How I Earned My Place in the Music Business: 6 Insights For Breaking In
After a four-year journey that recently culminated with my college graduation, I write to you now as a full-time music industry professional – Senior Music & Technology Analyst for Hypebot.com, head of Business Development for Fame House LLC, and I remain an independent musician myself building a creative venture of my own. My journey has been anything but straightforward, and there were plenty of lessons I learned along the way that I feel obliged to share with both aspiring and established industry professionals.
For you aspiring industry professionals, I hope that my story and insights can help you get a clearer sense of where you are in your pursuits, as well as provide you with motivation and inspiration to help you advance your own career. For you established professionals, I’m quite proud to call you my constituents, and some of you, my colleagues. For as much as I’ve idolized rock stars on stage, I’ve always admired those industry professionals that make it happen behind the scenes.
With that in mind, here are six insights for breaking into today’s music industry, as sourced and reflected upon through my own path to getting here:
1. Uncover The Source of Your Passion
I grew up the youngest child in a family of music lovers and was exposed to “the good stuff” very early on. I would receive hand-me-down instruments from my siblings, but gravitated and eventually fell in love with the drums at eight years of age. After playing in bands throughout my elementary and high school years, I eventually dropped all musical pursuits to attend college at the University of California, Irvine. Why? Because it was a good school and I got in… that’s it. I never once thought about making a career in or around music because, frankly, that idea was never encouraged. I was following the traditional “pipeline” of going to a good school, getting good grades, and getting a “good” job. However, with an insatiable appetite to play music, I would eventually join a band during my second year of college.
The turning point for me came during a gig in Hollywood, CA in 2008. I realized that I had spent far more time and energy on my music than I did on my studies. Here I was, playing a gig the night before a very important midterm exam (which I later ended up failing). I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was spending my family’s hard earned tuition money on my dreams of becoming a rock star, so I left U.C. Irvine and returned home to San Francisco – determined to make a living in the music business.
The Lesson – Find out why music means so much to you in the first place. Try to identify the source(s) of fulfillment that music provides you, and identify the possible areas of the music industry that you might find fulfillment being involved with. It needs to be a “sweet spot” combination of where you can contribute the most value (more on that later), and where you’d find the most fulfillments. List all possible roles because you will likely be doing more than one thing.
2. Study the Whole Industry
When I returned to San Francisco, my initial goal was to become a full-time drummer. I quickly found out, however, that it is tough to make money as solely a musician. Playing the drums alone would not be enough and I eventually realized that I needed to learn more about the industry I was entering into.
I enrolled myself into San Francisco State University’s Music & Recording Industry program, a specialized certification program that focuses students on either Music Business or Recording Arts education (I chose Music Business). At the time, my goal was to merely leave the program with an understanding of how the music industry operates, and apply that to my pursuits of being a drummer. But that all changed after going through what was, by far, the most influential college course I had ever taken.
Music Industry Career Planning was a ten-week intensive course taught by career growth and development expert (and music industry veteran), Gian Fiero. The course helped me uncover key strengths as an individual and incorporate critical career developmental exercises, while providing a broad overview of the current landscape of today’s music industry. Most importantly, it allowed me to pinpoint the specific areas of the music industry that I could provide the most value to. In conjunction with an academic study of the music business, I began reading every music industry blog I could find each day (including this one). My mindset was slowly beginning to shift to that of an industry professional.
The Lesson – Learn all that you can about the whole music business. Look at it from all angles. Whether it is formally in a classroom, or informally through constant and continued self-education and research. Personally, I recommend doing both. More often than not, the people teaching music industry courses are usually potential gatekeepers themselves, and it’s a great place to build relationships with them and your fellow students.
3. Study Yourself
There were no tests in Music Industry Career Planning, only personal essays. Instead of a final exam, the class culminated with a 7-minute thesis presentation about how you were going to “plan, prepare, and position yourself for a sustainable career in the music industry.” Half my grade came from Professor Fiero, and the other half came from a panel of industry professionals who were in attendance ready to offer jobs and/or internships to standout students. Needless to say, the pressure was on.
My thesis presentation required me to think introspectively – what did I really want to do? What were the steps that I needed to get there? I was forced to really study all of my strengths and weaknesses, and how I can apply them towards creating a sustainable career in the music business. I would receive high marks on my essays and be complimented on my writing skills, so I had took that as part of my value proposition. I also had a good (but not great) understanding of digital technologies and marketing at the time, so I had that to bring to the table, as well. I also had passion for music that could only stem from the heart of a musician.
By the end of the course, I wasn’t just trying to be a drummer anymore – although I did make a promise to myself that I would continue as a musician, and thankfully I’ve been able to uphold that promise. My goal now shifted to working within the music business.
The Lesson – While studying the industry, be sure to study yourself along the way. What is it that you really want to do? What’s the dream? What value do you bring to the table for potential gatekeepers? Understanding your value proposition is critical, especially when it comes to your networking. You’ve got to have something to bring to the table beyond your enthusiasm and your passion (although those are absolutely required).
4. Internships Are Invaluable
I cannot stress enough the value of interning. Internships have been, by far, the most instrumental factors in earning my place in the music business. In fact, my current positions with Hypebot and Fame House each stemmed from my time as an intern. One of the industry panelists during my final thesis presentation was Michael Fiebach – the Product, Marketing, and Merchandise Manager for the legendary DJ Shadow. Michael apparently liked what he saw and offered me my first internship, which became my first “in” to the music industry.
I was working with Michael on the day-to-day marketing efforts of DJ Shadow’s online and merchandise operations. It was a 90-minute commute each way, and I was balancing two part-time jobs plus being a full-time student, but I was determined to make the absolute most of this internship. I needed to leave a lasting impression on Michael, so I found myself working far over the required amount of hours, did independent research, and even volunteered to take on a project to single-handedly revamp a portion of the online store – all unpaid (I did receive college credit). By the end of that experience, I walked away with music industry-specific transferable skills, not to mention one hell of a name to affiliate myself with.
Proof that internships can lead to good things, Michael would eventually go on to found Fame House in 2011, and brought me on as his first employee. We’ve been building the company ever since.
The Lesson – It's difficult to work your way in among the gatekeepers when you have no skills, experience, or connections to offer them. Demonstrating an eager desire to learn by working for free will prove that you’re passionate and serious enough to sacrifice in order to earn your spot. Just make sure it’s an internship that’s legit, conducive to your growth, and that you’re gaining real skills. While you’re going to have to sacrifice time and pay, you’ll be earning invaluable experiences and aligning yourself with key allies.
5. Embrace Change and Connect the Dots Later
After my internship with DJ Shadow had ended, Michael connected me with Bruce Houghton (publisher of Hypebot) to do some event coverage for The SF MusicTech Summit. After writing a few conference coverage pieces for Hypebot, Bruce felt comfortable enough to bring me on as an intern, contributing pieces under the guidance of then editor Kyle Bylin (now at Live Nation Labs). I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to leverage this opportunity. I had no interest in music technologies at the time, and didn’t plan on entering the space at all. I just knew I could write and this was an opportunity in the music industry that I could somehow utilize. How exactly? I had no idea.
My first article as an intern was entitled, “HOW TO: Engage Fans on Twitter Like Snoop Dogg.” Sure enough, Snoop got word of that piece and tweeted it out to his (at the time) 2.1 million followers. Needless to say, Bruce and Kyle were excited about that. Hypebot then granted me creative liberty to write about topics that interested me, and I had found myself wearing a new hat – one that seemingly found me – and one that fit me just right.
I continued as a contributing writer for Hypebot until I finished my college education. And on May 21st, 2012, the very next Monday after I had earned my degree, I moved up to the position of Senior Music and Technology Analyst.
The Lesson – While it’s tremendously important to plan, be sure to leave room for sudden and unexpected opportunities. Try to remain open to any and all opportunities that are conducive to your growth. Just because you cannot connect the dots now, does not mean you shouldn’t begin aligning them today.
6. To Be Successful, You Must Live and Breathe This
I don't consider what I do a “job,” nor would I sell it short by calling it a "career," either. What I do is very much a lifestyle choice, and it has engulfed my entire existence (for better or for worse). To this day, I still attend as many live concerts as possible, I still play music as enthusiastically as I did when I was a child, and I wake up every morning excited to see what my inbox looks like. The vast majority of my friends are still musicians or music fanatics (yes, fanatics), and I care more than ever about where the music industry is headed because music is the lifeblood of who I am, and of those closest to me. I’ve chosen to surround myself with people and environments that keep my passion alive, and I never take for granted the opportunities that have been bestowed upon me.
The Lesson – There is no “on” or “off” switch when it comes to pursuing your goal. You must be “on” all the time. This is your passion, your life, and how you plan on making a living for yourself – don’t take it lightly.
I am incredibly thankful to be here, among you. This is only the beginning…