Four Books on Music

It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books about music recently, so instead of doing individual reviews, I thought I’d clump them all together.


A Light That Never Goes Out by Tony Fletcher

This is a biography of The Smiths that we picked up last Christmas on a whim (yes, we still browse bookstores, as quaint as that may seem).  I was a huge fan of The Smiths back in the 80’s, to the point of being almost a walking stereotype: wearing all black clothes, moping around wherever I went.  They provided the soundtrack to my adolescent angst as if it were a John Hughes movie.

Fletcher’s history of the band is well-written enough, and I definitely learned some things that I hadn’t known before about the behind-closed-doors madness of dealing with record labels and tours without a proper manager.  However, Fletcher is a bit too precious about trying to explain the music, both the possible origins of various lyrics and the rhythmic/tonal evolution of the band.  This probably comes from his background as a record reviewer, but as a fan, I don’t need someone else to interpret the music for me, or characterize it.  I already have a history with all of those songs.  The context is what’s valuable, and reading about the various intersections with other groups in the Manchester scene, as well as the major players in the not-quite scene (not quite new wave, not quite alternative, not quite pop) was interesting.

For a hardcore Smiths fan, I’d probably recommend looking for other versions of this history (which Fletcher, to his credit, acknowledges) that focus more on events and characters and less on musical interpretation.  If you’re not already a Smiths fan, don’t even bother.


Mo’ Meta Blues by ?uestlove

I’ve never really given the Roots their due.  It takes me a long time to discover new music; I have to live with it for a while.  Even my favorite artists and songs often turn me off on first listen, and it’s not until I get past the newness that I start to see the genius in it.  The Roots started blowing up right when my exploratory phase was shutting down, so I’ve never put in the time.

Nevertheless, ?uestlove is an interesting writer.  The book ranges widely, by design, from musical influences and family dynamics to performing and DJ’ing to social/cultural analysis and critique.  His experiences growing up in Philadelphia as a Black man in a family that plays music together professionally are about as far away from my own experiences growing up in a small town in Florida with parents who were academics, but while I miss a number of references and connections, the story he tells is still compelling to me.  The most fun, and unexpected, part of the whole history is his long, enduring love for Prince.  It’s one of those moments where I wish I were more knowledgeable about music, because there is clearly a strong connection there based around the art and craft of making music, but it’s beyond me.

Overall, the book is lighthearted (even in its serious moments) and an easy read.  If you’re already into ?uestlove or the Roots, you’ll dig it.  It’s also an interesting cultural critique, but if you’re not familiar with him, check out his series of articles on hip-hop from New York Magazine.  They will give you a taste of his writing style, and if that trips your trigger, you’ll love this book.


How Music Works by David Byrne

This was a present from my brother-in-law, a composer and professor of music.  I keep expressing to him how much I would love to be able to understand music the way he does, so he gave me this book.

The thing that surprised me was how broadly synthetic Byrne’s thinking is.  How Music Works isn’t a textbook, but it does include a history of musical contexts, reflections on various philosophical and critical takes on music, explorations of technology’s impact on music, and an overview of the money machine behind the music, among other things.  Each of the chapters has a particular theme, but like a complex composition, there are also call-backs and references, crossover melodies that run throughout the book.  Obviously, Byrne’s personal history with Talking Heads, CBGB’s, and the world music explosion come up with some regularity, but this is not a book about fan service.  Most of the straight-up autobiography fits into about a chapter and a half.  Rather, Byrne is exploring (with the reader in tow) a broad range of perspectives on music, often putting his thumb on one side of the scales in an argument, but presenting multiple perspectives.  My two favorite chapters were the one about creating an arts “scene” and the one where he lays out the business and money-flow of various publishing models in the music business.

I was never a huge fan of Talking Heads – I mean, I knew their pop side, but didn’t really dive deeply into the albums – but found this book to be charming and enlightening.  It takes some patience to get far enough into the book to see where Byrne is going, but if you give it the benefit of the doubt, it will reward you.


Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

I’ve saved my personal favorite for last.  If you’re not interested in Joy Division, New Order, and the Manchester scene, you probably won’t like this book, but I’m into all three and loved it.

Hook gives both a personal history and his own version of events and personalities around the scene.  His perspective is front and center throughout the stories, because he is unapologetic about speaking from his own experience.  This can be funny and playful, as he jabs Bernard Sumner throughout the book by referring to him as Barney (a pet peeve of Sumner’s, apparently), but it can also be solemn and almost tragic, as when he discusses his own silence and willful ignorance about Ian Curtis’ struggles. He can be ruthless with other people, but he’s also ruthless with himself, and then he’ll turn and be conciliatory and gentle.  This is not a historical story for Hook, it’s personal, and his voice as a writer conveys a charming authenticity – flawed, human, weak, but also daring, inspired, and passionate.

If you already know the history of the Manchester scene and the Hacienda, a lot of this will be old hat, but even knowing what I did, I found Hook’s perspective to not only shed new light, but it also helped humanize that time for me; it helped me to see the people behind the events, and that is, in its own way, priceless.


I do find it interesting that of the four books, the three written by musicians were more enjoyable than the one written by a professional writer.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

Game Education 2014

When game development programs started popping up at colleges and universities, I was skeptical.  More than skeptical, I was concerned that these programs were a cynical ploy to separate people from their money; after all, if a degree doesn’t give you an advantage in getting hired, what are you paying for?  It is both cheaper and more effective (in many cases) to spend your time and money teaching yourself the tools and pipelines while you actually build something.  Not only is this a real development education, it helps you build a portfolio, and you don’t have to pay all of the overhead and profit margin for the schools.

Side-note: Espen Aarseth pointed out to me that I was being US-centric in this critique; after all, where you have socialized education, students aren’t paying for it, so game education programs provided a somewhat structured environment in which those students could explore their passion.  Some ten years later, this wisdom still sticks with me.

Nowadays, there are a lot more game development programs, many of which have resolved my two core concerns: 1) that students were being taught by people who didn’t actually have experience making and shipping commercial games, and 2) that the degree was worthless in the marketplace.  Here are some of the programs that rank high enough in my personal esteem-o-meter that I pay attention when they show up on a resume.


USC – Interactive Media & Games Division

The awesome Tracy Fullerton (@kinojabber) runs this program, and that’s a huge endorsement right off the bat.  Fullerton knows game dev and especially design inside and out and built this program to give students real, hands-on experience pretty much from the word go.  It has grown from an experimental, pilot program into a significant department within USC, and it has also added additional veteran talent from commercial development, like Richard LeMarchand (@rich_lem), another brilliant and passionate designer.  Situated in LA, there are lots of opportunities for students to visit, intern, and work at both developers and publishers either while a student or after graduation.  Fullerton and the other faculty also do a great job of supporting their students’ efforts to build and publish their own games while students, which is a huge head start.  This program started off strong and appears to be getting better, so definitely a recommended place for students, especially those looking to learn game design.


Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)

When thinking about major game development centers, Pittsburgh does not often show up on the list.  However, the ETC program at CMU is a standout.  Started by Jesse Schell over a decade ago, the ETC has expanded from being just a post-graduate program to also offering an undergraduate major.  I’ve known a few people who went through the ETC and worked directly with one alum (who was spectacular), and they definitely rank highly with me.  The ETC program pushes students to get hands-on and explore a variety of disciplines, so it turns out well-rounded junior developers: designers who can talk to programmers, artists who understand technical limitations, etc.  In addition, Schell runs his own studio (Schell Games) in Pittsburgh, creating student and post-graduate opportunities for real world experience.


One advantage of both the ETC and the program at USC is that you’re graduating with a degree from an acknowledged top-tier university, so even for those developers who burn out and go looking for employment outside of the industry, they have a solid general degree to work with.  A similar program is getting underway at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), with veteran developer and writer Lee Sheldon, but it’s too soon for me to say how ready for prime-time those graduates are going to be; I have great respect for and faith in Sheldon, but I haven’t personally seen the results yet.


Guildhall at Southern Methodist University (SMU)

The Guildhall program was also started by veterans of the game industry and continues to add talented and experienced staff with real world experience.    I haven’t had any first-hand experience with their graduates, but I’ve heard that they’ve expanded from what was originally a kind of intensive training in level design for 3D shooters into a broader education in game design and development.  The Dallas scene isn’t quite the center of the gaming universe that it was in id’s heyday, but there are still quite a few studios in the area.  It’s a degree I would take seriously, but moreso if I were looking to staff level designers or if I were running a team that was building a shooter.



Located in what is currently one of the Meccas of game development, Seattle, Digipen strikes me as the modern-day equivalent of an apprenticeship program.  Students dive in right away, making digital games in their first semester, and throughout the curriculum, they are working on game projects with other students.  This is great training in team dynamics, scope and complexity dynamics, and the reality of development.  I’ve worked with one person who came out of Digipen, and he is a stellar, talented designer.  I take junior developers from Digipen seriously, but for prospective students, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of having this specialized of an undergraduate degree.


Full Sail

Located in central Florida, Full Sail has a much broader set of offerings than Digipen (catering to television, film, and audio hopefuls as well as potential game devs), but the game development program there has been growing steadily over the last decade.  They have solid, experienced developers and writers in their faculty like Dustin Clingman and Wendy Despain, so they know what it takes to actually work and succeed in the industry.  The studio scene in central Florida isn’t as robust as Seattle, but there are options there beyond Tiburon (EA’s giant soul-crushing game development institution of doom).  Like Digipen, it’s a specialized degree, but there are opportunities for students to explore other media while learning.


So, that’s quite an improvement.  There are now 5 distinct programs that rank highly (with me, personally), giving students more options that may actually be worth the money they’re spending.  As I said above, there are more programs getting going now (Warren Spector is also starting up a new program), but it’s too early to know the results.

I remain highly skeptical/critical of the Art Institutes, Westwood, and DeVry, all for-profit universities that rely heavily on government-subsidized student aid and loans.  The quality of these programs varies widely from city to city, depending on the faculty who are working there at the time, and in many cases, students would be better off teaching themselves and building their portfolios.  I’ve known and worked with a number of people who went through some or all of the AI program, and almost universally, the feedback I have gotten is that instruction was technical (how to use specific tools like 3D Studio Max or Maya) and generic.  I would still encourage students to either fund their own development or get a BA from a tier-1 research instituion rather than enrolling at these schools.

I don’t know anything about the education options available in Europe, Asia, or the rest of the world, but if you have tips about good programs out there, or here in the US, feel free to leave them in the comments section (registration is required to prevent spam; I don’t actually do anything with the e-mail addresses).