Foolish & Crazy – Getting a Job in the Music Industry

image from blog.resumebear.com The job market in the music industry is the most unforgiving one in the world.

If you want to get a job here, either you have connections or your work ethic is unparalleled.

And even then, you might fail.

I remember being 16 or 17 when I started to think about getting a job in the music industry. What a fool I was. I wanted to fly in jets. Discover artists. Work at a label. Mind you, this was 2005. I had no idea.

Naively, I pursued my dreams of working in the music industry as an adult, still largely unaware that the music industry in my dreams and the one that waited for me when I graduated would be an entirely different species. Along the way, what I learned is that the people that have jobs in the music industry are either foolish or crazy. Either a) a person is so in love with music and art that they refuse to work elsewhere, for better money, which means that they're foolish. Or b) the person is absolutely nuts and decided that working unpaid as an intern and living in poverty for two years before landing a job would be a good investment of their free time.

I think we're all a little of both, and I mean this in a good way.

There are people that fall between the cracks. They got an MBA at Harvard or have a family friend that works at Universal. Beyond that though, we're all smart enough to know that we could make more money elsewhere and a little crazy. I spent two years of my life hustling and writing for Hypebot before it turned into something that it paid. And here's the crazy thing: I never cared if it did. Why? Because I'm crazy. This is what I wanted and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ther Long Haul

These days, every other industry is looking a lot like the music industry. When I hear people talking about how they can't find a job – mostly newly graduated students – I sort of laugh. In the music industry, people don't get jobs – the good jobs anyways – by sending a resume places. They don't get them by looking through the classifieds. None of that. People that want to get a job in this field work their faces off and create opportunities for themselves. They either start a business or get a nonpaid position at a place they love. They get in the system.

And they become indispensible.

Once that person has worked hard enough to where that company can't imagine a future without them, they get hired. It doesn't happen any other way. So when I think about the things that most students are unwilling to do in order to get jobs in their fields that have been common in the music industry years, I'm less than sympathetic. The landscape has changed. And if you're not willing to put in the work and create an opportunity for yourself, no one is going to create it for you.

Getting a job in any field within the knowledge economy is now the like music industry. You have the want it, love it, and be prepared for the long, long haul.

Before becoming a full-time writer for Hypebot, I worked at Target. I met many people that were getting prepared to graduate and were talking about getting an internship. Often times, people complained that working ten hours a week – for free – was unfair. Since I was trying to get a job in the music industry, I worked almost every single night after work and weekend, honing my craft and educating myself through books. Anyone who has ever tried to teach themselves how to write through writing will tell you that it's not fun. It's hell. It was not rewarding.

Foolish & Crazy

But I never complained once. I never told Bruce that I was entitled to money. I just kept my head down, worked, and learned. Sometimes, Bruce didn't hear from me for weeks on end. He'd get worried. "Why wasn't I publishing anything," he'd ask. "Why the silence?" What was I doing? Thinking my way through problems. Connecting the dots. Banging my head against the wall. Collecting epiphanies one by one. And then without notice, I would reemerge and publish a new essay.

In time, Bruce found a way to offer me a job. I took it. And here we are. That's how I got my job in the music industry. I was foolish and a little crazy. There was no resume. No job listing. Just a special opportunity that Bruce handed me two years and seven months ago. He found me. Told me to keep sending writing in.

And I did the rest.

Even I didn't know that it would turn into a job. No one did. I'm smart enough to know, however, that I'm not special. Many of you did crazy things, at one point, to get a job in the music industry too. Anyone who wants a job in their field today better be ready to do the same. Otherwise, they'll be working in retail, unaware of the enormous opportunities that are out there for people that want to work hard and are willing to do what it takes to get a job that they love and get paid for it.

Every industry is now the music industry. Get ready.

Please share your story of how you got a job in the music industry in the comments below. What foolish and crazy things did you do to get a job?

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  1. Publishing is like this, for both editors and writers. Editors have taken salary hits and massive downsizing and many are freelancing now. Increasingly, publishers hope to find self-published authors who have already done the monster-hard work of building a fan base. Amazon uses its massive data base to winnow out the best of the self-starters.
    Those who are already published are staring at their ebook royalties (a huge financial hit for some) and illegal download stats and wondering how to continue to do what they love doing. But you are right, the choice is to do what you love and do it so well and so effectively that somehow it turns into adequate money, or do something you don’t love.

  2. good story kyle. i remember the not so distant days… working two unpaid internships in different states, 5 hour / day commutes, homeless besides some all-too-giving friends’ couches, rice and potatoes, sending out multiple resumes a day, not hearing back from anyone…
    now it seems to be the same for everyone, and i could never be more thankful to be employed

  3. Actually, this feels like more of a story about blogging. MOST writing on the web is done for free, and seldom leads to a paying position. In fact, the NYT has an interesting story about how Facebook, Twitter and the Huffington Post have created value from unpaid publishers.
    There is a reward for being published and having your words reach a significant audience, which is why the “gift economy” has prospered so much this decade (see: Wikipedia). But for the most part, it will not lead to a career or a paying job. I hate to be Eeyore, but that’s how it works. And I don’t think a norm of working for free for years in the hope of landing a job is a capitalist system I want to live in. We need to do better than that.
    Congrats on your success, Kyle.

  4. Just to clarify, “hit the jackpot” type careers like being a rock star, professional athlete, movie actor, TV journalist, and so on may require doing work for free in order to get connections and experience. What I object to in this post is insinuating that someone like the garbageman has to do a two year internship for free before being given the privilege of getting a paid job. That is absurd. More relevant to the point of writing for free: a lot of journalists are upset because even at the bottom, they used to get paid at small local papers, and now they’re expected to write and report for free? Maybe that’s the reality going forward, but it is going in the wrong direction, and in more euphemistic terms is called “creative destruction”.
    Sorry, if I’m off topic here, but the music industry even when it was booming should NOT be a model for how businesses and jobs run in this country.

  5. I am actually having conflicting views about this in my life as well. My music seems to be taking off fairly well, and yet not bringing much income, but much exposure, whereas my resume, which has a good amount of clout, isn’t getting much success either. I just don’t know what to pursue anymore.

  6. Recently I turned down a $60k/year salary as an Account Manager at the San Francisco Airport Marriott, opting instead to intern at IRIS Distribution for no pay.
    I’m not going to front and say that money isn’t important to me, because it most certainly is. However, that would’ve been dirty money to me. I’ve come too far, worked too hard, and sacrificed way too much to trade it all in for a comfy salary and a fancy title.
    Many called me foolish, and even more called me crazy. But that’s how I knew I was making the right move.
    Legacy > Currency

  7. I was lucky enough to get a job as a ‘roadie’ with a band that had some good things happening right around 2005. They were well connected in the industry and I thought they had a guaranteed path to success, so if I could get in at the “ground floor” then I could ride that success ‘elevator’ with them. That ended up being wrong; at least, for THEM… although they did have some good opportunities and I’m happy to say that things worked out pretty well for me because of my initial job with them – which, while paid, was a very, VERY small stipend. Ultimately the same thing you hear time and time again is true: it’s about WHO you know, and real-world experience is far, far more important than a degree.

  8. great post! technically i’ve been in the music industry since i was 14 because i am a DJ however I now also work in music marketing since 2008. I have to agree with Kyle when he says the music industry in his dreams was not the one waiting for him when he graduated. I too imagined huge offices, jets, clothing lines, etc. I always imagined i’d work at a label now I shake my head at the thought. it’s a whole new landscape (from what i hear).
    Now I dont think its practical for anyone to work free for two years, the important thing folks entering the music biz or any business should know is that YES, they should do free work. Free work is opportunity. If you land an internship, make sure they give you REAL work. Seize the opportunity to show them that you can handle the tasks, and handle them well! Improve them if you can. Like Kyle said, make yourself indispensable!
    If you do just enough, nobody wins. Go above and beyond but give it a time limit, maybe 3 months or by the end of a certain project. When that time comes, you will have proven that they need you or not. If they do, but can’t pay, then you must move on. But at least at that point you have real work you can point to on your resume and in interviews, you will have built some connections, and you may have some awesome recommendations.
    required reading for anyone looking for work: http://www.slideshare.net/choehn/recessionproof-graduate-1722966

  9. It’s actually very easy to get a job in the music industry. You just create one for yourself and start working. However, making money and/or riding a band/label all the way to the top can be difficult. And isn’t even that hard to find talented bands to work with. There are quite a few of them. But if you are just starting out, it’s in their best interests (but not yours) for them not to sign a long-term contract with you so that they can work with someone better if that person comes along. Therefore, you may find yourself out of a job when more opportunities come to them. What you have to do, then, is to think of them as people to put on your resume. If they go on to bigger and better things, that’s better for them and makes you look good by association. Once you have one or more successes, then you can start asking for contracts from people you work with in the future.
    Who you know does make a difference, so make those contacts. But you don’t necessarily have to intern to do that. You can learn the necessary skills on your own and be an intelligent networker while you are learning the business.

  10. Interesting read. It’s rare that I find an article that stimulates me to read from start to finish, especially with the lack of profanity, ha! What I did to get in the business was start my own artist management company, KPFB Entertainment. It’s very time consuming and a lot of work but I do what I like! I’m still in college (University of Miami) so my mom helps supplement pay for things I need if the company isn’t bringing in sufficient revenue. Anyways, thanks for the post, it was surprisingly enjoyable.
    Yeah, we are all a little crazy & foolish. But I figure that’s all canceled out and negated if it’s worth it, and by “worth” I don’t mean a monetary value. (:
    -Ashley Dixon

  11. I too worked at Target while going to school and interning at a music venue in Nashville in 2005. I got a nap every night. I also did some great things that I learned from with Target in the 5 years I worked there. They are really good at brand identity, which is of the utmost importance in music these days. I managed a $35 million inventory at the age of 19. My management of that inventory also enabled my store to score at the top (literally 1st)of the Target metrics. That is not a simple, or short, task. Neither are the ventures I find myself involved with these days.
    I operate a mobile, solar powered recording service. This idea came to me not out of love for the environment(not that I don’t love it)but from literally watching as studios went out of business on Music Row in Nashville. The common element I could see was overhead. I decided if I was going to make it I needed to keep it to a minimum. No rent, I don’t have a utility bill and my only real overhead is fuel for the vehicle which I am working on cutting out as well. I’m making it happen but it’s not without it’s downsides. It took all of my savings to purchase the equipment. It ultimately ended a 3 year relationship I was in. I am technically impoverished now, as well as floating between couches, spare rooms and the like. (crazy)
    It is often considered a rare and commendable trait to focus so intently on a goal. It is also often myopic. I passed on the opportunity to manage the CDBaby inventory not too long ago. I didn’t even apply for the job. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but because I didn’t want to (foolish). That’s not the job for me in the music industry, if they offered it to me I would take it, but I have no interest in the HR wrangling that is a large corporation (I was VERY involved in hiring my team at Target). I write and record music and that is all I really want to do.
    To that end (as well as addressing the idea of working for free) I have spent countless hours doing web design, community outreach, and involving myself in a local music think tank of sorts. Fair Trade Music. One thing that is clear is that musicians don’t make any money to speak of because they don’t ask for it. They take the intangible concept of “exposure” (which incidentally is usually a cause of death) and rationalize some value into it, when in reality they are making another business money by promoting it to their fan base and creating a temporary customer base for the business.
    Kyle, please, Please, PLEASE don’t promote the idea of working for free. You’re pissing in the pool and manifesting the idea that work should be done for free because someone loves what they are doing. You should absolutely love what you do. Every second of your life. If you don’t, I would question what you are doing, and why. But that shouldn’t mean that you subject yourself to poverty for a bit of mental satisfaction. There are so many organizations set up to “fight” poverty and it is so socially frowned upon that it’s ridiculous to create it intentionally.

  12. You are absolutely right Graham, Kyle, please don’t promote unpaid work. Anyway when you work for free, isn’t that called slavery? Every person, no matter how well qualified they are is deserved of some sort of pay. \
    In any other industry, internships/apprenticeships are paid, and there is a very high chance, especially with apprenticeships, that you will get a job at the end of it.
    So tell me, why should the music industry be different? Is it such a privilege to work in the music industry that we must devalue ourselves and show a lack of personal respect for accepting to work for free…
    please dont work for free. I never have and never would!

  13. There was a bit in this post that talks about people entering the music industry after getting a MBA. I am a first-year student at the Kellogg School of Management. I would love to see a section that talks about opportunities for MBA graduates in the music space.

  14. When I knew I wanted to work in the music industry here is the journey I took.
    -I moved to Nashville (2004)
    -Worked as a 26 year old unpaid intern at a Publishing Company.
    -Got a job at a Radio station cluster as a sales assistant.(2005)
    -Moved onto a PRO in the song registration department (2006)
    -Took a part-time job working the door at local music venue (2007)
    -Quit the PRO to be an Independent Songplugger (knowing no one, having no access, & working w/ songwriters w/ zero successes) (2007)
    -Started a Publishing Company w/ a hit songwriter and had a huge falling out. Company ended months later (2008)
    -Took a job selling Merchandise on the road (2008)
    -Started managing an Artist (2009-Present)
    -Started Tour Managing an Artist on a Major (2010-Present)
    I went 6 years scrapping buy to now where I am making good money and more importantly doing something I absolutely LOVE. During my journey I busted my ass and waited patiently for a chance to attack when an opportunity presented itself.

  15. Graham and Allan – I completely disagree with almost everything you have just said.
    People work for free in the music industry because of the demand for the jobs. My friends got paid while interning at banks. This is because there is more money and jobs in banking… it’s all supply and demand.
    The supply of paying jobs at established companies in the music industry is minuscule, and everyone and their mom wants to work the industry (high demand). This gives us a situation where major labels don’t have to pay people to work there at first; it’s the same deal in publishing, food, fashion…. a bunch of “cool” industries.
    it’s pretty basic stuff.
    If you don’t have enough love for working in the music industry to go broke for it, then don’t work in the music industry. Sometimes that’s the only way to do it. It IS privilege to work in the music industry (because it’s awesome!)
    sometimes you just gotta work harder for less if you want to establish yourself…

  16. Still no job but it is a rough world out there. I have a music business degree and have been interning for 13 months. Currently on my 3rd internship and realizing that companies do not hire and exploit their interns because they don’t want to pay. Makes sense since there is a surplus of people interested in interning. They use me but I use them for references and connections throughout the industry. Thats what people need to get out of their internships. Connect with employees and show your interest and what you have to offer.
    My internships have opened so many doors for me but still no paying job. These internships have allowed me to build my network of contacts. This is crucial in this industry. I have learned so much from my experiences and i know that when a job opens up, I will be indispensable. It’s is the only way to get into this industry if you don’t have a established contact that can get you in. The motto I live by is ‘intern or die’. Can’t see myself in any other industry. I guess I am Crazy and Foolish.

  17. when i applied for a job to three majors after graduate, Local universal was collapsed, EMI didn’t even respond…
    I was lucky and crazy to be hired as a strategic marketing specialist in Sony Music. The general manager asked what am i thinking as a salary i replied “i want to buy a tv, so a salary enough to pay it for a 10 months loan will be enough. he offered me just enough to buy one.. not more…
    I accepted it, and before they know, after 5 years, i was marketing manager 🙂
    nice story there…

  18. Thank you for the wonderful post! I am a student and intern at a music company, and I’ve simply accepted the fact that most music internships are unpaid. I see internships as learning opportunities and not as “free work,” so I’m okay with it. Probably means I’m crazy…

  19. Great reading all of these posts !
    Well, here’s how I got my first job :
    Last year. I was 19. I’ just back from this huuuuge festival where one of my favorite artist was playing and I’m telling to myself “Screw it. Let’s do this!”
    So I went abroad to study as close as possible to that artist’s studio. I showed up there and said how much I wanted this. Here. Not anywhere else, not with anyone else. They said I could pass by sometimes, hang out, meet the people. I did. It was 4 hours of train away and cost me 50€. i’d go in the morning, come back in the night once a week. 8 hours of travelling for not even 6hours there.
    They said I was crazy but quickly called it “dedication”. I was broke but I made sure I met everyone & that everyone remembers my name. I made sure I made friends in the first place and not employers. Then I offered my help, asked for work. I’d learn things on my own, read blogs and books.. and do whatever they asked me, for free. Even if it wasn’t my thing. Even if it was boring. Even if I was totally new to it..
    Next thing I know: 6 months later I’m on tour with that artist I love, doing his communication, filming, organizing private concerts. I even get paid a bit but more importantly, I’m fucking LOVING this and It was worth all the while

  20. Wow.
    These are inspiring (and sometimes heart-breaking) stories. It always amazes me at how much we are willing to put on the line in order to achieve that we love. Even if it means being called “crazy”.
    I suppose then I have it pretty easy, but I do draw my fair share of questions from friends and family about my decision pursuing a music career. I graduated from a respectable engineering major in a brand name university; when I applied there it was the major that had the most applicants. But then music re-entered my life and I made the jump for faith.
    I registered for a music course, and one month after graduating that course I was asked to teach part-time there. So that was my first gig in the music industry (still teach to this day). Then the headmaster told me of a friend of his who writes music for commercials was looking for an assistant, so I called the person up and we met.
    During the “interview”, he asked what I could do, production wise. Luckily, I had spent the last 2 years learning the ins and outs of DAWs, so it was something I was familiar with. Not once did the question of what major did I graduate from arose during our conversation. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this from the studio right now, while we wait for a client.
    I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given – but I realize I should strive for more. One goal I’m obsessed with is to make as much money income-wise as my engineering friends who took engineering vocations.
    Cheers and thanks for the article, Kyle! I also tweeted a lot of quotes from the people here, just for sharing and inspiration.
    P.S: One “unique” condition: I’m from Indonesia. So the music industry is far smaller than that of the States. But the advantage is, there’s a lot of uncovered ground here, not many people are pursuing this path. Which is also the disadvantage of it 😉

  21. I too worked for free at my first ‘music industry’ job. I was an intern for about six months at an indie dance music record label, and made sacrifices in order to bend around the no/low income factor, but I knew it would be a good move in order to gain skills, knowledge and experience of the industry.
    I now work for a company that offers jobs in the music industry! I’m sure there is some irony in there somewhere.
    I’m guessing no one will mind if I link to the websites, seeing as the general consensus here is that any way to get a foot in the door is a positive thing.
    (we’re also establishing a base in other territories http://www.music-jobs.com/ for the full list. If anyone would like more info please feel free to contact me)
    Lee J.

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