Arctic Monkeys learn to earn more than peanuts

Shekhar Bhatia

Shekhar Bhatia meets the lecturer who taught the hottest band in Britain about the music industry

It was just business as usual when Barnsley college welcomed two new students, Alex Turner and Matt Helders.

Now, the musical skills nurtured by the college have made them the hottest property in the music business - as members of the band Arctic Monkeys.

After two years studying music technology they went on to record Britain's fastest-selling debut album and a single which went straight to the top of the charts.

Richard Tolson, 32, head of music at Barnsley college, helped lead singersongwriter Alex and drummer Matt to pass their A-level in music technology with flying colours.

In his first full interview, he told FE Focus that teaching the teenagers had been "an absolute pleasure", going on to describe them as very "humble people".

He said: "At the end of the course I remember Alex saying that he was going to give it one year and that if it didn't work out he was going to go to university."

His students have taken what they learned in the college's relatively modest facilities to perform at major venues around the world - including Japan, America, Canada and Germany.

He said: "When I chatted with Matt the other day, he said he felt comfortable in the recording environment because he knew exactly what was happening. He had spent two years here in our studios and the skills proved transferable to the outside studios as the principles are exactly the same.

"It is nice that people have progressed from further education into the industry.

It is something we have really taken on here. "Why do people come from school into FE? To my mind, it is for two reasons. Either to progress into higher education or to prepare well enough to go into the industry as sound engineers or professional musicians.

"It really is the icing on the cake that Alex and Matt have entered music industry at the very top."

While studying, they played at sell-out gigs in the Sheffield area.

Their coursework included composition, arranging and using computers to create music and proper use of the microphone. The band famously used the internet to bring their music to a wide audience before it became available in the shops.

So what does Mr Tolson think of their hits? Like a true lecturer, he is full of praise, combined with constructive criticism.

He felt the Arctic Monkeys' first single "I Bet That You Look Good on the Dance Floor" was their best song, although he had some advice about the production quality when they visited the college last week. "I gave them my views about the production of the first single, that I felt there was room for improvement."

The Arctic Monkeys' second single "When The Sun Goes Down" has also soared straight to number one and their debut album "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" has topped the album charts.

The Arctic Monkeys' tracks were all made outside college and Mr Tolson says he is particularly pleased the band made it off their own backs without the help of the instant celebrity provided by TV talent shows.

Mr Tolson, married with two children, said his own music inspirations were Rick Wakeman and Sir Elton John.

He has worked at Barnsley college since 1997 and is a classically trained pianist who turned his attention to synthesizers at an early age, as well as playing a variety of other instruments.

He has toured extensively with many bands as a performer and as a live sound engineer, and is now curriculum and quality leader for the music department at Barnsley.

He took up music after being inspired at the age of 10 by seeing the American TV series Fame about students being trained for stardom.


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Shekhar Bhatia

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