When a lec­turer in a third-level mu­sic man­age­ment course of­fered to set a Christ­mas exam for Ticket journos, we took up the chal­lenge. Last Fri­day, Jim Car­roll, Tony Clay­ton-Lea and Sinéad Glee­son sat down to two hours of long­hand hell. But are they swots

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

Our jour­nal­ists sit a Christ­mas exam. Are they swots or slack­ers?

E AR­LIER this year, Michael Mur­phy, lec­turer in the In­sti­tute of Art and De­sign Dún Laoghaire’s course in Pop­u­lar Mu­sic and Mu­sic Man­age­ment ap­proached, The Ticket with a ques­tion. How would your mu­sic jour­nal­ists do in the ex­ams our stu­dents sit? Bril­liantly, we re­torted, with only a hint of bravado.

But, de­spite my im­me­di­ate con­vic­tion that our team of mu­sic hacks was as good as any, this was an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Jour­nal­ists are typ­i­cally well versed in the here-and-now, are speedy re­searchers, and can cram like Leav­ing Cert­ers sev­eral times a day. But how is our base knowl­edge, our his­tor­i­cal knowhow? How wide-rang­ing is our ex­per­tise?

I asked for three vol­un­teers (you, you and you). I didn’t in­clude my­self, as I’m only an ed­i­tor and not a mu­si­cal ex­pert. Be­sides, some­body would have to sit in the “exam hall” shush­ing peo­ple and mak­ing sure they didn’t sneak off to the loo to ex­am­ine notes writ­ten on their fore­arms, and gen­er­ally en­joy the power trip.

Three brave but ner­vous souls – Jim Car­roll, Tony Clay­ton-Lea and Sinéad Glee­son – en­tered the top floor of The Ir­ish Times Build­ing last Fri­day to sit a two-hour test.

Over­all re­sult: 79%


The exam was in Pop­u­lar Mu­sic and Mu­sic Man­age­ment. This is one of the mod­ules in the Dún Laoghaire In­sti­tute of Art, De­sign and Tech­nol­ogy’s BA in Busi­ness Stud­ies and Arts Man­age­ment. Stu­dents study stan­dard busi­ness de­gree sub­jects and also mu­sic, the­atre, vis­ual arts and event man­age­ment.

The exam was set by Michael Mur­phy, lec­turer and for­mer mu­sic in­dus­try im­pre­sario.

“I graded this as if the candidates were fi­nal-year stu­dents,” Mur­phy says . “I marked them as hard as I would a real exam. This did dis­ad­van­tage the candidates, as real stu­dents would have been ex­posed to the course dur­ing classes and projects, and would have been of­fered tu­ition in how to pre­pare for ex­ams.

“I do not nor­mally grade out of 100 like the Leav­ing Cert. Once you achieve 70 you have the top grade. I did not ex­pect all three to do so well; nor­mally about 7-12 per cent of stu­dents would at­tain the high­est grade in fourth year. For th­ese three to come and score so highly, without prepa­ra­tion, is re­mark­able.”

Over­all re­sult: 71%

We con­ducted the exam with scrupu­lous fair­ness. The pa­per was kept un­der wraps un­til the mo­ment the clock started tick­ing. And once it did, a hushed frenzy of scrib­bling de­scended on the nor­mally giddy rock hacks. Not a whis­per be­tween them.

As the exam dragged on and my in­vig­i­la­tor power-trip wore thin, darker thoughts came. What if they fail? Do I con­vert this fea­ture from a 2,000-word, front-of-book dou­ble-page spread to 200-word panel on page 31? If they pass, does it mark our mu­sic-writ­ing team as a bunch of – for want of a bet­ter ex­pres­sion – squares, man? Would Lester Bangs have passed this exam? Would he have turned up? But th­ese thoughts passed.

On com­ple­tion, their an­swer books were num­bered (not named) sealed in an en­ve­lope and dis­patched to the ex­am­iner. Af­ter he had scored them, they went to an ex­ter­nal ex­am­iner.

The pro­vi­sional re­sults came through last Sun­day morn­ing, as I lay in bed. I sat back and thanked Lordi. Our writ­ers are ge­niuses. Or maybe academia is dumb­ing down.


The chuck­ling was un­nerv­ing. Every­one I talked to in the days lead­ing up to this date with aca­demic des­tiny re­garded the no­tion of me do­ing a mu­sic exam to be the fun­ni­est thing they’d heard in ages.

C’mon, I said, I know this stuff. I’ve writ­ten about mu­sic for years. I’ve worked for la­bels, big and small, and know more about con­trac­tual sub-clauses than I ever wanted to. This will be a dod­dle, right? But they still laughed.

Like most peo­ple who work or have worked in the mu­sic busi­ness, I’ve never ac­tu­ally done a course in the sub­ject. The mu­sic busi­ness has al­ways been a place where ex­pe­ri­ence counted for more than a piece of pa­per. You learned much more in an hour on the job than you ever could be taught in a class­room.

At the back of my mind, though, there was a nag­ging doubt. Was this when I would be un­veiled as a spoofer and chancer? What would hap­pen if all the ques­tions were about opera and/or heavy metal? I did ab­so­lutely no prepa­ra­tion what­so­ever – un­less you count a lunch be­fore­hand with a record la­bel chap.

Yes, there was a ques­tion about the dif­fer­ences be­tween French and Ital­ian opera (uhm, the French sing in French?), but there was also one about the roots of hip-hop. Away I went, writ­ing about Kool Herc, his sis­ter Cindy and a party in their gaff in the South Bronx.

Crit­i­cally as­sess­ing an Ir­ish mu­sic fes­ti­val had me scrawl­ing away about the Elec­tric Pic­nic. Af­ter 10 min­utes, I started to won­der if some of the stuff I was men­tion­ing was even in the pub­lic do­main, but kept go­ing any­way. Let’s hope Fes­ti­val Repub­lic never get sight of that pa­per.

More crit­i­cal as­sess­ment fol­lowed. This time with U2’s ca­reer in re­gard to changes in the mu­sic in­dus­try and tech­nol­ogy came un­der the mi­cro­scope.

At the end, my hand hurt, my brain was sore and I was still largely un­con­vinced that a course in mu­sic busi­ness was any sub­sti­tute for real ex­pe­ri­ence. How­ever, the ques­tions did present a chal­lenge, not least in how to be ob­jec­tive and leave your opin­ions aside for two hours. Let’s hope that the ex­am­in­ers thought that’s what I was ac­tu­ally do­ing.

Ex­am­iner’s com­ment: Out­stand­ing depth of anal­y­sis. Im­pres­sive breadth of knowl­edge. Out­stand­ing use of ref­er­ences and flu­ency of use. Com­pre­hen­sive. Mas­ter’s level work in that it adds to the body of knowl­edge on the topic. Very strong crit­i­cal anal­y­sis of Watch for tiny de­tails which may read in a con­fus­ing man­ner.


What’s with this hand­writ­ing lark? I’ve been writ­ing/think­ing/cut­ting and past­ing/delet­ing on com­puter screens for well over 20 years, and haven’t writ­ten more than my sig­na­ture in long­hand in that space of time. Hav­ing to write down the an­swers to th­ese mu­sic exam ques­tions made me think about the writ­ing process al­most as much as the con­tent of the an­swers. Writ­ing on a com­puter gives you the free­dom to key in words vir­tu­ally by free as­so­ci­a­tion in that you know if a word or para­graph doesn’t fit then you can al­ways change or delete it. Long­hand writ­ing – even with the ben­e­fit of a bath of Tippex – sim­ply doesn’t give you that lux­ury; you have to think out your an­swer be­fore you write any­thing down, oth­er­wise you’ll spend more time than you ideally want eras­ing words or lines.

All this con­sid­ered, I liked do­ing this exam. We re­ceived a sam­ple pa­per some weeks back, so we had a good idea of the struc­ture of the ques­tions. But not (of course) a no­tion of what the ques­tions would be on the day of the exam.

I had it in the back of my mind to study var­i­ous ar­eas that I thought might crop up, but I was at Din­gle’s Other Voices event in the week im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing the exam, so, un­usu­ally for this writer, I was to­tally un­pre­pared.

Sec­tion 1 (In­tro­duc­tion to Mu­sic) had the ben­e­fit of four ques­tions I could have a good stab at and one I didn’t know any­thing about – Ital­ian and French opera. My first choice in Sec­tion 1 re­lated to the his­tory of punk rock. I may not know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a grom­met and a gri­malkin, but I cer­tainly know the dif­fer­ence be­tween The Ad­verts and Tele­vi­sion, so I felt I did quite well with this ques­tion.

Sec­tion 2 (Pop­u­lar Mu­sic Man­age­ment) com­prised five ques­tions I knew I could have a rea­son­able go at, but I chose two – the de­cline of the show-band era in Ire­land, and the crit­i­cal as­sess­ment of the ca­reer of any Ir­ish band over the last four decades with ref­er­ence to changes in tech­nol­ogy and the mu­sic in­dus­try – that I felt I knew more about. Again, I sensed I did quite well with th­ese two ques­tions.

Ul­ti­mately? A good and salu­tary ex­er­cise in struc­tural think­ing. I just to hope to God I achieved higher marks than Jim Car­roll, oth­er­wise I’ll never hear the end of it!

Ex­am­iner’s com­ment: Very strong on the so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors for the punk move­ment. Short an­swers ex­clude waf­fle but may ex­clude ad­di­tional points. Very con­cise pre­sen­ta­tion of ma­te­rial. En­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge matched by strength of logic.


Eyes down for a full house: Jim Car­roll (top), Tony Clay­ton-Lea and Sinéad Glee­son

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