Founded by Christopher Wight and David Alexander, Icon Collective Production School is a California-based learning facility with a focus on catering to the world of beatmakers, bedroom producers and electronic artists. With a list of alumni that include artists like Jauz and MAKJ, and advisors like Steve Duda, their widespread reputation was such that I reached out to Chris with some questions about what has made his school so popular.
Hi Chris. Thanks for being willing to talk about your school. Can you tell me a bit about what role you play at Icon Collective?
I’m one of the co-founders of Icon. Myself and David Alexander started it seven years ago, and I’m also one of the teachers. David and I pretty much steer the whole Collective in every way, whether it’s the curriculum, the marketing or the direction we think things are going, in order to help students out in the best way possible.
Was there a role you and David wanted to fill in terms of educating people about electronic music, which wasn’t being provided previously?
I grew up in the music industry with my father and brothers being musicians. David has been doing it for many years as well, and we saw that there was a big shift in the mid-2000′s. We were creating all of our music on laptops, going on tours, and living the music lifestyle in a 21st century way, which was brand new back then. So we understood the marketing and production aspects, and when we looked around, we saw that the needs of aspiring artists weren’t being met. A lot of them would get frustrated by going to engineering schools and learning how to work on SSL or Neve consoles and use Pro Tools. Whilst that’s a great trade, most of the people that were going to these engineer schools were artists at heart, and they really wanted to learn the tools as a means to express themselves, as opposed to working a job recording other people’s music. So we started Icon on pure grit and faith.
We didn’t have any investment or gear in the beginning. We called together everyone we knew in the music industry into a room in 2006, and said, “We believe that this idea needs to exist, and it needs to be an artist-first collective; not an institute or academy. It’s about doing this together. If anyone wants to join us, we’re taking deposits for our first quarter, which will start in two weeks.” That’s basically how Icon came about. It was in a room the size of a bedroom in downtown LA, and it’s been growing steadily ever since.
Who were these music industry individuals that initially showed an interest in your idea and met with you in 2006?
It was a lot of people we were working with, since we were producing a lot of artists and touring, and I was signed to Sony at the time. Majority of them were people we thought were artists, and who were looking for guidance. Those were our first students. I think we had eight or nine of them at first, which was amazing at the time, and now we have around 150 students.
Also, we were doing some teaching on the side already. People had already approached us about teaching them as personal clients, so we already had a pool of people who were interested in us educating them.
How were you able to accommodate your students in these early days without financial backing?
We just took the deposits that we received the from students, got a building, went to Guitar Center, bought gear, and opened up the doors. Since then, we’ve always put our earnings back into the business, and that’s really how it’s grown. This isn’t a get-rich scheme by any means. We’re always the first ones in and last ones out. We’ve never had to invite outsiders who want to bring their influence to the school. Not to sound cheesy, but Icon is a special thing, and the voice of what Icon does is important, which is far more important than just making profits. For instance, our tuition is half the cost of many of our competitors. Many of the schools that teach engineering are great schools with fantastic facilities, and if that’s what you want to do, then do that; but it’s going to cost you $30,000 to learn a trade that you may not necessarily be into. So we’re very conscious of that, and we do our best to keep the tuition at a point where we can level the playing field as much as possible. I can’t tell you how many students have found us after they’ve already spent $30,000 to $50,000 at recording schools. Not to take anything away from those schools, but when engineering is not somebody’s passion, yet they’ve already taken student loans and gotten into debt, they sometimes find Icon and say, “This is actually what I’ve always wanted. I just didn’t know you guys existed “. It’s great that they find us, but it’s also frustrating that they had to waste all that time and get into debt to find us.
From the creation of Icon until now, what have been the biggest challenges in building a reputation as a school?
That’s a good question. We’ve built Icon with exactly what we teach, which is more than just the technical aspect of engineering. Clearly you need to know Ableton, Logic, synthesis, mixing, etc. But you can’t just have that. You need the business aspect too, along with the core beliefs that are in our mission statement. So for us, we’ve always focused on the students in front of us, and the curriculum.
Also, we don’t just accept anyone that comes through the door. If we had 400 people that showed up at the door tomorrow to sign up, we wouldn’t accept them, because we wouldn’t be able to give the best service possible. Our infrastructure wouldn’t be proportionate to that, such as teachers who teach well, and with enough hours. The struggle has been allowing our growth to play out, but we always had faith that if we stuck to that, the rest would take care of itself, and over the last couple years, we’ve been rewarded for sticking to our guns on that belief.
Can you tell me about building up this infrastructure you mentioned, such as your studios and classrooms?
It’s been very steady. This is our fourth location, which we just moved into three months ago. It’s the former Enterprise Studios, in Burbank, which is legendary for working with artists like Micheal Jackson, U2, Aerosmith, and Christina Aguilera. This kind of music industry building that used to be commonplace is becoming extinct because the industry doesn’t need massive studios anymore. So this building was empty, and we kind of saved it from becoming another restaurant or apartment complex. But the process didn’t go from 0 to 100. It went from 0 to 5, then 5 to 20. It’s humbling to be in a room teaching my students that I know people like The Edge and Bono were in writing lyrics to classic records, and we’re trying to continue that history.
What’s the reason for all your campuses being in California, as opposed to spreading out to other states, particularly now that the school is successful?
We’ve been approached by many people that would love to open up an Icon Collective in other countries, and we do have students all over the world thanks to our online curriculum, in countries like Russia, Germany, and in South America too. But we look at it like this: there’s one Yale, one Standford and one Harvard. There’s something about centralizing the energy of an idea that I believe in. Having small campuses all over, which you can’t necessarily control the quality of, might make sense from a business standpoint, but we’re not making decisions based on that.
I’m born and raised in LA, and it’s still the epicenter of the music industry. The labels are still here, the Grammy’s are still here, etc. So it allows us to tap into the artists that live here and visit, who sometimes come in and speak to the students. The mentality we have is to focus more on growing the core and maintain quality control.
By the way, for our current fall semester, I asked my admissions department how many people are from out of state, and they laughed and said that 95% of people were. So people are wiling to make the move if they believe in the idea of coming to Icon.
David and I do the school orientation, and unfortunately, we’re at that point where I don’t know everyone’s name anymore; that’s how many students we have. But I know that they’ve come here and put their future in our hands. Every single student has my personal contact info, and we have an open-door policy. I may not teach everyone at this point, but if there’s something that a student wants to suggest or vent, they know that they have that access. They may not even utilize it, but just the fact that they know of that access goes a long way.
And now that you’ve become bigger and more popular, have you been approached by interested investors that want to put money into the school?
All the time. We’ve been getting approached for years, but we have no interest in that. We always politely decline. With investment comes external influence and ideas. Icon Collective is David Alexander and Christopher Wright. Again, we don’t make decisions based on capitalism or profit, and investors don’t like that. They’re not going say “I totally get it. Go ahead and make a decision that’s not going to be the most profitable, but is going to be better for the curriculum“. Every decision that David and I make is for the curriculum and the school. Profits takes care of themselves. Once you bring in that outside investor, they have an absolute right to maximize profits, but that will inevitably change the culture of what Icon’s been about, and that small tweak will ripple through the curriculum.
So what kind of relationship exists between Icon and the companies listed at the bottom of your website?
Those are our partners. For instance, we partnered with Ableton and Novation for our yearly scholarship. They add what they think would be good for the scholarship, such as their products, and blast it to their network.
We want to make sure that we’re always the ones steering the ship, but we want to have a roundtable where the top people in the industry can have a seat and say what they think. So when Ableton wants to make a change to their products, they may come to us and ask our opinions, or ask our students to try it. David got sent to Germany a few years ago by Native Instruments, who had asked for some feedback from him on their products. So being that we’re all on the front-lines, it makes for a great partnership to help each other out.
And how would companies that are interested in partnering with you go about creating a professional relationship?
All these things happen very organically, which is best. If someone has an idea, they’ll contact us. Most of time, we’re the ones with the ideas, because that’s how we think. We were the ones who approached Future Music Magazine and said that we have an online curriculum, with a team of videographers and editors, and that we wanted to do a six-part production series with D Ramirez. They loved it, and it’s one of the best DVDs they’ve released. So in any good business deal, it has to make sense for both parties, and when it does, one of us reaches out.
Speaking of your advisors, what’s the difference between your “advisors” and “teachers”?
Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic for us to think that a globally touring DJ is able to teach on a day-to-day basis. Rather, they influence the curriculum. So we call them when we’re adjusting that. For example, we did that when Logic X was released a few months ago. If an advisor says, “Oh I’m not using that software anymore”, it’s something we want to know about. That’s what an advisor should do: advise and give their opinions about what they think will make the best curriculum.
Do they also guest lecture and advise students?
Yeah, they do. Everyone who’s come in has asked to come in. These are people who have a genuine desire to give back, and have their Yoda moment, so to speak. If we bring someone in who we had to talk into it, they’re not going to have the right kind of information for the students. So whenever they want to speak to the students, they know that they have an open forum to do that.
It does seem uncommon that so many people in the pro world would engage so much in a music school, and Icon seems to be set apart in that regard.
I think it goes back to what we spoke about, which is the philosophy of the school, which really resonates with people. Steve Duda, for example, came in for session a few weeks ago, and said: “The reason I’m involved with you guys is because I heard about how you spoke to a prospective student’s parents. You were so honest about what you were offering. There was no BS – no pitch. It was, “Here’s the curriculum. You’re going to have to bust your butt. There’s no guarantees or job placement for this kind of thing. They gotta be an entrepreneur“. I’ve never seen that in a school. It’s usually always about the numbers, and I really resonated with your philosophy.” Duda’s been huge for us. He’s been a great asset to be able to go to for knowledge, and he’s very open to sharing his opinions with us.
Are there any examples of advisor-student interactions that led to a boost in learning for your students?
Great question. Plenty! We’ve had many interns with people like Morgan Page or Richard Vission. The one that comes to mind is one of our graduates, Protohype. In his third quarter, we brought in Static Revenger to give advice on a track, and Protohype’s track had been voted to get that feedback. Static was so taken aback by Protohype, that we went up to him after class and was like, “Look man, come intern for me.” So within a week and a half, they were creating a track for Dev, which came out about a year ago. Then Static said, “Not only do I want you to write this track with me, I want you to have your own remix“. So Protohype had his first official remix on Beatport, a month or two after graduation, which ranked well within the Beatport Top 100. All of that came about from being in class, playing his track, landing an internship, getting the remix and knocking it out of the park From that point on, he always credited that moment with kick-starting his career. Because of remix, he got calls for more remixes, got a booking agent, and is headlining clubs like Avalon in LA. There’s been a lot of those kind of things, but that’s one that comes to mind, because it happened so quickly.
That’s certainly something that kids hear and think “I want to go Icon too”.
Yeah, but we’re always cautious of that kind of thing. We try not to be like “Come to Icon, because then you’re going to meet people from the industry. They’re walking down the halls here”. We’re not an institute or an academy; we’re a Collective, and once you come into these walls, you’re in the game, because we’re all musicians. Mark Knight was here a couple of weeks ago, and D Ramirez a week before that. So it’s great for the students.
Two quarters ago, Steve Duda was teaching a mixing class, and Deadmau5 calls him to asks what he’s doing. Duda says that he’s teaching, and Joel said that he’d stop by. So students are in class, and Deadmua5 just walks in and hangs out with them. That kind of thing is priceless, but it’s not something that we’re going to try to sell to people as a guarantee that it’ll happen. Rather, it’s an organic thing that comes about.
In keeping with the subject of marketing, you guys seem to have a more subtle online presence, as opposed to other schools who have ads and banners on a lot of websites. Is that a deliberate move by Icon, to remain more low-key in the ad world?
It’s absolutely a methodical choice. We don’t want people to find us about us through an ad, though we do use advertising. We’re not anti-ads, but we don’t use excessive resources to place banner ads. We’d rather make a video for free download. We bring on artists to give free tips and tricks on our Facebook page every week. So we want to be a resource for all artists, not just students. We want to give you access to the industry, even if you’re in the middle of America, with no intention of attending Icon. You might still follow us on Facebook because we give you these tools. So we’re completely comfortable with where we’re at, and we’ve definitely made choice not to just be a marketing blitz, because there’s something not natural about that.
What kind of provisions and opportunities do you have for your international students?
We have many inquires from foreign students who want to come here, and we’re currently in the process of dealing with the government to be able to issue student visas. You kind of have to rely on the government to get back to you, so there’s never a concrete timetable, but we’re hoping that we’ll be able to offer student visas in 2014. We get bombarded with inquiries, but there’s nothing we can do from a legal standpoint and we want them to get the full Icon experience for the year that they’re coming. It’s around the bend though.
Some international students receive tuition coverage from their government, but can only apply for funds for regionally accredited schools. Will Icon seek to become regionally accredited?
That’s a touchy line that we try our best to straddle. Some students are able to tap into federal funding for regionally accredited schools, which is great. However, once you cross that line of accreditation, the government then has license to dictate how you run your school. David and I taught at other schools, and we’ve seen that this can strangle the curriculum. For instance, if you want to change the software that you’re teaching with, you have to get that approved by an accrediting body who might take six to nine months to ensure that it’s up to their standards. By the time that software gets approved months later, it’s not the new thing anymore. So you’re always playing catch-up, and that was always a source of frustration at our former schools, where we felt that we couldn’t make the best possible curriculum.
We definitely have people on our team that are looking into things, and hopefully there will be an accrediting body that will move a lot faster and understand that things have to be more efficient in the 21st century. We’re not opposed to it happening, but we’re not going to do it just to tap into more funds.
Let’s talk about the actual school life, and what goes on with students inside your building. What kind of student life do attendees experience?
Core classes are three days a week, and everything is project-based. So we won’t give you written homework; everything is hands on. So your homework would be to go into the lab and create a particular kind of track, using different tools.
Students are allowed to come to the campus as much as they want. In fact, we want them there. In our new building, we created a room called the Producer’s Den, where we set up chairs with built-in speakers, and tables, so people can just sit with with their laptops and headphones, and make music. Even when people don’t have classes, we found that people just want to be in the building, and that’s been the case with every building we’ve had. So though there are only three school days in a week, students are here a lot.
How do feel that the Icon LA program compares to your online program, where students don’t have access to your infrastructure?
The reason why the online curriculum is successful is that we created it with the exact same concept of it being a Collective. For instance, many other online programs may be structured around a PDF presentation or a video, or an email between a student and their instructor. We have live instructors available everyday to help our students, answer questions, give feedback, etc. Multiple people can come into the chat room and learn. We also have our own social network within the system, so you can view people’s profiles, go to their Soundcloud, etc. So people are connecting in the same way they connect in the LA program, only virtually.
We’ve gotten amazing feedback from the online curriculum. In fact, we don’t call it “online”, we call it “interactive”. Icon Interactive. When you say “online”, it may seem old, like PDFs and emails. This is live. Every student gets a one-on-one mentor with a producer, though it’s done virtually.
And what about your alumni? What kind of privileges do they have? Can they come back to your school after graduation and still utilize your facilities?
Yes, we take care of our alumni. You do have to graduate though. If you graduate with a certificate, you get a lifetime membership to Icon Collective. We give continuing education between each break. We have a three-week breaks between each quarter, when we talk to new students and replenish supplies, so we send out blasts to our alumni about talks that our instructors will be giving, which they can come into.
We also have a studio, called Studio Icon, one of the best studios in the campus, which is purely allocated to guest students and graduates. So any graduate can call in and book out four to six hours. We’ve had MAKJ book the studio, and when he left, Protohype came in with Paper Diamond to work some weeks ago.
Also, when new technology comes out, our graduates are going to be on the forefront of that, since we make sure that they get that information.
Do your online alumni have access to the same post-graduation privileges?
It doesn’t apply to the online students unfortunately, just because there’s no infrastructure with which to implement that. There is a premium that the LA students have to pay, as opposed to the interactive students, as a result of of things like rent and electricity on campus. So whilst the curriculum is the same, the LA students are paying for the facilities too. There is still continuing education for the online alumni, and we’re about to launch a new network which will incorporate them in a lot more ways, but as far as actual studio access, we don’t have that right now.
We just feel that the people that move to LA and pay all that money should have one more tier that they have access to, but we definitely take care of out interactive students as well.
You touched briefly on prices and tuition before. How would you say that Icon compares to other institutions like Dubspot and Point Blank in terms of price? Whilst Icon may be cheaper than schools like Full Sail, there are a few other schools that are cheaper still.
It depends on how it’s packaged. You can’t just look at the bottom line, and say “That one is $20,000 and this one is $15,000, so this one’s cheaper”. If you only look at the tuition, you won’t know exactly what you’re getting. It’s been years since I’ve seen any other school’s curriculum, but all of our students take six or seven classes every quarter. That’s unheard of. Most of such classes at other institutions are two or three. A few hours of Ableton, some mixing classes, and maybe a synthesis class. With us, you’re getting music business, creativity classes, synthesis, mixing and more. The way that the industry looks at it is by a cost-per-credit basis. That’s the real way of assessing the value of classes.
In the end, it’s always a bit dangerous to go down that road of comparing prices, because there’s so much more about the education experience than just classes. There’s the community, nightlife, collaborations, etc. One thing we tell everyone who shows an interest in coming to Icon is to look at every school. We’re not trying to get as many people as possible; we’re trying to get the right people, and we decline a lot of people because of that. And when that happens, it’s not because we don’t think that they have the potential to be amazing; it may just not be the right match.
But it’s a valid question you ask. If you look at other some schools, they charge $1200 a course, which is cheaper than us, but it’s $1200 for a ten-week course. With Icon, you get six of those courses for nine months. So it’s vastly less expensive to do it with us. But it’s all about perspective.
The reason I ask about price, is because a lot of what goes on at a school is very hard to measure from an outsider’s perspective, which a lot of students struggle with when thinking about attending a new school.
That’s why we get the students to talk to other students; that’s the most important thing. So even in the admission process, we say, “You should sit in on a class. Take your time. And you don’t need to talk to us about it. Talk to the students in the class”. So by putting prospective students in with the other students we can’t hide anything. If the actual students aren’t happy with what’s going on at Icon, then when you’re alone with them, they’re going to say, “I’m not really feeling this place“. I’ve worked at places where that happened! But here, it’s the opposite. Because everyone here feels the culture of Icon, we throw them in with our students, and they say “You have to do this. This is gonna be the greatest decision of your life ”. And that’s coming from people that are paying the money, had to relocate, and are working two jobs to make it happen, so I think that’s the best way to gauge it. So how do you quantify what a school has to offer? You can’t. It has be intuitive. And we can’t put that in an ad. Like when you said, “You guys don’t have a lot of ads”. Well, that’s because you can’t put what we have in an ad.
So once someone has decided to attend Icon, and comes in to talk to you, what are the criteria for people who want to apply?
We’re looking for the people that will show up early and leave late. Once you apply, our Director of Admissions, Varun Venugopalan, who’s a fantastic producer himself, will have ten to twenty questions that we ask in the interview process. One of them is, “Where do you see yourself in a couple of years, and how committed are you to this music life?“. When people say “Well, I’m gonna give it a couple of years, and if it doesn’t work, I’m gonna go back to school “, then that’s a red flag for us. Not because it’s bad decision. But in this music game, it’s has to be all in. There can be no backup plans. You have to burn all the bridges that allow you to retreat, and believe that it’s this or nothing. And that’s what we look for.
We have a fantastic graduate called Kayzo, who just graduated six months ago, and has a Richard Vission remix out. He was a semi-pro hockey player who decided that he wanted to so something else other than hockey. He went to a club and saw a DJ, and said “That’s what I want to do. How do I go about doing that?“. So he moved from Texas to California, and when he did his interview with us, he had no music to show and didn’t have a lot of music history. But there was something in his drive and tone that connected with us.
I can take someone who’s less talented and more driven, and make them more successful than someone who’s the opposite. Both would be the ideal, but sometimes talent gets in the way because people rest on their laurels, thinking that they can coast on that. So the admission processes is a unique thing. Yes, we want to hear your music and know your history, but more than that, we want your perspective on doing this for a living. We’re not looking to teach people who want to do this as a hobby.
Is that the kind of thing that you looked for in your recent scholarship competition, when you selected the winner for the Morgan Page scholarship?
It’s that drive, but it also the need. The ability to change someone’s life. A great story is last years winner, Castor Troy. Before he graduated, he submitted his track to EDC Discovery Project, and won. He went from having no opportunity of attending Icon to winning our scholarship contest. Before he even graduated, he nailed the chance to perform in Las Vegas at EDC. That’s what’s we’re looking for. We want to give it to someone who’s life we can change.
For those who have decided to come to Icon, what are some things that you would advise they consider? Do you guys offer payment plans, and housing solutions, etc
We do whatever we can and what the state of Californium allows to break up tuition payments, and we don’t charge interest. Many other schools do that for payment plans. We assist with housing, and have a whole network for housing, where we connect you with other incoming students and find roommates. Some people pool together and get a house close to the school.
Here’s what I would say to anyone considering coming here: Icon is a mecca for people who wanna get up in the morning and make a living doing what they love. And if music is what you love, and the focus isn’t on being famous or rich, then you should contact us. We’re about giving you the resources to make a living. We’re not trying to be a rock and roll high school, or trying to churn out as many famous people as possible that do things the wrong way. We’re trying to churn out artists, which sums us up pretty well.
Ultimately, I think the proof for Icon’s credibility is in the pudding, by looking at the graduates that have come through. You can’t fake or market that. Not only do people come through here, but they exhibit a love for the school when they leave and want to give back. Our alumni call us to find opening acts for their shows, after having been the opening acts themselves at one point. I can’t think of a better thing to point to than our alumni and the life that their living. Otherwise, our reputation is based on hearsay, and is up for interpretation. But you can’t fake actual testimonies, so I think the proof is what our graduates say about us.