According to its website, music edtech startup Punkademic got its name because it was founded by academic ex-patriots—”the punks of the academic world.” The company offers online music courses in everything from Ableton Certified Training (where students develop the technical skills to compose, record, remix, improvise, and edit with the Ableton Live software music sequencer) to music theory. It offers recorded lessons and live lessons via Zoom.
Flyover Future spoke to Punkademic‘s CEO, J. Anthony Allen, about how the company came about and how Minnesota’s music scene helped it grow.
Where did the idea for Punkademic come from?
Allen: A co-educator and I first started a company called Slam Academy that was focused on in-person music classes. But we felt like we weren’t really giving the students what they really wanted, and there was an opportunity there. A couple of years ago, I started getting really interested in online education. I thought there’s a future here and it’s going to be a really powerful medium to reach a lot of people.
At the time, Slam Academy didn’t want to invest in that so I rolled the idea out as its own company—Punkademic. I was happy about starting our own school but I really felt there was a more powerful way to reach more students by investing in online and figuring that out.
How does the company work with the instructors?
Allen: They’re all contractors. Some make classes for us–like a work-for-hire kind of deal–and then we pay them as a contractor to support those classes. But now we’re getting more and more into live classes, like over Zoom.
What is the typical student count in the classes?
Allen: Thousands of people take the classes that are just pre-recorded videos. For the in-person classes, I’d say there are about 10 students with every one instructor. Probably the biggest and most fancy looking number is the total number of students we interact with, that we have worked with through our classes is over a million.
What do the courses cover?
Allen: We do things like music theory, composition, songwriting, music production, software, tools, all that stuff. I do one-on-one lessons as well in composition and songwriting. That’s where we plan the course and we’ll go back and forth with each other–listening to what people are doing, talking about how we can make it better. It’s all a collaborative process.
How do you grow the business? Do you get recommendations from other places?
Allen: We just hired a marketing person about a month ago. But the way we’ve kind of got to where we are, at a million students, is by licensing. We make a class, put it on our site, and put a price tag on it. But we also license that class to 50 other websites that are selling online classes. So like if you went to any popular education website, and you search for music theory, you’re probably going to find our classes on those sites. So that’s the way, so eventually people have found us through that just through brand recognition. And that’s been the way we built the company so far, and it’s worked out really well for us.
How did being located in Minneapolis help your business?
Allen: The music scene in this town is really strong. It’s really vibrant. It’s really collaborative. So that’s what kind of kept me here in the first place. There’s a long history of music business here in town. Especially with the Prince folks. I never got to work with Prince, but I’ve worked with some of his business team as advisors. And that’s been really valuable. I mean, it’s hard to be a musician in this town and not work with someone who’s worked with Prince. I always joke that I’m the only one in town who never worked with Prince–or lies about having worked with Prince.
Did you get encouragement from other Minnesota entities?
Allen: There’s a competition in town called the MN Cup and it’s basically a startup entrepreneur prize. It’s sponsored by the University of Minnesota and a bunch of the big companies that are here in Minnesota. I won the competition in 2022 for the education category. What that got me was a little bit of cash–actually, a good chunk of cash–but the reason I entered it was because if you make it through the first round, you get assigned a mentor, and that was all I really wanted out of it. And because the mentorship piece was important to me, because I don’t have any business background at all. I’m a musician.
Minneapolis is a really strong arts town. There’s a lot happening here. And it’s a very collaborative place. I’ve lived in other places where the arts were much more of a competitive process, but here it’s much more collaborative.