earned within the established system.” With such acclaim, they can afford to pull off leading edge projects. “Their stuff is mind-blowingly creative, and bold,” JJ noted, citing NIN’s Year Zero launch via an alternate reality game. “However,” he said “small bands/artists cannot break this kind of ground on their own, and who’s going to invest in them in times when even Whitney Houston cannot guarantee ROI?” JJ believes this is precisely where universities can help. “Student-run projects can quickly develop tech-savvy, crowd-wise initiatives in a way that’s well suited to the needs of independent DIY artists: cheap, quick and playful. We trade this for a learning experience that is amazing: working with a real artist, with a real career, real music, and real audiences.”
Dr. Aucouturier is as patient as he is bold. He envisioned and shared this idea with many for about a year before the “Legrand in SL” project came to be. He says it took time for all the pieces to fall together—including a timely meeting with Legrand, developing context for the project, and recruiting a talented team of students for the class. Context for this effort came out of a more traditional student project in one of JJ’s earlier classes that looked at developing a presence in Second Life. But the secret sauce for “Legrand in SL” is the students, communications majors who had been studying both practical film making and advertising/public relations. “I literally highjacked a class,” JJ said, “and can boast at having gathered a group of 20 of the most creative and talented college undergrads I have seen so far. If you had sat in the classroom seeing the energy, quality, and greatness of these students, you would have given money to trade places with me to teach that course!”
Today’s ever-changing technology landscape continues to influence and morph the music industry. The rapid pace of change has kept the pressure on university communications education programs like that at Temple University, Japan Campus, making it increasingly harder to anticipate where the industry is headed and challenging professors like JJ to figure out how best to prepare students. How do you teach what hasn’t yet been done? JJ and Legrand agree, “There’s no theory—nobody has a recipe right now. There’s nothing to lecture about.”
But Dr. Aucouturier doesn’t come to this space unarmed. He’s been active in the digital music space for over 10 years working with the technical/computer aspects of the industry, including some research for Sony with iTunes-like systems. Since joining the School of Communications at Temple University, Japan Campus, his solution to the sweeping changes in the music industry has been to create topical classes, moving from traditional lecturing to increasingly participative, studio-like set-ups where he actively collaborates with students on a common semester-long project. “Legrand in SL” is the most ambitious class project so far—creating a Second Life presence for Legrand, including all the technical and promotional aspects, for the express purpose of building virtual exposure to initiate a grassroots following for Legrand in Japan—all within a single semester.
Solving the technical challenges is hard, JJ said, but straight forward. He believes the softer problems are the hardest “such as strategy, and human factors, since they don’t have yes/no solutions, and since we don’t know how to evaluate the result when we begin.” Similarly, Legrand’s artistic vision was critical if the shared product was going to be authentic. “In the spirit of collaboration, I had to be open to things I normally would not do,” Legrand said. “From the creative side, I had to allow a stranger to compose the music and touch my vocals and play with my song structure. I am called The Professional for a reason, and I like my music to be a reflection of that—it was huge for me to let go of that control, but I couldn’t put myself in a bubble if this was going to work.”
The class addressed issues surrounding every aspect of the project including artistic integrity, commercial factors, and very real time constraints. The scope originally conceived simply could not be completed within a single semester, Legrand recalled. “Collectively we decided to shoot a video instead of hosting a concert.” JJ was complimentary about this transition, “We moved forward with a redefined project where everyone felt stimulated and respected.” The professor was fascinated by how the students and artist managed these questions.
Legrand said they confronted tactical obstacles too such as how to account for the time difference, and how to get timely feedback. “I also experienced challenges recording against a deadline,” Legrand confided. “As an artist, you don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the content, music or sound. However, when you have nearly two dozen students working their hearts out for you, you don’t want to let them down either. That’s when technology helps tremendously. I ended up having to take my laptop with me, and recording music or video on the fly. I remember shooting some of the video footage from the Hyatt Regency hotel in Pittsburgh, and recording vocals at the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge hotel.” Time was central to the project, not just needing to respect the limitations of a semester, but the team had to account for substantial time zone differences too.
The team used Skype, Twitter and YouTube to communicate throughout. JJ remembered how Legrand grabbed the students’ attention immediately. “Legrand sent us an awesome hip hop track for the opening class of the course saying ‘hi’ to us, and how excited he was about the project—a full minute rhyming in Japanese! The students were in awe.”
“That was just me free-styling though,” Legrand demurred. “You won them instantly,” JJ continued. “Here’s this musician talking to us about how we can work with him.” JJ believes that lead to an immediate understanding with Legrand. “More than with any team perhaps, leading a group of college students is an exercise of momentum,” JJ noted, “the energy and effectiveness of the group can go through the roof, but they have to feel that the other side is equally present, responsive, excited, and supportive. While I can channel some of this energy, it would be obvious to the students if the artist was only marginally present/involved. Legrand could stand that pressure very well. He nailed students to the wall with live conference calls during our class time, booking studio hours to record a vocal track a student had written literally overnight, and even commenting on everything we ever posted to YouTube within hours. That energy and commitment, I simply couldn’t have simulated.”
While JJ originally envisioned a significant portion of the class would be focused on branding, that proved unnecessary. Legrand found a majority of the students already followed hip hop. “Some of the students may have a new view of what it is in comparison to what is getting exposure right now,” Legrand said, “but they didn’t really inquire about ‘my vibe’. I assume that’s because I put so much honesty about who I am into my music. Once you hear it you will either say ‘I know this guy and I am down with him,’ or this isn’t what I signed up for. It’s that simple.”
In addition to managing time zones, language was certainly an important consideration. “As a hip hop artist, part of my talent is to rhyme in other languages,” Legrand said, sharing further, “I have studied a few languages over the years and at one time was fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and I know a little French too. I have a rep for including other languages into my lyrics.” This was the first time, however, where Legrand had an opportunity to work in Japanese. While this is a small facet of the project, Legrand said this is the one he is most proud and excited about. Getting it right was also mission critical since Japanese syntax is very difficult, and missing it would have also undermined the objective of pre-launching Legrand’s Japan tour.
“The students took my Japanese rhymes, and broke down what I was trying to say,” Legrand recounted, “if my syntax missed, they gave me back something that also rhymed but made more sense.” The students had to understand Legrand’s creative intention to stay true, which often meant coming up with creative ways to fit with the beats, and rhymes too. This is incredibly difficult to do.
“I must say seeing my students diving into the lyrics,” JJ recalled, “chewing over what would be the best Japanese way to say what Legrand had envisioned, asking street-savvy friends and family, and getting back to Legrand with an audio recording of how to pronounce it, and Legrand going into the studio the same day, cutting the track. Sending it back by email, and me playing it back in class the next day. And us all finding that, yes, the language fit, and made complete sense. Students listening and nodding to each other, pleased to hear that the syntax now worked. This was just precious. One of those moments.”
JJ pointed out that language is also an integral part of Legrand’s artistic identify. While it’s an interesting wrinkle, both JJ and Legrand agree it wasn’t what made the project successful—but it was a very nice fit. For his part, Legrand, takes his language talents in stride. “I think God gave me a talent to communicate, whether it is through music, or words across languages. So I am compelled to share it, or He will take it away from me. But that is who I am… all of the time, wherever I am.”
The students in class brought a broad mix of cultural backgrounds too, most of them are fluent in English and Japanese. JJ reflected on the language and cultural aspect of the project and the team, “The whole thing about taking an English-speaking artist to Japan, via virtual reality, at a Tokyo campus of a Philadelphia university… It’s like place and culture don’t matter at all, isn’t it?”
Legrand wrote all new material for the project, which may have made it easier to share some creative control than with something he had completely finished and had already released. Legrand knew there was a lot of expectation from the students, and “I couldn’t expect them to buy-in to the whole concept, if I wasn’t committed to it. I think anyone who listens to my music or follows me as a person understands that I am passionate about my music and hip hop as a culture.” JJ added, “While the students may have thought they knew a lot about how the industry works, through this class they learned much about the reality of it, including the work ethic, and everything else necessary to succeed.”
“Whether the final mix is good, relevant, hip hop or R&B or whatever is nearly irrelevant for me,” JJ said. “The fact that Legrand really gave us control meant in the most extreme way, we were in charge. We had freedom to adapt the lyrics, work on the language, work on the meaning, and timing. That gave us freedom to work on the video storyboard, and the courage to try things in the video, and approach people for promotion. The whole class was empowered.” Dr. Aucouturier believes strongly that this decision was most crucial to the overall success of this unique endeavor.
While the success of the project with respect to building Legrand’s Japanese audience won’t be known for some months, both JJ and Legrand feel this effort is a complete success. They’ve even kicked around ways to take this concept to more students virtually. The class is currently working to finish post production on the “Virtual Love,” video in anticipation of the end of the semester. The video includes traditional film and machinima, with a substantial Second Life visual element, including a first ever student-developed, hand-drawn avatar skin.
FreePlayVL will post the link to the video upon release later this month. In the meantime, we send our congratulations to Dr. Aucouturier, Legrand, and the “Legrand in SL” student team: Kanae Akasaka, Felicia Brempong, Jayda Brown, Maytee Chinavanichkit, Eric Edler, Katherine Gates, Aashis Ghimire, Yuya Hayashi, Jiyong Jeon, Candice Johnson, Sean Kojaku, Andrew Landry, Yu Okamura, Kenta Shibasaki, Radley Silla, Michio Ueda, Kailin Wang, Ashley West and Tzu-ling Tu.