So how do you start a career in one of the most difficult, complex, and disrupted industries in the world?
How to Begin a Career in the Music Industry:
Advice to the graduating class of 2012.
So the big day is fast approaching. You are leaving the ivory tower in a few months and are about to enter the work force. Most likely the only thought on your mind is how to get a job.
The ideal is to have a job locked up and waiting for you before you graduate, so you can enjoy your last month at college. This is what all your friends in other majors are doing. The computer scientists are getting flown across the country and eating lobster. The engineers are meeting with on campus recruiters. The management and business students have already found a good position at the bank where they interned.
The music industry does not work this way. Very few companies hire in advance. Music companies are not structured to wait several months for an entry-level candidate to graduate college. They hire when they need a body, not because there is an influx of new talent every spring, like some other industries. While this is frustrating, it actually creates a new opportunity.
Your goal as you enter the music industry should not be to find a job, but rather to develop a career. Getting your first job will be a byproduct of this process, but jobs are temporary and a career lasts a lifetime.
Think of your career development in four levels:
1. Building your Base (informational interviews and conference attendance)
2. Skill and Knowledge Development (Outside Projects)
3. Creating Conversations around your work (keeping up to date with your contacts, using social media and writing)
4. Finding and applying for open positions (its still necessary, but not primary)
Each of these levels serves a different purpose and is important in its own way. This method is a lot more work than checking online job sites, but it is also more rewarding.
Building Your Base
The most important thing you can do as you begin your career in the music industry is to build your base of contacts. Simply stated; this is meeting like-minded people in the industry. Look around you, as your classmates are the first members of this group. From there, you should try and make friends in every niche in the industry, as all aspects of the industry work together. How wide your network will initially go depends upon how innately social you are. Two ways to expand your network that don’t require you to be a social butterfly are informational interviews and attending conferences.
Informational interviews are one of the best ways to meet people
Pick a couple of target companies and reach out about having an informational interview. Shoot for people who are mid to lower level. While it is nice to say you met L.A. Reid, Daniel Ek or some other well-known industry figure the advice they give will most likely not resonate until several years into your career, and they probably aren’t thinking about entry level jobs.
Once your informational interview is scheduled, prepare for it in a way that will not make the other person feel like they are wasting their time. Have at least ten questions ready that show you understand their business and want to know more. Ask about how they marketed one artist as opposed to another on their roster and why. Ask about what their competitors did that they learned from and incorporated into their business. Ask about what they think is coming next in their industry. Ask about things they would do if they had their own company. Do not ask how to get a job or if they know of any open jobs. They know why you are there. Instead ask them how their career path came about, and you will most likely get some insight that you can use in your own career development.
Most importantly, at the end of the informational interview ask for one or two additional contacts where you can do another informational interview. Instead of just asking open ended which may return the answer, ‘let me think about it’ – do your homework and have several companies already in mind that your first interview does business with. If the first interview is at a label, ask for a contact with their distributor or at a management company for one of their artists. At the next one with the distributor ask to meet with several of their labels. At the management company ask to meet someone at the booking agency for their artist or at the online marketing company they last hired. Again, do your research and have your preferred companies in mind and ask for them specifically. The easier you make it for someone the more likely they are to help.
Another great way to build your base is to attend conferences. Meeting people outside their work environment gives a different perspective, and at conference most attendees are excited to network. Again, asking about a job is not the way to make friends here. You can say you are looking when asked what you do (always be honest), but keep the conversation focused on business or music or food or sports or anything else that will make your new contact think of you as a person with ideas instead of someone without a job.
As conferences can be expensive a great way to make attending them possible is to volunteer. CMJ and SXSW have their pick of volunteers but there are hundreds of conferences out there, and the smaller ones can always use volunteers. The same speakers will be there and the attendees will be less overwhelmed or distracted by long missed friends. Volunteering at a conference is also great way to meet people for the shy, as you have a specific reason to speak to the other attendees and don’t have to initiate contact.
The goal is to build a base of contacts that will think of you when an open position comes across their desk, and that you can use as a reference when you find an open position in their network. Keep doing this throughout your career. Don’t ever stop. You can slow down, but don’t ever stop because you can never know too many people in the industry.
Concurrent to building your base by doing informational interviews and attending conferences, you should start attempting outside projects. There are two reasons for this. The first is to demonstrate your ability. You may think your coursework and internships and extra curricular activities leap off the page and prove to potential employers that you are qualified, but they don’t. The second is to develop skills and knowledge. Few things will teach you the realities of the music business as well working on your own project.
Through outside projects you can develop an understanding what is valued in the position you are seeking. For instance, an online marketing company’s biggest asset is relationships with online publications. If a candidate can demonstrate that they have built those relationships on their own, they stand out.
Desired Position – A&R
Quality Valued – An understanding of why certain bands and songs are successful.
Example project – Starting a tumbler of unsigned bands to watch. Explain why you think those bands will succeed over their peers. It doesn’t have to be bands. It is just as effective using producers or songwriters. It also depends on what genre of A&R you want to work in. It is more about the process than it is about the picks themselves, but if one of your choices hit, you have documented proof of your foresight.
Desired Position – Management Company
Quality Valued – An ability to manage artistic temperament.
Example Project – Manage a local band or unsigned artist. There is no better way to understand what it is like to be the day-to-day handler of superstar artist then by working with an unknown artist. The workload is still big. The egos are still fragile. The only thing that is different is the money. Managing a band is actually a great way to develop skills in numerous areas of the music industry as it necessitates knowledge of a variety of endeavors in order to truly be successful.
Desired Position – Online Marketing or Publicity Company
Quality Desired – The ability to find editors, content managers and writers, and build relationships with them.
Example Project – Run an online marketing campaign for an unsigned band. Create your media list by searching for stories about several similar sounding bands, and researching the contact info for the sites that ran them. Online marketing and publicity is an undertaking built almost entirely on relationships with the media. Start making them now.
Desired Position – Digital Distributor
Quality Desired – An understanding of Metadata.
Example Project – Help an unsigned band navigate any number of open digital aggregators like Tunecore or CD Baby, or start your own record label. Getting a song on iTunes isn’t particularly difficult, but it is an exacting granular process. This project will demonstrate an attention to detail.
Additional outside projects:
(1) Book shows: Create a backyard or dorm room concert series, or start booking one night a month at a local venue.
(2) Start a podcast: Procuring guests for a podcast will create opportunities to meet many people in the industry.
(3) Volunteer to music supervise a student film: Do the clearances as well as the creative. Anyone can pick music they like, getting the rights cleared for that music is a much more difficult and impressive task.
(4) Run a Pledge Music or Kickstarter fund raising campaign for an artist.
(5) Build a band website or app.
All of these examples can be boiled down to one thought. If you want to be hired to do a job, start doing that same job on your own. None of them are particularly hard or require skills that you don’t already have. You may not excel at them yet, but you will learn with each project. There is an old saying that you will get a promotion after you have already been doing the job. I think that is true for getting hired as well. If someone has already been doing the work expected for a certain position, then justifying hiring them is that much easier.
A Word about Internships
Traditionally students are told that the best way to develop job skills is through internships. Unfortunately music companies with well-run internship programs are few and far between. This is because it is generally entrusted to the youngest employees who are still learning to handle their own workload and may not know how to delegate yet. They are also usually just happy to not have to do grunt work for a summer. Hiring managers know this from watching how interns are utilized at their own companies. This means that an internship is probably not as beneficial to your resume as you think. No hiring manager looks at a resume filled with internships and thinks, “this candidate has all the experience to do whatever job I’m trying to fill.”
I still recommend doing at least one internship though, because it creates another structure where you can meet people in the industry. This goes back to building your base. Know your goals going in to the internship. You want multiple people in the company to think of you as both a hard worker and an interesting person. These are people who you can ask for introductions to do informational interviews, and who hopefully think of you when a job comes across their desk. If you can leave an internship with friends and supporters, consider it successful. If you leave an internship with a couple of bullet points for your resume, but without any contacts, then you wasted an opportunity.
Social Media and Address Books
After you put in the hard work to build a base of contacts and creating outside projects, do not just stand pat. You have to keep interacting with your contacts, and publicizing your projects.
Make sure to add every person you meet with on LinkedIn, and if applicable Twitter. Keep active on these platforms with your progress on outside projects so that you stay top of mind. Social media is also a great way to build up your base outside of your home city where you can’t engage in in-person interviews. There are numerous interesting people on Twitter and by participating in the conversation you can build your credibility with them.
After you initiate contact, keep up with them. If the most important thing at an informational interview is to ask for more contacts (which it is) the second most important thing is to send a thank you note and keep in touch. Check LinkedIn every day, and if someone in your network changes jobs, send them a congratulatory note. If someone in your network posts something interesting on twitter, retweet it, or ask for a more detail about the idea. Do not do this in a phony way. You have to genuinely care about the subject matter or the person. Remember you are hoping they will care enough about you to recommend you for opportunities that come their way. If you don’t care about them, don’t expect them to care about you.
Applying for open positions
If you follow all of the steps laid out above, I truly believe that either a job will come naturally through your ever-growing network, or one of your projects will turn into a career on its own. Sometimes though, this isn’t the case, and it is still wise to apply for open positions.
Checking online job sites seems productive, but it is one of the worst ways to spend your time. Remember if you are checking indeed, monster, craigslist, entertainmentcareers.net, and similar sites so is everyone else in your class, and also everyone at Berklee, and Oneonta, and Belmont, and Full Sail and 40 year old laid off bankers whose true passion was always music.
A much more effective way to find open positions is to make lists of companies that you find interesting and visiting the career section on their website. A good way to make these lists is by looking at the panelist list of music conferences. The conference organizer has already done the hard part in finding companies that are doing interesting work. All you have to do is visit their websites.
Looking at the career section on the website will also show you what kind of positions your target companies are looking for, and what skills they value. Again, if you don’t have these skills, start an outside project and develop them.
No matter whether you apply through a website or an online job posting, do not just apply and move on. After you apply to the general address, find a connection using your contact list to an actual employee at the company. If you have been building your base properly then this should be fairly simple. If you have an employee at the company already in your direct network, ask them to put your resume in front of the hiring manager.
If the employee is outside of your direct network, after you have identified them, ask a connection to introduce you for an informational interview. During this informational interview, instead of asking for more contacts at other companies, ask for the employee to put your resume in front of the hiring manager for the position. This will ensure that your resume is at least seen, which is not often the case when applying to a posted position.
These steps should last you a lifetime in the music industry. The particulars will change. Informational interviews will turn into lunches and drinks. Conference attendance will turn into speaking on panels. For a lucky few, the outside projects may just turn into their own profitable companies. The basic ideas are all the same, though. You want to have supporters and friends. You want to develop skills and knowledge. You want to let people know what you are working on. You want people to think of you as a person with ideas regardless of your position. This is as true looking for your fourth job as it looking for your first, and it is how you develop a career.