After two decades of playing music, singer-songwriter and pianist Stephanie Ault found herself working as a project manager for a construction company. She says she had completely lost touch with herself.
So she started looking for full-time work in music, perhaps A&R or management. She Googled: “What can I do in the music industry?”
The search brought up an article about the Detroit Institute of Music Education, or DIME, in which Sarah Clayman and Kevin Nixon talked about founding the school, an institute tailored for serious musicians looking for a long-term professional career in modern music.
Now, a year after starting a temporary DIME Denver on the Auraria campus, the pair just opened a permanent school at 800 Kalamath Street in partnership with Metropolitan State University. DIME manages the program; Metro State hires the professors and grants degrees. The school offers four-year bachelor’s degrees in commercial music performance, commercial songwriting and music-industry studies.
“The partnership between MSU Denver and DIME gives students a unique opportunity to learn about the commercial music business from seasoned pros and top-notch professors,” says Bob Amend, chief academic and administrative officer for the MSU Denver-DIME Partnership. “We also look forward to collaborating with the numerous creative people involved in the vibrant Denver music scene.”
Clayman says that she and Nixon designed the curriculum based on their own work in the music business, to help students go from being bedroom musicians and entrepreneurs to working in the industry.
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Ault just started the commercial songwriting program and works with three other songwriters in what DIME calls a cohort model. “We work together constantly,” she says. “We’re given assignments. Right now, two of us are writing a blues song together. We’re kind of forced to learn different genres, like going through a blues song, a folk song, pop, and then perform it live. One reason that I wanted to come here is it would force me to work with other people, because being a songwriter can be very isolated.”
Using the cohort model, Ault and the other three songwriters will stick together through the four years.
“I will only have three other songwriters in my classes, which I think is really cool,” Ault says. “We’ll move though the four years together. I like that model. It’s pretty small and intimate. It’s kind of like this support system, and you do get feedback and critiqued.”
Clayman says DIME uses the cohort model for two reasons. “One, the music industry hires young, and the younger you are, the more opportunities there are in the music industry,” she says. “Number two is these young people are studying and learning together, so they’re creating their own communities. They’re creating their own music industry as they travel along together. And they’re making lifelong relationships with people they’re going to work with the rest of their careers. It’s a really supportive environment.”
Now in its second year in Denver, DIME is gradually gaining traction locally. Even so, it’s not widely known in the industry.
AEG Presents Rocky Mountain co-president and senior talent buyer Don Strasburg and AEG talent buyer and Lost Lake, Globe Hall and Larimer Lounge owner Scott Campbell, who both work from an office a block away from DIME’s building and are two of the biggest players in live music in Denver, knew nothing about the school when Westword reached out for their perspective.
“I’m not familiar with the program, but anything that can encourage people and help guide people into a career in the arts is a beautiful thing,” Strasburg says.
Clayman and Nixon started their first college in Brighton, England, in 2001, and later opened schools in London, Bristol and Dublin called the BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music) colleges. Popular English singer-songwriters Tom Odell and George Ezra, who are both signed to Columbia, and James Bay and The Kooks, who are signed to Virgin, attended BIMM schools.
After selling the BIMM colleges in 2010 and 2011, Clayman and Nixon founded DIME in Detroit in September 2014. In January 2015, the two were invited to a dinner party in the city, where they met Michigan native Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, an association of downtown businesses.
“Tami said, ‘Who are you and why are you here?’” Clayman says. “We told her, and she was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is incredible. You have to bring this to Denver.’ And we were like, ‘Tami, we haven’t even opened in Detroit yet. We can’t even think about it.’ And that was the beginning of it. It really was. It was a chance meeting.
“When we started to think about Denver, we thought about the location of it and the musical community here — the live music venues and the music scene,” Clayman continues. “And we came to visit, and we were like, ‘Absolutely. This is a fantastic place to have a modern commercial music program.’”
Many of DIME’s students are from creative backgrounds and uninspired by traditional education. “A lot of them haven’t done well in high school,” Clayman says. “They’re not really interested in that. They just want to play music.”
DIME’s students are typically between 18 and 24 years old. “They’re traditionally students who haven’t been inspired by education; maybe something’s happened in their lives that has interrupted their education,” Clayman explains. “So some of them can come to us with a lower GPA because they have the creative mind rather than the academic mind.
“Then, when they come to a program like DIME and MSU Denver at DIME, not only do they do well musically, but they do really well academically, because they love what they’re doing,” she adds. “That’s something that’s universal around the world. If you ask a young student to do something they’re not interested in, they’re not going to do it very well. If you ask them to do something they are interested in, they try harder.”
Clayman notes that those attending DIME Denver must take general education classes, but they’re taught with the musician-students in mind. For example, in a class on public speaking, the instructor might use examples such as doing a record company presentation or accepting an industry award.
Something Ault finds attractive about DIME is that it doesn’t feel like school, since studying music is something she’s passionate about.
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“I guess when I would say ‘school,’ you think of sitting in huge lecture halls where you’re really disconnected, where there are hundreds of people walking around campus and not feeling plugged in,” she says.
Ault’s music-theory class is her biggest, at around 25 students, while there are about fifteen in her piano class. All of the classes have a direct impact on her growing craft.
“It’s just basically breaking it down, like ‘How can I get really tight at this craft?’” she says. “A lot of us songwriters, it’s so easy not to release your music online. It’s very, very saturated. We don’t really learn what makes a good song, what makes a hit. So that’s what these courses are preparing us and grooming us for.”
Part of the reason Ault wanted to go to DIME was that the school’s faculty members are working in the industry now. “They’re not just professors who have tenure,” Ault says. “They still very much have their hands on the pulse of the music industry. And I wanted to be as close to that as possible.”