Let’s play a free association word game. I say a word, and you say the first words that pop into your head. Ready?
Hmmmm. Trains? Roads? The power grid?! Sewers!
Excellent. Also acceptable: civil defense, urban and environmental planning, importing, exporting, shipping, et al. See, infrastructure has its hard and fast definitional meaning, and a greater abstract meaning that comes with a deep-seated, power jockeying purpose. It’s one of those squishy “make you seem smarter” words that people drop into a conversation to score points in a debate.
Where combine is just fine, we hear synergize. Where controversial, contested, or unresolved will do, we hear the grotesque problematize.
So, when my interview subject, Kevin Nixon, one of the founders of the Detroit Institute of Music Education (hereafter D.I.M.E.), dropped an “I” bomb when I asked why Detroit needed something like D.I.M.E., I admit, I probably squinted skeptically. But as Nixon laid out his case and defined his terms it became clear that he has a plan for a legitimate infrastructure—one that starts with cultivating talent.
“There’s more raw talent in Detroit than any place I’ve ever seen,” Nixon says, interlocking his fingers around his coffee. We’re sitting in the spacious commons area on the first floor of the historic Bamlet building on Griswold in the heart of the recently Dan Gilbert-ified Capitol Park neighborhood of Detroit on the first chilly day this fall. The district has been marked to become an art corridor in downtown Detroit (a topic that sparked some controversy last winter), and D.I.M.E. is at the center of this redevelopment.
Nixon and his partners, Sarah Clayman and Bruce Dickinson, founded D.I.M.E. after selling BIMM, their independent U.K. music schools in England and Ireland, in 2010. The proceeds from that sale and capital from Nixon’s friend, Charlie Rothstein—who also founded Beringea private equity—helped fund D.I.M.E., which opened in the spring of 2014. Rothstein and Quicken Loans’s Dan Gilbert strongly encouraged Nixon to open a school in Detroit instead of New York and L.A.
Nixon hadn’t been to Detroit since the 1970s, when he was the tour manager for a few U.K. bands. “I was impressed with the movement to bring Detroit back with young people and creative people. When we came to talk to Charlie and Dan the hospitality was stunning,” he says.
Once they decided Detroit was the place to open their music school the rest fell into place. Gilbert helped them move into the first three stories of the Bamlet building, and recruitment began right away. “We had a quick enrollment phase—quicker than most of us would have liked—but we had about 400 applicants, and we admitted 70 students.” Nixon says they were looking for the best, and their inaugural crop is just that.
The best guitarists, bass players, percussionists, songwriters, and bright minds interested in making a go in the music business are invited to pursue one of D.I.M.E.’s 3-year bachelor’s degrees in creative music performance, music entrepreneurship, and song craft. They also offer short crash course certificates and are interested in adding a degree program for keyboards. (Detroit is unique among U.S. cities, with keyboard sales actually outpacing guitars.)
“Most music schools in the U.S. focus on recording to the detriment of performance. But if you can perform well, then recording becomes that much easier,” Nixon says, spelling out his philosophy for the school, which is very nurturing—from cradle to stage—but also demanding. The classes are intensive and intended to teach students not only how to play their instrument, but also how to build a thick skin and become resilient. The music industry is hard—no surprises there. But Nixon and the rest of D.I.M.E.’s founders have made enough connections in the music industry over the years to make the difficult work worthwhile.
Part of the infrastructure Nixon mentioned involves bringing industry interest to Detroit and shining a light on the bands here; showing musicians how to present themselves, how to license music for film, how to merchandise, build a brand, and, above all, become better at playing live and making money from touring. Essentially, he’s teaching musicians how to be businesses.
Right now, Nixon sees the music scene in Detroit as too disparate. Bands, musicians, bookers, promoters, venues, producers, engineers, labels, and all the rest of the elements that must come together to create, yes, an infrastructure, aren’t yet talking to each other. In Detroit’s defense, we don’t have nearly as many people or as much money as New York or L.A. But I sense Nixon’s devotion to his adoptive city. For him, it’s not about parody; it’s just about giving his students the tools they need to become the best. Watch this video, where Nixon tells the guitarist of the band he’s instructing where to stand to get more feedback from her amp. Thoughtful instruction like that can only lead to good things.
In Brighton, Bristol, Dublin, Manchester and London, BIMM had 3,500 students. Mr. Nixon and his colleagues want 1,200 at D.I.M.E. by this point next year. They have four stories above them to build on, and, if admissions requests last spring were any indication, the raw talent in Detroit is ready to refine itself and find a wider audience. D.I.M.E. is also set to receive accreditation from a local Michigan university in the next few weeks, which means they can offer PELL grants, making cost less prohibitive.
Nixon’s advice to the young students at his school? “Don’t let anything distract you away from the dedication it takes to be great. Also study music in the world from 1930 to 1970, and you will grasp everything.” The latter is good advice to anyone interested in music, but the first part is good advice for the city of Detroit, as it adds another piece to the creative revolution it hopes will breed brighter days—and, of course, infrastructure. Gotta have that.