Home Grown: Tom Lee Music’s Next Level Learning Centre


V.I.A.’s Home Grown features only the most awesome companies in Vancouver. From tiny, single-person operations to the big players, we profile our favourite businesses and interview their owners and operators.


Next Level Learning Centre
Established 2010

For over 40 years, Tom Lee Music has helped musicians of Greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island to make sweeter music. More than just a musical instrument and equipment specialty superstore, Tom Lee Music offers instruction and a level of service in a creative, dynamic environment that is unique to Western Canada. Further still is Tom Lee Music’s dedication to its community, offering continued support to a wide range of local arts and cultural events (including the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival, The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Ballet BC, Vancouver Opera, Music Fest) to sponsoring organizations like the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Foundation and the BC Lions Society for Children with Disabilities as well as the School Alliance of Student Songwriters (SASS).

I sat down with Richard Duggan, Managing Director of the Next Level Learning Centre, to talk about the school.

Is there actually a Tom Lee?

Yes, there is. And no, he does not play drums in Mötley Crüe.

Tom Lee Music first opened in Vancouver in 1969. What is the secret to this company’s longevity?

Music is an international language, and Vancouver is one of the most multicultural cities in Canada. We always listen to all of our customers and make a real effort to satisfy their needs.

Tom Lee Music already offers traditional instruction through their existing Learning Centre. How is the Next Level Learning Centre different?

The education we provide at Next Level is different than anything we’ve done before. Music lessons, the way most people think of it, is learning to play guitar or drums or piano. Historically, music industry schools were limited as to what they could teach or would teach, and were otherwise few and far in between. What we’re offering at Next Level are all the essentials skills a musician needs to set themselves up for success in today’s music market, which as you know is constantly changing.

How did Next Level get started?

It initially started as a simple idea among myself, Tom Lee Music’s Business Development Manager Richard Howland and Don McLeod, who is a producer / songwriter and the founder of SASS (www.sass-bc.com). The concept was to expand upon our existing educational facility by offering songwriting and software recording classes.

However, as we were doing the groundwork and market research, we discovered that there is a massive gap in affordable music industry based educational facilities in this city – one can either take musical instrument lessons or spend $10,000+ to learn how to be a recording engineer.

So upon discovering this void we decided to expand our vision of the school to encompass a much larger segment of the music industry. Now, we will be offering everything from songwriting and software recording classes, to performance coaching, business and marketing, promotion, all the way to DJ lessons, and much more, all at an affordable price.

Self-marketing and promotion, this “new” philosophy… are there examples of this?

The reality is that the music industry has changed – established artists that have been tied into music contracts for years are telling people, “whatever you do, do not get into the industry we got into!” It worked for them, but it is a totally different industry today, and aspiring musicians need to learn how to work and grow within it.

In the end, there are many variables and measures to gauge success. But you still need to know what the resources out there are and how to access them, and that’s where we come in.

Tell me about the music market in Vancouver, from a musician’s perspective.

Vancouver’s music scene, like many other cities in Canada, can be tough. People will spend money and go out to support local bands, but those bands have to do the work and use the right tools to prove their worth and earn the respect of their fans.

This city is also very geographically isolated; there are only so many major cities within a day’s drive, whereas if you lived on the east coast you could tour for months and never hit the same city twice. In addition, Vancouver’s live venues have slowly been disappearing over the years, especially the smaller ones that cater more to local artists. This makes it critical for musicians to realize that with today’s technology, if properly utilized, the local market doesn’t have to be your only market anymore.

What is the process? What does Next Level offer?

The truth is, it’s very difficult breaking into any area of the music industry – from getting gigs, to promoting – let alone making a music video or getting signed to a label. 10-15 years ago if you wanted to make a record you had to go to an expensive recording studio, you had no choice. Over the years it’s become inexpensive enough that someone can now essentially buy their own home studio. This has given a lot of opportunity to people who have tremendous talent but little or no access to resources or money. Those people now have a creative outlet that they may not have had before.

Our goal is to empower people to become not only better musicians, but smarter musicians. We want to provide people with the knowledge and understanding needed to get their music out in the world and heard by as many people as possible. You don’t need to be on a label anymore. You don’t need millions of dollars to launch yourself. You can do these things on your own… if you have the skills and determination. We offer a wide variety of courses, focusing on all aspects of the music industry. The concept is that every course is affordable, and can be taken à la carte, so you don’t need to take out a loan or commit months of your time all at once.

Sure, a large label may come knocking at your door, but the more education and knowledge you have before you get to that point is your greatest asset. That is empowering – knowing what you’re worth because you went through the process.

Who is the Next Level student?

Anyone who wants to better understand how the music industry works and use that knowledge to move their career forward, and/or improve upon their existing skills or craft, whether it be in software recording, songwriting, performing, etc. Our students are people who, like us, are very excited about this new direction the musical world is taking. People who realize, with drive and passion, and a little hard work, they can in fact take their music and careers to the next level (pun intended).