The ACM in Guildford

PUBLISHED: 07:57 23 October 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

The ACM 'hidden' away in a Grade II listed building

The ACM 'hidden' away in a Grade II listed building

Music has stopped being something you do before getting a 'proper' job, and has now become a serious career option. Matthew Williams paid a visit to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, which has been one of the torch-bearers for the mi...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2007

Music has stopped being something you do before getting a 'proper' job, and has now become a serious career option. Matthew Williams paid a visit to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, which has been one of the torch-bearers for the mix of music and education

Hidden away in a Grade II listed building above a classy looking Lloyd's Bar in Guildford is the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). Well, hidden away, if you don't notice the chrome sign above the door and banners hanging from the windows at least. But what goes on inside is still a mystery to many of us who have yet to enter the doors and climb the hundreds (seemingly) of stairs up to the academy's reception. I don't know if this is intended as a metaphor for rising to the top, but it is here that many stars of the future will be born.

The reception is a purple lit, gold disc walled space with a giant screen showcasing the latest MTV videos. In the background, the sound of drums cuts through, and in the foreground enthusiastic youngsters wait to sign in, happily chatting with guitars slung across their backs. This place oozes music.

"These doors are 2,000 each because of the soundproofing needed," says Claire Williams, who has been the ACM's marketing supervisor for the past two years, as she meets us in the reception and begins to lead us around the labyrinth of corridors and practise rooms that make up the academy.

"This room is used for lectures mainly, and students also perform here as well," she continues as we enter a fully kitted out and spacious room. Rows of chairs sit neatly in front of a full band set up. "Starsailor played in here not too long ago, which was really cool. We had people crammed in wall to wall. John Blackwell, who is a touring drummer with Justin Timberlake and Prince, gave a master class - I've never seen someone's arms move so fast. I've always enjoyed music so it's great working in this sort of atmosphere."

The brain child of Phil Brookes

Formed some 12 years ago, the ACM began as the brain child of managing director Phil Brookes, a man looking to expand from the one-on-one guitar lessons he gave from his garage in Woking. He had a vision to bring music together with education, and from humble beginnings things have escalated to a whole different scale. "He saw the opportunity and took it," says Claire. "He's normally still in four days out of five, so he is really hands on. It's his baby, but the fact that this far down the line he is still so enthusiastic about it all is fantastic."

The ACM now fills three buildings across Guildford, each packed with classrooms sponsored by a giant of the music world. The names of Marshall, Fender, Vox, etc, adorn the walls, and all are stacked with the latest equipment.
There are three state-of-the-art studios where the ACM students record most of their material, including an album, entitled Sitting on the Dock of the Wey, which is produced every year (each track written, recorded and mixed by them). The students at the ACM are a diverse bunch, and as long as people share the academy's passion for music, the doors are open.

"The average age is between16 and 24, but we do have older students as well," says Claire. "Our oldest part-time student is 60. As long as people are happy performing with the younger kids, it doesn't matter."

Music as a realistic career

The great thing about a place like the ACM is that it gives students the chance to make a realistic career out of what many used to class as a hobby - something for people to have a bit of fun with before getting a 'proper' job.

"The business development centre is one of our unique selling points because it allows us to grow close links with the industry itself," says Claire. "Students can get work experience, plus live and audition opportunities. We've had kids go off to record labels; get into artist management and marketing, that sort of thing. Even from diploma level, if you do just a year with us, you'll leave with a little of the industry savvy.

"We try to have at least three auditions a week," says Claire, as she shows us into an intimate little room complete with the 'couch of doom' as she refers to it. There is plenty of scope for the kids of ACM to showcase their talents to the industry here.

"The auditions can be anything from people looking for session musicians, or maybe a new band looking for a guitarist. Two of our guys have been taken on by the director of Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha) for her new movie, and so have now jetted off to LA for the filming."

The ACM has also cast its roots deep into Guildford's live music and education scene. It is an educational partner of Guildford College and Surrey University, and tutors and students also visit schools for showcases. They have even added sound systems into a couple of local bars and clubs. "We set up PA's at The Star pub and Boiler Room to help encourage live music," adds Claire. "We really just try to help make it as easy as possible for the live scene in this area to take off. Guildford gets a little lost sometimes because we're so close to London.

"We put on two nights a week as well, one at The Star and another at the Mambo club, where kids can go and play live. So all through term, they have at least two nights a week where they can play live and it all obviously gives opportunities to local groups as well as ACM bands."

Over the years, a number of high profile figures have visited the ACM, including the likes of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and the renowned country guitarist Albert Lee. This is education but not quite as we know it and the ACM doesn't plan on stopping there.

"We've just created a new role called artist relations manager," says Claire. "The idea behind that is to get even more of the well-known faces from the music world to inspire the students. We have got a bit of a wish list. Personally, I'd love Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters to come down here, but we'll see..."

Famous face: Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
While there have been many famous faces around the ACM, undoubtedly the most high profile and regular visitor is Chad Smith, the drummer from legendary rock band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has become something of a fixture in recent years (even having a room named after him).

"Chad Smith is an amazing guy to talk to because although he's a massive rock star, he is so passionate about the place," says Claire. "He gave an off the cuff speech when he visited and the kids loved it. He literally had about two hours before having to run off to do a recording session at Abbey Road..."

Maybe the best person to sum it all up is Chad Smith himself, who's been there, done that, got the t-shirt, broken the drum sticks, played all across the world, and yet still seems to have found a kindred spirit in the ACM.

"I am humbled and very grateful to be part of the great ACM," said Chad in his speech to the students at the unveiling of the Chad Smith Drum Room. "It's always a pleasure to see the kids and to help them in any way I can. It's such a great place to learn and if you want to get into a band, become a session player, producer, writer, or anything in the music business, this is the facility to do it. Take full advantage of it. Music will make you a better person; a better friend, a better brother, a better sister. Music has taken me to places I couldn't even imagine."

ACM Students Alumni...

Amelle Berrabah
Now a member of the hugely successful girl group the Sugababes, Amelle studied vocals at the ACM. During her time there, she won the co-sponsored ACM and Top of the Pops Search for a Star competition.

Ben King
The former guitar student is the lead guitarist with legendary band The Yardbirds. The band is famous for starting the careers of three greats of rock guitar - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Newton Faulkner
A singer-guitarist who is one of the most talked about new stars of 2007 and recently hit No.1 in the album charts. Newton is being championed by some very influential people, including Radio 2's Johnny Walker and guitar legend Jimmy Page, and has been receiving extensive Radio 1 airplay.

  • Academyof Contemporary Music, Rodboro Buildings, Bridge Street, Guildford, Surrey GU1 4SB: 01483 500800

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