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Aim Low, Get High: An Evening with Martin Atkins
by - Richie Corelli

On Tuesday, January 30th, 2007 Martin Atkins hosted a Music Business Seminar at his Underground Inc., office in Chicago, IL. Having been a part of seminal bands like Pigface, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Killing Joke, and Public Image Limited, Atkins is well-known for his musical endeavors and when he talks about the business of music, people listen.

The event was a freeform discussion between Atkins and guests. Food and conversation was supplied by Underground Inc., while Red Bull generously donated the beverages. The point of the evening was for people to meet, exchange ideas, and help each other understand different aspects of the music business. Atkins led the session with enthusiasm and wit.

In a follow-up telephone conversation with soundsect, Atkins freely admitted, “The most fueling thing I’ve done in years is host these seminars.” This was evident. He delivered his lecture with fever and genuine excitement.

Conversations moved fast. Atkins spoke of expensive pills that reduce the chances of blood clots in aircraft passengers, he talked about insults born during the Hundred Years War, he told a story where he was threatened by a gun, and he commented on the strange fluids that leaked from his nose while he was in Beijing (he had pictures).

Some of these topics were fun anecdotes while others were used to accent some of the more serious conversations. And while his lectures moved from seemingly random subjects, there was a continuous theme that was revisited throughout the entire evening. More than anything else, Atkins spoke of education.

Martin Atkins is on the faculty at Columbia University. He enjoys teaching, but he finds the current academic format confining. He believes that the structural limitations of most schooling programs restrict what can successfully be taught. What interests him is “how to educate within an educational system that is, by nature, institutional and acts like a corporate enterprise.”

So how does Martin Atkins avoid being institutionalized? By opening his own school.

At the close of the seminar, Atkins had announced that he will be starting a school where he will be teaching the business of music and touring. The classes will be taught his way, on his terms. His approach to education is similar to his approach to music. It is unconventional and innovative. “Teaching represents the height of entrepreneurial risk and reinvents itself every day,” says Atkins.

Part of his design is to give his students an understanding of realistic opportunity within the industry. He wants people to recognize the form that this opportunity might take. Atkins sums it up with a memorable mantra, “Aim low, get high.” A student that is trying to get involved with music should carefully consider any option that may become available. For example, a job cleaning toilets at the House of Blues is, after all, still a job at the House of Blues.

Another desire of Atkins is to have his students comprehend the business of music as a part of an evolving timeline. Scroll back; to understand music history is to understand music. Martin Atkins has been involved with some of the most influential and important musical acts in the last 20 years and is in a unique position, as an educator, to share his direct, real life experiences with his students. “Its easy to say ‘in the real world,’” he points out, “but we live in the real real world.”

Scroll forward; to know the future is to know future success. Knowing how the industry works in 2007 is not enough. Atkins wants his students to move beyond that. He builds fictional scenarios and challenges himself and his followers to work their way through them. It is a method that forces unorthodox thinking and enables the mind to better react to the unexpected.

There is more, of course. There is a lot more. Atkins joked that the plus five hour seminar almost covered one page in his book. That leaves about 650 pages unturned.

His forward-thinking regarding education has much promise. As does his continued exploration of sound. This past October, Atkins took a trip to Beijing. He frequented a club called D-22 where he saw a number of impressive bands perform. He noticed that the bass player from one act would then come out and play drums for the next. A singer for another band would later be seen flailing a guitar with someone else. “At first, I thought they were fucking with me,” Atkins laughed, “and that there were only, like, six artists in China.” But he knew exactly what was going on; there is a fellowship of musicians working in Beijing. Atkins knew this because he had been a part of a similar movement. He drew parallels between the current Beijing scene and the Chicago-Industrial scene of the late 1980s.

He was very impressed by the music that he had heard in China and plans on importing some of these sounds to the west. There is a compilation in the works for Underground Inc. that will showcase some of the talent found in Beijing. Atkins also signed a few of the bands to full contracts. So expect some great new sounds to make their way stateside.

And then there’s the new Pigface…

While in Beijing, Atkins had a studio session planned with traditional Chinese drummers. He had envisioned himself banging on his drum kit while more formal, older men played percussion alongside him. But language is a fickle thing. Translation errors had Martin come into the studio to meet three young women with stringed instruments. The instruments were foreign to him, but their sound inspired him. At that moment, Martin Atkins started working on a new Pigface album. A couple of the forthcoming tracks were played at the seminar. The songs mashed traditional Chinese sounds with smacking drums, scratching turntablism, and a distinctly Pigface attitude. If these pieces are any hint of what to expect from the next Pigface album, then fans have much to look forward to.


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