On a recent Wednesday afternoon, six teenagers sat in chairs in the auditorium of Alice Cooper's Solid Rock Teen Center in north central Phoenix. Some of them brought guitar cases. All of them gazed up at a pair of projection screens, where music industry veteran Ken Mary was speaking.
The president of record label VSR Music Group, and drummer for bands like legendary Phoenix metal group Flotsam and Jetsam, was sharing personal stories as a part of the center’s series of classes on how to break into and be successful in the music industry.
The educational series is "driven around business,” says Teen Center director Randy Spencer. “It’s a mix of kids who want to work in recording studios, or as agents, or as musicians.”
The series, which started in November 2020, is free and open to young people ages 12 to 25, and it aims to teach the next generation that there's way more to the music industry than being a rock star. Recording and touring budgets, song licensing, and hair and makeup are just a few topics that the series has already covered.
You may think teenagers wouldn’t care to talk about money or business, but you’d be wrong. They’re extremely inquisitive. When questions opened during the Zoom call with Mary, the teens lined up to speak. They politely thanked him for his time before asking for advice and, yes, stories on what it's like to be a rock star.
Alice Cooper's role as founder of the center means that the music industry education series gets its fair share of big names. Judas Priest frontman (and Valley resident) Rob Halford has dropped by. John Avila of Oingo Bongo has talked to the young people, too.
“We’ve had people like Bob Ezrin, when he was here recording [Alice Cooper's latest album Detroit Stories],” Spencer says. “He had a night off and offered to do an impromptu class. The kids got to learn from someone so renowned, and they ask a lot of astute questions.”
People have even called Spencer to stop by, such as Misfits guitarist Bobbie Steele, who was passing through on his way to Los Angeles. Spencer scheduled an impromptu session and stuck six or eight punk-loving teens in a room with Steele, where they jammed for hours.
Local personalities participate, too. KWSS radio host Dani Cutler has taught at the center, as has Camille Sledge of Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra and Mary Papenhausen, who does marketing and promotion for Zia Records.
Classes are held at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, and upcoming guests include recording studio owner and TV producer Otto D (April 14), musician Danny Hunkin (April 21), and tribute/cover band veteran Bobby Jensen (April 28).
Many of the young people who show up for the music industry classes aspire to win the annual Proof Is in the Pudding talent competition. Winners get to perform at Cooper’s annual Christmas fundraiser.
“Jordin Sparks was our first winner of that competition,” Spencer notes. “And she won American Idol two years later.”
Solid Rock teen Jameson Houston, 14, says she's played the guitar for two years, the same length of time she's been coming to the center. She brought her acoustic guitar to the center in a case. It’s a Jasmin, but she says she’s saving up for something better, maybe a Yamaha.
“I prefer acoustic because the feel I’m going for is a singer/songwriter sort of thing," she says.
Her family found the center by chance on Facebook, and since then, she's started learning about songwriting and other aspects of the music industry. To Houston, the center and its classes are "just great people, awesome influences, and gives me this feeling of community.”
To spread the love, another Solid Rock Teen Center location will open in May at 122 North Country Club Drive in Mesa. The facility will have a basketball court, space for outdoor performances, and a computer station for graphic design. (There's no word yet if music industry classes will be held down there, too).
It's all part of the mission to be a safe and supportive space for young people, Spencer says.
"We’ve had several kids tell us they’ve not ended their life as a result of coming to our center,” Spencer says. "So we do things everywhere, and I hope we can have an impact on the community."
Solid Rock Teen Center music industry classes are held at the Phoenix location, 13625 North 32nd Street. Visit the Solid Rock Facebook page for more info.