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Fall Quarter Class to Tackle Authorship, Advertising and Autotune in the Digital Age

By Jacob Nelson

What do Cher, Kanye West, and Northwestern faculty Jake Smith have in common? Autotune.

Cher used it to stage a comeback. Kanye used it throughout his 2008 album “808s and Heartbreak.” And Smith used it as his inspiration to become an academic. The former musician and current Radio, Television, and Film associate professor remembers hearing autotune for the first time, and how that got him thinking about what happens when music and technology intersect.

“Being somewhere where sound was being recorded on a computer really brought home in a tangible way how media technologies would change the way performers do what performers do,” Smith said.

He explored these ideas in his book, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media. This fall, Smith will be teaching a course for Northwestern’s new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment. Entitled “Understanding the Creative Industries,” the course offers an overview of the key dynamics of modern media industries.

“Being somewhere where sound was being recorded on a computer really brought home in a tangible way how media technologies would change the way performers do what performers do,” Smith said. He explored these ideas in his book, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media.

It’s a course Smith has taught before, and it draws on his experiences both as an academic and as a former professional musician. Smith wrote and performed songs with the band The Mysteries of Life in the ‘90s, and got signed to a major label in the process.

“I’ve always felt like somebody who had a little bit of a foot in both camps,” Smith said. “I’m someone who worked in the creative industries and writes and teaches about the creative industries.”

The course will guide students into thinking about the role advertising, authorship, and audience measurements play in the way media industries work, Smith said.

“I’m thinking about creative and cultural work above the line and below the line,” Smith said. “We’re trying to be all-encompassing, to touch on as many industries as possible.”

Smith hopes the course will help introduce students interested in specific kinds of media to jobs they may not have considered otherwise. “One of the reasons why a program like this and a class like this is a wise thing to do is… to know there’s not just one way of having a career in the creative industries,” Smith said.

The course will also focus on the impact digital technology has had on creative industries. There will discussions about convergence and digitization one week, and copyright, sampling and digital downloading another. Smith is quick to point out a background in the music industry isn’t a prerequisite for teaching a course on it, but he admits that it has helped him along the way, and hopes it will help in this class.

“It just helps to make it a kind of richer discussion sometimes,” he said. “In some cases it has enabled me to have an additional point of reference, and, certainly for a class like this, it helps.”

This is the second in a series on faculty teaching in the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program. For the first part about Jacob Smith’s musical career, click here.