August 09, 2016  

The Point Blank Story: 15 Years In the Making

This September Point Blank will launch its first ever degree course, the BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering Degree. It arrives some 15 years after Point Blank opened its doors as a music school and, based out of our new Orsman Road studio complex, further cements PB’s reputation as the world’s leading electronic music school; an industry-renowned training ground that has shaped many international DJs, a new generation of industry shaker-uppers and global stars.

It’s not the first milestone, of course. In recent years Point Blank has grown to become an international concern, bringing our unique expertise and industry experience to people all over the world thanks to our pioneering online school. As of last year, the launch of our Los Angeles school embedded PB right in the heartland of North America’s dance music explosion. Of course, it wasn’t always like this and, while we prefer to keep our sights fixed on the future – you kind of have to when you set the agenda – we decided to take some time to look back at how we got here. We sat down with CEO Rob Cowan to tell the story of how Point Blank went from a commercial studio in Greenwich to a global brand, from off-the-cuff production courses to international masterclasses, from Ricky Gervais to Richie Hawtin.

Enrol with us and you will join a huge spectrum of talent who’ve studied with us, from Claude VonStroke, Monki, Aluna Francis and Patrick Topping. What’s more, we’re currently offering 20% off all online and Los Angeles courses until the end of August, so there’s really never been a better time to enrol. Want to see our new London studio complex firsthand? Tours take place in on Wednesday at 5.30pm and Saturday at 12.30pm – but you need to book ahead. Go here to save your space now.

First PB course brochure 2001First ever course brochure, 2001

Point Blank opened its doors to students officially back in 2001 in Hoxton. Where did the idea of starting a music school originally come from?

Rob Cowan: To find out about how Point Blank started, you’ve got to go back to what was happening pre-Point Blank. I was a musician, a bass player, and I was lucky enough to get a record deal with Sony when I was 23 or 24. I was living the dream really; we played house and funk music. This was about ’87 or ’88.

What was the name of the band?

RC: Honeychile. It was all live instruments but because we played dance music we’d play all the raves – it was all acid house then. We toured and we supported some great artists like Bobby Womack, Jimmy Cliff and Hall and Oates. The band eventually split up and I ended up getting into production because I wanted to know how studios worked.

I met JC [Concato, Creative Director] working in a big studio complex called Matrix in London. It was a great place to be in the early ’90s, we got to work with all the dance acts at the time including: Sasha, M People, D:Ream, also you had Blur in the studio – it was that era. I was learning to engineer because I realised that the producer really was the most important person in the band in many ways. I didn’t know anything about production to begin with, I knew how to play the bass, but no idea how to put a record together. However, since we’d gone into the studios as a band, I realised how important the process was. But I realised I didn’t want to be a full-time sound engineer, I still wanted to do my own stuff, so I set up my own studio in 1994. That was the beginning of Point Blank. It morphed from being a recording studio to being a school further down the line.

Did Jules, the MD, come on board around this time? You were friends, right?

RC: I’ve known Jules since I was about 10, we met on at a summer camp barging. We both loved The Stranglers, so we bonded over that. When we were 18 we both spent a year living on a kibbutz together which was fun, we did a lot of music. Then we went off to different universities, he got his music career going with Raw Stylus at the same time I was doing my band. When I got my studio together in Greenwich he’d come over and do some sessions but as time progressed the courses began taking over; I took my first employee in ’96 or ’97 and I said to Jules, do you want to help out a day a week? It was going well, so I said do you want to do two days a week, then it became three, then full-time. He originally came on board doing what the course advisors do, and he was particularly good at that, which is why he heads up that team today. Then, after a while, I said do you want to be the Managing Director, you know, we were growing.

PB Early DaysThe studio in Greenwich which ran as a successful commercial operation for 6 years

 Did it help being friends?

RC: Yes. It was a morphing of being mates – he was best man at my wedding and I was best man at his, and the friendship underpins everything. Some people have said, ‘how do you manage to work together?’ We’ve found a way of doing it, we have the occasional disagreement but pretty rarely, considering we’ve been doing this together for quite a long time. And the advantage of doing it with you best mate is that you have a lot more of a laugh. You can defuse a lot of difficult situations with humour. Underpinning these roles – I’m the CEO and he’s the MD – is two old mates that have figured out how to run a music school. We’re a pair of musicians, really.

I think creatively we work really well together. We complement each other. We have quite different skills: Jules is very creative and has very good attention to detail, I’m a very good organiser, I’m good at pushing things through and making them happen. He also has great creative ideas which stem from him being a songwriter. In my band I was the bass player but I was, again, very into organising, helping us get the record deal. In fact, when I was studying, I used to swim at the pool at ULU. I used to have my bass with me because I used to swim before rehearsals. I walked into ULU in ’86 – ’87, and the woman on the reception there said ‘are you a musician?’ – her boyfriend was in a band and looking for a bass player. So I went for an audition, got in the band, they were called Savage Hearts and Ricky Gervais was the singer.

Akai PB Story
Akai samplers: the classics – S1000 and S3000

The Ricky Gervais?

RC: Yeah. We were like a glam Bon Jovi band. We had a great picture of all of us wearing studded leather jackets, very ’80s, with eyeliner and sort of mullet-type hair. I wish I still had the photo because I could really blackmail him with it! Ricky also happened to be the Entertainment Manager at ULU and so when I got into the band Honeychile I thought, right, I’m going to ask Ricky for a gig. We were doing quite well at the time – we weren’t signed but we were bubbling. We were getting interest from the record company, from CBS, from Sony, so we needed a really good Friday night gig at ULU. It was great, all of the A&R department from CBS were down and we blew the place off the scale, people were dancing on tables and we were pretty much signed off the back of that gig. I was doing a lot of that, making that stuff happen, although I wasn’t the one writing the songs… In a way, with PB, Jules is very much coming from that, he is a great songwriter and musician and I’m a good organiser!

So it’s like a band in a way?

RC: It has that same infrastructure.

Returning to the Greenwich Studio. How did it move from being a working studio to a music school?

RC: It happened organically. Imagine, I’m in a fantastic studio in Greenwich, right on the river and I had these big windows overlooking the Thames. We used to work there all night and you’d hear the water lapping – you could see St Paul’s over in the distance. I was doing sessions for people and it was the era when people were starting to get computers like the Atari and that was controlling the samplers, and it was just when Macs were becoming popular. Though they were still very expensive, people were beginning to afford them, you could have a G3 – that was the first one I had.

Then, as I was doing the sessions, people started to ask me to explain what I was doing. They were thinking they might get a computer at home and they might do it – and that was the seed that was sown! People paid individually for me to explain and it slowly morphed, so I thought I should turn this into a course. I then started running a weekend crash course, it was basically me sitting there with the Mackie desk, a G3 and a sampler and I would show them how to make a track from start to finish. We still have those weekend courses, but it’s Ableton now!

PB early days 2The first mixing desk

I realised that this was going quite well and more and more people were interested, then I put a very small advert in DJ Mag, saying “Learn to Mix and Make Records” and people responded. I could only fit four to six people in, but it was going great. Of course, it was very informal at first and I realised I should write it all down. I sat down with a friend of mine who was the drummer in the band I was in, and we went through it all, we wrote it all down and got it accredited. I didn’t know anything about education but I realised that if I wanted to have a good course I’d need to have it accredited, which I thought gave it value, which I obviously still do. At the same time, in my little advert we had ‘mixing’ and I had a lot of DJs calling up saying they wanted to learn to mix. What I meant was mixing records – I’m not a DJ! I started saying ‘no, I don’t do that’, but after a few weeks I started saying, ‘yes we do’.

So you moved into DJ courses just like that?

RC: I got a friend in who had some turntables and we started to teach people to DJ. Because why not? He was an Oxford-educated DJ, his name was Phil Benedictus. I did the same thing with him, we sat down with turntables, I remember doing it in my living room, and went through everything a DJ does and wrote it down. We developed it from about ‘96 through to 2001 when we moved [to Penn Street in Hoxton]. I’d basically outgrown the space, I was using the vocal booth as my office. It was set up as a studio, it wasn’t a school, so we had to take a leap of faith.

Were there other schools doing the same kind of thing around this time?

RC: You had schools like SAE which were much more traditional. I was always coming at it from a dance music angle because of my background. Perhaps there were, certainly more came along after us. I think Point Blank was quite groundbreaking at the time. It’s probably why we’re one of the leading schools now – we got a head-start on everybody else. And also we’ve constantly developed. We’ve never just sat back – it’s like now we’ve got the degree. You think of all the time it’s taken to deliver a degree, which is an amazing thing. That constant striving and pushing, and being relevant.

PB classic computerRetro computer alongside an Akai S1000, Akai S3000 XL, Novation Supernova, Nord Lead Rack, Delta Audio Interface and Mackie Desk, 2003

Is it a struggle keeping up with developments within the music industry, so that what you teach is at the cutting edge?

RC: I don’t think it’s a struggle but you have to keep your wits about you. I think what you have to have is people employed in the organisation who know their stuff. I think everybody here does and I rely on people to give me feedback. I try and listen to stuff as much as I can, but I’m not going out clubbing as much… Going out to Sónar was nice. But also technique-wise, we have the instructors and you’ve got to have a network, you’ve got to have people who are technically great, who are switched on to what’s going on in the scene as well.

That’s a main point of difference: PB is very much connected to the music industry.

RC: I see my key role as maintaining the connection with the industry, hence why we’re doing IMS in Malta, why we do Ibiza, why we do Sónar, it’s not just about branding and being seen in the right places – although that is important. But you go to these places and you meet people. That’s the good thing about having been around for a while… the longer you’ve been in it, the more people you know. You can make more things happen.

And this gets passed onto students too, by studying here, students automatically benefit from the connections that are already in place.

RC: It’s really important. If it was me, it would be why I chose to go to Point Blank rather than anywhere else. You take it as a given that the facilities are going to be great, the teaching is going to be great, I think wherever you go, you should get that. I think everyone can compete on that as well; if you spend a lot of money you can buy a lot of equipment but does that mean it’s going to be a good course? It might make people come to you but if you want to drive you need a vehicle, if you’re saying you’re a school you’ve got to have equipment… But I think being connected to the industry also crosses over to the instructors. Our instructors really are the industry, we don’t have anyone who isn’t successful in their own right.

Point Blank Studio 1 SSLStudio One at Orsman Road is home to Point Blank’s 48-channel SSL Duality Delta mixing console

When you started out did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve with Point Blank?

RC: I’m not a marketeer, I didn’t go, right, ok, I’m going to sit down and write this business plan and carry it out. It happened organically. I was just a guy who wanted to make and produce music and I saw there was a niche: this DIY music. I could kind of see where it was going to go in the future so it was a case of let’s roll with this. I think the more I was doing it, the more I could see these opportunities opening up. But I didn’t have an end point in mind, we were just on a journey – which I still am, really. I don’t really know where the end point is.

Do any particular moments stand out for you from over the years?

RC: Meeting Mark Ronson in Ibiza was funny. I was at Radio Sonica where my friend Andy Wilson is a DJ, we were in the studio and Mark showed up. He recorded a little message for PB students while we were there! Also our new studio complex at Orsman Road, we’d been trying to get that happening for two years, just trying to find a building. The recent launch party there was nice, just to celebrate because it been such a difficult journey trying to make it happen.

Also, we did the CNTRL tour last year with Richie Hawtin – we never thought we’d do a US tour! It was hard work but it was great to do that with that kind of artist. We’ve done loads of DJ courses in Ibiza over the years, too. We’ve done it with holiday companies and the guys who run Ibiza Rocks. We curated a CD for Thomson Holidays and 40,000 of them were distributed all over Ibiza, and it was the soundtrack on Britannia Airways as well, on one of the channels. Anyone who got on a Britannia plane would hear our mix!

Also, Point Blank was quite involved with the local community too weren’t you?

RC: The way it is now, there’s London, online and LA. But we used to have London, online and the community. We used to have forty or fifty freelance instructors that were delivering projects all over London, in housing estates, in schools, up until about 2010. We were applying for funding and then working with a charitable organisation to deliver music projects across London, we did loads of them. We had photography, we had filmmaking, it wasn’t just music, it was creative arts, we even had graffiti art – it was a big part of what we did. Unfortunately the funding dried up which is why we were unable to continue on a regular basis, but we now offer opportunities to young people via our scholarship scheme and still believe in the power of music as a force for social change.

Has the student demographic of Point Blank changed over the years? Has it become more diverse?

RC: Definitely more diverse – there’s definitely more women. You notice it especially on the DJing and radio courses. Sometimes you’ll get a group that’s 50/50, not always, but sometimes. And the production, you’ll still maybe get two out of 10, which is better than it was. And it’s definitely diverse in terms of people from all over the world, it wasn’t really international before. Now I think 40% of our students are international, that’s EU and non-EU, maybe even more. When we started it would have been all UK, but in terms of the UK, quite diverse; there were women who were interested, people from a wide ethnic mix too. The company’s way more global now, and I think what started that was the online school. That was a big thing.

The Hub happyskateboardman copyThe Hub at our new Orsman Road studio complex, where students can meet, discuss ideas and collaborate

What have you got lined up for the future? The BA is obviously a massive accomplishment, so what’s next? 

More BAs! I think the next step would be a BA online. Also, let’s make the new school at Orsman Road into a hub, not just where we’re doing the teaching, but a hub where cool, interesting events happen; turn it into a musical centre and get that on the map.

There’s the record label too, Point Blank Music. We’ve had quite a few successful artists on our courses, Nicole Moudaber is a big one, Aluna Francis too, and what I’d love, and what we’re trying to do with the label is to be part of the journey: can we help uncover the next big talent? Help them on their way? The best thing you can do as a music college is help students have hits. And we do have that, but actually the next stage is being part of the process, not just from the training but if you’ve got a good tune, can we help get it out there to to our networks, can we sign it onto another label, can we help mould and improve your sound? That, for me, is what we want to do. That’s the next step. Let’s try and help someone have a hit record –  something out in the clubs that’s getting a bit of traction, that’s on the Beatport charts, something that’s out there and people listen to it and think ‘this is good.’  If we could help anyone have a hit that’s better than a million ads on Google. ~


The latest release from Point Blank Music comes from newcomer Mazex. Subscribe to the PM Music channel to hear more from the label

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