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USC Music School Teaches the Art of Making a Pop Hit

New program's students are already landing prominent TV, movie placements

Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac meets with students enrolled in USC's pop music program.
Kristina Jacinth
July 8, 2013 10:55 AM ET

For Rozzi Crane and Sam Wilkes, it was love at first song. "I heard Rozzi sing 'What's Going On' by Marvin Gaye, which has been a big part of my life, for my entire life," recalls Wilkes. "I was just like, 'I want to work with this girl.'"

Crane, 22, is a deep-voiced pop dramatist; Wilkes, 21, is a heady jazz bassist. Shortly after they started working together, Crane inked a deal with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine's 222 Records and went on to sing with the band on the Hunger Games soundtrack. But the duo didn't meet at an open mic night or find each other on YouTube. Instead, they connected at the University of Southern California's pop music program – the cutting-edge department that's become the site of one of Los Angeles' most productive new music scenes. 

When it was announced in 2008, the latest addition to USC's Thornton School of Music was envisioned as a more modern answer to its classical and jazz programs, a means to give pop-minded student musicians the kind of serious education that reality TV mentors can't squeeze in between commercials. It was the first such program offered by a full-fledged liberal arts campus in the country. But for all its world-class faculty – who range from the Eagles' musical director to Motown songwriting great Lamont Dozier – and Los Angeles industry access, the program's key connections have been the ones sparked between students. And with its first graduating class leading the way, the now full-size program has never been more fertile.

"If I was starting out, I would do anything I could to get in," says producer Glen Ballard, who has worked with artists from Michael Jackson to Alanis Morissette and serves on the Thornton School's board of counselors. "It's kind of like the Brill Building West. It's all happening right here."

Crane and Wilkes met in the rigorous six-semester performance course that is the program's core – a class where students cover artists from Katy Perry to Roy Orbison before turning to their own original material. Another duo, Eric Radloff and Mia Minichiello, paired off in a songwriting class. Naming themselves Bear Attack and expanding to a five-piece, the group landed a song on a season finale of ABC Family's hit teen drama Pretty Little Liars less than two years later. Bear Attack has since raised $5,000 through Kickstarter to fund its debut EP.

In the program's first three years, many other students have already had a taste of real-world success. Jayme Dee also appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack with an original song, while the Miracals – a Sixties-inspired group co-fronted by the pop program's first graduate, Will Sturgeon – have seen their music appear in MTV's The Buried Life and performed at the buzz-making South by Southwest festival. (Sturgeon entered the program as a sophomore, with his general education classes already complete, and finished up before his classmates; the program's first full graduating class finished this spring.) "Everyone has some experience with the professional world at this point," says Crane. "At least the juniors have, for sure."

Even reality shows have embraced the program: Former student Scott Hoying won NBC's The Sing-Off in 2011 as part of the group Pentatonix, which earned $200,000 and a Sony record deal. Hoying, who would have graduated in the Class of 2014, dropped out of USC to pursue the competition.

This past year, the program included about 100 students. Beyond their performance work, students also get to see weekly guest speakers such as Ballard and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham. Perhaps most importantly, the program's location gives them a chance to play for more than just their fellow students – one reason that many pop program students opted for USC over specialized schools such as Boston's Berklee College of Music. On-campus venues such as Ground Zero and Tommy's Place have become a second home for program players, giving them the chance to hone their skills and build a fan base before expanding to L.A. clubs. "It was almost like I was I was on tour at USC," says Crane. "That was really good preparation for me."

In their senior year, the pop program’s first class took on their most ambitious academic project as individuals: rather than conclude the performance-heavy coursework with a final recital, they spent the year at work launching an entrepreneurial proposition complete with a business plan. For some, it was an album or tour – Wilkes musical-directed a presentation featuring large and small ensembles and a Talking Heads cover – with the school serving as a safety net. "I expect that some of their final projects are going to get a little traction and actually going to work out," says associate dean and program founder Chris Sampson. "And I expect that some aren't. They're going to learn what the music marketplace will demand."

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