How to Get Into the Music Industry — The Young Person’s Guide

How to get into the music industry — the young person's guide.
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If you want to know how to get into the music industry, the first thing to know is that there’s not one, single shining path. But hopefully these steps will guide you towards a less painful, less poverty-stricken professional life.

#1. Meet Anyone and Everyone You Can In This Business.

Before you’re desperate for a job, before your loans are due, and before you need something from people, it’s critical to start meeting people who are actually working in the industry.  You will be investing heavily in your future network, one that will pay very rich dividends down the line.  So take a bus, ride your bike, take a Southwest flight, or just Zoom it if you must, but get in front of as many people that are willing to chat.

Start looking for people with interesting positions and companies, and start setting up informational interviews.  Influential, heavy-hitter status helps, though up-and-coming is also great, because you’ll be rising with them and allies always help.  Start by dropping an email, connecting over LinkedIn, or making a call.  Meet over lunch, coffee, or just sit in someone’s office and ask questions.  You want to develop a sense for who these people are, what they’re doing, and their take on the business.

Frankly, this has zero downside, and you’ll be amazed at how many people will open their door, especially if you’ve taken the time to research and meet them.

Once in front of the person, make sure to actively listen, respect their time, take some notes, and think about whether you like this person’s life.  And, hand them your resume, even though you’re not looking (and tell them that).  Then, keep the connection warm after the meeting by sharing articles, updates, playlists, whatever (sparingly, don’t spam!)

#2. Mentally Prepare Yourself for How Extremely Difficult This Business Is.

Old-line media companies are struggling with evaporating revenues, but the tech side is just as (if not more) brutal.  This is an industry in extreme flux, and one that has seen a massive pie-shrink over the past 15 years.  That means fewer jobs, less money for the people that have jobs, and typically less ‘life stability’ compared to more established (but boring) fields.  It also means fewer successful startups, which translates into even lower job security and stability.

But that doesn’t meant there aren’t jobs and opportunities.  It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t accept the challenge, simply that you should consider your risk appetite and ability to stomach extreme uncertainty.

Most importantly, you need to understand that you are entering an extremely challenging and unstable business or you may succumb too easily to setbacks.  Because for every Jimmy Iovine and Daniel Ek, there are thousands and thousands of people struggling, unemployed, or unable to gain traction in this business.  Try to plot your course to become the exception, not the rule.

#3. Get a Degree.

The statistics on college are mind-numbing and discouraging; the realities of entering school are difficult for many individuals (and families) to stomach.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the average college graduate in 2014 harbored $33,000 in debt, which is double the amount 20 years ago (even factoring for inflation).  Indeed, roughly 40 million Americans now have at least one outstanding student loan according to Experian, with 63 percent in some stage of delinquency or late payment according to a study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

On top of all that, the price of a college education is soaring: according to the College Board, college tuition across state and private institutions have ballooned more than 125 percent in the past thirty years, far greater than the growth of family wages.

So, skip college and start earning money immediately?  That’s not a wise decision, simply because a degree will still help you get ahead, in the music industry and most other industries.  Recently-graduated 20-somethings do suffer high rates of unemployment relative to other age demographics, but that’s always been the case.  And college graduates are still way better off than those with only high school diplomas.

Yes, college is expensive, but skipping college is probably more expensive in the long-run.  But how you shape and apply that college education is now more critical than ever…

#4. Expand Your Mind, but Keep Your Education Focused, Skill-Oriented, and Real World Oriented.

Renaissance learning, socializing and partying are all parts of the college experience.  But they are also luxuries in a more difficult post-Great Recession environment.  For that reason, it’s critical to actively think and pursue a specialization while in undergrad, and balance that with ‘softer’ parts of the college experience.  That means being more qualified and possessing more skills than other students at graduation, and therefore being more attractive to an employer.

If you’re dead-set on being in the music industry, there are also music business degrees you can pursue.  Our partner Berklee College of Music is one great option, and there are online options that are more targeted and cost-effective.  All of which means that you’re amassing critical skills and learning all of the specific areas of the music industry, which will be critical when you enter the real world.

Now, are you ready for the NFL?

#5. Develop the Real World Armor That Colleges Don’t Provide Anymore.

If you’re familiar with concepts like ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘micro-aggressions,’ then you’re unfortunately familiar with a hyper-sensitive, overly-protective environment being cultivated a too many American college campuses today.  Comedians like Chris Rock are skipping college tours for a reason: student bodies are now devolving into over-sensitive, easily-offended, and thin-skinned masses, with resulting graduates frequently too fragile to handle the real world.

Meanwhile, executives in the real world are just starting to catch wind of this issue, and spending extra energy to avoid hyper-sensitive, ultra-PC employees that distract for actual work and open liabilities to frivolous lawsuits and other distractions.

If this sounds familiar to you, understand it’s not helping your future.  As a quick measure, try getting off campus for at least one day a week.  Interacting with professionals in the real world is a good first step, meeting actual music industry professionals and staying connected with them (see #1) will also better prepare you to graduate and get to work.

#6. Chart Your Course, But Avoid the Obvious Choices.

If you want a job at Spotify, fine.  But understand that everybody wants a job at Spotify, and Apple Music, and Shazam, and SoundCloud.  These are fun, hip, and connected environments that will impress your friends, but not if you can’t get in.  Do a little extra homework, and you’ll find all sorts of less obvious opportunities, which means less competition and greater chance for advancement once inside.

You’d be amazed how many companies exist across touring, publishing, DIY, rights management, digital distribution, legal, and merchandising, just to name a few sub-categories.  In fact, many of these companies aren’t getting their doors beaten down, which greatly increases your chances of (a) networking with these companies (see #1), and (b) landing a gig with them.

Chase the niches.

#7. Read Everything.

Of course, read Digital Music News everyday!  But also read everything else you can access, including publications and sites covering industry, music, culture, scenes, whatever.

But don’t stop there.  Read books like Steve Gordon’s The Future of the Music Business, watch interviews with top industry players (and not-so-top industry players), and dive into research reports.  Follow debates, releases, lawsuits, and trends.  Develop a fine-tuned knowledge of the business, and develop your opinions on it.

Some of that will come from your education, but a large amount (perhaps a majority) will come from your own reading and research.

#8. Rock Stars Need Not Apply.

If you want to be a Rock n’ Roll star or famous DJ, then go for it.  In that case, your focus will be very different: you are basically playing a complicated lottery.  Yes, the world sometimes rewards uncanny talent and hard work (Eminem gave his demo to Fat Joe six times, and was rejected every time), but most of the time, it doesn’t.

That said, there are indeed winners, and sometimes, very big winners.  That’s great if it’s you, but, learning the music industry while pursuing a musical career can only assist you regardless of the outcome.  For starters, once you have traction as an artist, you’ll understand the business and be that much less likely to get screwed by it (and yes, most artists get screwed).  But you can also work in this business if things don’t work out — or, even after they do and the fame dies down.

(Also, there’s way, way more than being the frontman that gets laid.  Even the biggest producers aren’t well known to the public; they can go to a restaurant in peace and better afford it.  Behind-the-scenes careers typically last longer, so think about that).

#9. Try to Get Real Industry Experience, Paid or Unpaid.

There’s a huge amount of debate over whether unpaid internships are worth it (or even ethical).  If you’re slaving away on errands and busy work without meeting anyone or learning anything, then you’re definitely wasting your time.  But usually that’s not the case, especially if you’re taking initiative and getting college credit.

And, here’s a little secret: the executives working at these companies understand that interns are making little-to-nothing, and that part of the value is that you should be learning.  So, they’re willing to help out and teach you things and help you network, especially if your attitude is good.  Again, you’d be amazed at how many industry friends you can amass in this developmental period.

#10. Develop a Mentor Relationship.

These are stronger relationships with a more established, typically older professional, usually in the field you want to enter.  And the benefits are incredibly strong: as the mentee entering the professional world for the first time, you gain an incredible perspective, valuable tips, and an expanded network.  And for the mentor, the younger person offers fresh new insights, access to a different generational culture and outlook, and the the ability to expand the network to an up-and-coming set.

Down the road, you both will be strong allies.  This is all win-win.

So, how to you find a great, life-changing mentor?  Oftentimes universities have mentor programs, though you can also seek them out as you expand your professional relationships.  Typically there’s something you have in common, especially if you’re in the same field.  In the best case scenario, you have a great friend and ally in the professional world and beyond, for life.

I’ll give a huge shout-out to Michael Lopez, my mentor for many years and currently a top management consultant for companies and organizations spanning Coca-Cola, Wikipedia, SanDisk, Stanford University, and Creative Commons among others.  Trust me this is a good guy to know!

#11. Learn How to Interview Like a Rockstar.

For starters, get the basics straight or you won’t even be considered.  Resumes need to perfect and polished, cover letters triple-checked and polished.

Also, double-check all of your social media accounts, and either shut down accounts or make them private.  Some people don’t care about some risqué pictures, other people totally care.  Then, make sure you survive quick online checks like a search on Google.

After that, you need to start learning how to interview effectively, because like test-taking, successful interviewing is part talent, part learned.  Learn the most typically-asked questions, determine how to present yourself most effectively, and practice techniques for relaxing if you get nervous.   And, practice interviewing, either informally (through ‘informational meetings’ or more professional conversations), or for jobs you’re only lightly considering.

The worst thing is to jump into a serious job interview with little practice.  You might lose out on a huge opportunity.

#12. Accentuate the Many Advantages of Youth.

Younger people are powering huge amounts of innovation, are oftentimes starting most innovative companies. In fact, they are actually preferred by investors to lead early-stage companies.   There are many reasons for this, and it helps to recognize the strengths that young people often present:

(a) Greater energy and stamina.
(b) Looks.
(c) Critical cultural connection.
(d) Greater optimism/enthusiasm.
(e) Fresher thinking/unencumbered by past ‘truisms’
(f) Fewer family obligations/mouths to feed (and lower salary demands)
(g) Greater ability to fail and take risks

These are all huge assets, but they should be subtly conveyed to your future employer.  Be sensitive: an older person typically doesn’t want to hear that younger people are typically better looking, even though it’s true.  But an older businessperson can definitely recognize that fresh thinking and enthusiasm are critical for any company, and they’re oftentimes willing to take a lower-salary risk.

That said…

#13. Avoid the Horrible Qualities of Youth.

(a) Immaturity.
(b) Righteousness, emotional reasoning, black-and-white dichotomizing
(c) General irresponsibility.
(d) False knowledge of everything; condescension.
(e) Inability to comprehend or adapt to common workplace etiquette.

Among other issues.

Older people misbehave too, but they know better.  So remember, it’s an office, not a frat house.  Stop hitting on the administrative assistant, don’t get drunk at work-related events, and as a general rule keep overly-personal things out of it (who you’re sleeping with, stories from Vegas, drug-related stuff, etc.)

Sometimes that’s fun and cohort bonding, usually it’s not.  So err on the side of professionalism, take the high road, and interact with people as adults.  You’ll be respected back.

#14. And Yes, Start Your Own Venture — But Do Your Research.

Investors are typically scared of music-related startups, simply because of the licensing pitfalls and profitability problems they present (see SoundCloud and Spotify for easy examples of this).  But music remains a wildly in-flux space, which spells innumerable opportunities and ideas that haven’t been thought of.  So think of those ideas, but please do your research before falling into the most obvious pitfalls.

At Digital Music News, we’re constantly presented with start-up ideas that sound exactly like the last one.  Artist DIY, for example, is a wildly over-saturated space with well-established, hyper-competitive players (want to compete with ReverbNation, for example)?  Other companies are smartly investigating deep niches, and solving problems: our partner Dubset Media Holdings, for example, is smartly working on derivative licensing across recordings and publishing, and potentially opening huge new markets and possibilities for services like Spotify and SoundCloud in the process.

See the difference?

And, don’t be stupid: startup culture is now pop culture, but the realities are far less glamorous.  You’ll be spending virtually all your waking hours getting something off the ground. And you’ll constantly be stressing about money, investors, teammates, and competitors, and the chances of success are incredibly thin. If you want to know how to get into the music industry, this is certainly one way — but it ain’t an easy path.

Maybe that makes success that much sweeter, but go into this with your eyes open.

#15. Listen to Your Parents, Then Ignore Them.

Most of the time, your parents are right.  But they also came of age in a much different era, one that was frankly better for professionals.  College was cheaper (see #3), and the economy was probably a lot stronger when they were coming of age (see ‘the 90s’).  The net result is that this isn’t your father’s economy, and it’s definitely not your father’s music industry.  So take your parents’ perspective and criticisms with a grain of salt, and keep plugging away.

#16. Be Upbeat, Be Positive, and Enjoy the Ride.

If this is a game, why not enjoy it?

I hope these tips were helpful to you!  Please share some of your experiences, questions, feedback, or whatever in the comments section below. 


Image: Daniel Zedda, self-portrait, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).

37 Responses

  1. Rickshaw

    And before any of these, you should have your head checked for considering working in the music industry. After that, seek out another major and career choice.

    • Gnome Sane

      “industry” …haahahaha omg….. Banking, Petroleum, Fast Food, Software, hell, even manufacturing 3/4″ screws are “industries”. Music WAS for a very brief and glorious time but it ain’t no mo’.

    • Eric

      Also, really, what in this article couldn’t be reprinted verbatim as, say, “Young Persons Guide To Getting Into the Resin-based Plastics Industry?”

      Okay, work hard, get a degree, learn to interview, network, keep your skills up to date, don’t expect to start at the top, get experience, etc…these aren’t exactly earth-shattering revelations that are specific to the music industry.

      Is it me, or are these kinds of articles usually written with the assumption that people trying to break in have zero common sense?

      • Trizzytyy

        Honestly what you have said had me thinking , only because it is true , the people that wanna break in the music industry , are actually what you call it lost ?..

    • Anonymous

      I TOTALLY disagree with the notion that one needs a degree to find success in the music business.

      • COTO

        I completely agree. How can the author tell us that taking on $30k+ in debt for NO guarantees is a good idea? If you are going into the music business, take that 30 grand and invest it in yourself and your brand. Get a website built, start cranking out songs (if thats the path you are taking) and use the rest to NETWORK. I have a degree and it means nothing in this business.

        • Less of an idiot

          Then don’t get a degree… I certainly won’t mind the reduction in real competition and you can keep making people’s orders at Burger King. Win-win

    • Bukid

      While I don’t think you necessarily need a music business degree, you definitely need a degree of some sort. Sorry, but the days of making it with out a degree are long gone. Especially in an industry which has no tolerance for people who don’t pull their weight

  2. joey

    One more thing: DO NOT GO TO SCHOOL AND GET A USELESS DEGREE! Study Engineering or Accounting or something to fall back on. Berkeley can help, if you notice a lot of well known bands these days went to Berkelle together. The degree it self is useless though. Maybe just hang out there.

    • Eric

      …but don’t go to one of those bull “Art Institute” or “Media Institute” or whatever for-profit colleges. They’re stupid expensive, tend to be staffed by people who know probably only slightly more than you probably do before you go to school, make a lot of fine-print promises (“100% employment after graduation*” *although not in your chosen field and provided you don’t mind being an unpaid intern into your late 30’s), and established industry people have basically zero respect for graduates.

      Go get a degree in business or engineering or something useful and dare-I-say, fun. That way when you finally realize the music industry is going to make you incredibly miserable, you can leap to a job that doesn’t destroy your soul.

  3. Dj Harmony

    Great article all true, i am a host on a internet radio station and we do have a lot of competition but we believe that if you have great music and understand the business in your article you did mention get a degree but often people like 50 cent e40 pitbull did not get one and still made it to the big leagues. If artists had the backbone to stop focusing on bragging on facebook and actually streamed and put more time into presentation things would change for some of them we get alot of music in but we notice Reverbnation is a selling machine it helps an artist but they will get awareness get to build a mailing list but the opportunity mill is what we get the most complaints about.while we are not a big site we feel bad that a lot of artists who can barely sing and don’t stand a chance of making it put more money and effort then those with god given talent in our opinion they should not seek a deal they should seek ownership and as said in your article knowledge is power streaming is the best route for an unknown artist

  4. Literati X

    A most aspiring article for anyone , anytime and anywhere an astute , adolescent musician should read as he or she may enter the business of entertainment . As a cardinal rule of ones and 0 ‘s on the landscape no matter what communication it is on the competitive spot leave an impression over the top of the eXtreme. . .

  5. Dae Bogan

    Excellent article. I’d add to focus on your self branding. Write a blog, add your thoughts to current events in the industry, respond to thought-leaders on Twitter. Make sure your business card and website is ready to go before networking.

    Dae Bogan
    Music Industry Pundit
    SXSW Music Mentor

  6. Name2

    #5. Yeah, everything would be hunky-dory in the music business were it not for runaway political correctness. D’Oh!

    Fortunately, there are some havens of sanity: “digital” “music” “news” sites where you can let your racist flag fly.

  7. Corporate Betch

    Go to any community college in either LA, New York or Nashville. Major doesn’t matter, pick an easy one like Communications. Get an internship with a major through your school.

    Learn Excel, Word and how to bake cookies and start bringing them in every friday.

    Be reliable and ask for more work than what you are given.

    Master Excel and start brushing up on Photoshop.

    Offer to make one sheets for the totally overwhelmed 30-something who spends half her day on Facebook.

    Repeat for 1-2 years until you get a job as a coordinator.

    The single best way to enter the music industry is to be the intern that bakes cookies and is very, very good at Excel. Trust me on this.

    • izmee

      This was my exact career path… hahaha I brought cupcakes though (gluten free, of course)

  8. Laurie Jakobsen

    “consider your risk appetite and ability to stomach extreme uncertainty” = most important thing in this overall great piece. If you need certainty, music (and tech) is not the place for you. And a note about a college degree – not having a degree is a reason for someone to pay you less – or not hire you at all – because you’re missing a major qualification for most jobs.

    • Eric

      “consider your risk appetite and ability to stomach extreme uncertainty”

      Because you’ll be an intern or roadie for the next 15 years and won’t be able to afford food on a regular basis.

  9. Ryan

    Great advice and I was told all of the above at my college when I started my music production program and followed it–especially the informational interviews and email follow ups. I’ve been out school for about 4 years and am living in LA doing music production full time (more than full time)…

    I will say, however, that none of those connections made through meeting everyone I could (and they were in LA and Nashville, face to face meetings with folks who clicked well with me and visa versa) amounted to any of the success I have here in LA now. I can say I learned a lot from them that I ended up using to be successful but I never got an phone calls and I never expected anything from them. I did find a place to live though, so I guess that’s something.

    Actually, the initial job offer I got right out of college (it’s rare, but it does happen) came from the LAST kid at school I’d ever thing I’d get a call from…it was a total “Wait, who are you again” moment. But my reputation at school lead him to believe I would fill the position well. It was a production gig that helped me get my start in LA.

    1) I would add that once you get going at a job, always find a way to make $ for your employer or at least save them money. Having the right attitude is great, but if your job pays for itself, you’ll always have a job. (That’s why even the assholes in this business seem to feed themselves well). It just is what it is…

    2) Always have a side gig ( a way to be your own boss) piano lessons, your own studio, live sound, mgmt, booking, playing out, anything…

    3) The other is never ever burn a bridge. So much of the artists I work with now in my own studio came through the very first gig and another major client of mine was someone I worked with in high school (in the middle of nowhere east coast).

    4) run your life like a business. At the end of the day, you need to pay your taxes so book keep well, you need to eat so learn to cook, you need friends so be social, you need to hustle so get your elevator pitch in order, you need online presence so learn some coding and update your profiles, learn how to put together quotes and budgets and invoices, oh, and there is always someone willing to go broke before you, so don’t compete with them, know what you are worth (and it’s always at least something) and stay in shape mentally and physically. And finally, this industry is a means to end and all work, even the work you are passionate about is a means to end, so keep your friends and family close…

    And school is essential nowadays. I’m sorry, but unless you want to learn only what you can on the job and thus limit yourself to either being an engineer or a manager or a musician or A&R guy, then you are cutting yourself real short in an ever changing industry. Many colleges offer the opportunity to develop a variety of skills, and even just basic skills and understanding in subjects like contract law, music publishing/copyright, audio recording, booking, film editing, and whatever else will really help you. It’s much easier to build on something than nothing and most places don’t expect you to be an expert when you are just starting out working for minimum wage…

    And stay positive, I’m sorry to hear from my mentors how lucrative this business was what with cocaine in radio mailers, new BMW’s, Cd’s selling off the shelves, private jets, and staying at a company for 25 years, but it’s a thing of the past and that isn’t for us millennials anyway…so tough :-p! Hope that helps!

  10. Anonymous

    My biggest piece of advice for the younger crowd who wants to be in the music industry is to make sure that they’re choosing this career path for the right reason. Unless you come from music royalty or have some serious connections, there will be many years of unglamorous grunt work involved for little to no pay. You will also have to diversify your skill set. I had to learn how to compose and produce my own music while also giving music lessons, playing gigs and working various part-time odd jobs. Please realize that even though you are nice and helpful to others, it doesn’t guarantee that they will be nice and helpful back to you. These are the people that you move to the back of your rolodex while still maintaining a cordial relationship in the event that you ever have to work with them again. You should also be willing to move to another part of the country to advance your chosen career path in the music industry – or – be willing to choose something different to do in the industry. You really do have to network, join the appropriate organizations and be nice to everybody if you want to last in the music world.

  11. Yet Anonymous Again

    If it hasnt’ been said…be the person that solves a problem for someone else. My publisher can call me for a very wide variety of styles and I can and will deliver overnight, or within a few hours as needed, I keep him happy, he keeps our shows happy, we all get paid. Be great at your craft, be reliable, be easy to work with. Being reliable and easy to work with will win over being the most talented, but you still have to be good. No one has time to wonder if you can pull it off.

  12. Eric

    I read this and I’m disappointed that there’s nothing in it about Benjamin Britten.

  13. a

    2cents: microaggressions are not a made up thing, author is a white cis fuckboy. every fucking day people invalidate my identity and my music because of who i am, and colleges are beginning to preach a culture of acceptance and intersectionality so that can stop for future generations. look up what those words mean before you put them in scare quotes lol.

    • smash cultural marxism

      But what you just said might hurt the authors feelings?

  14. Haha, thank you

    To all the people that are commenting things about how degrees are not necessary in this industry; please keep thinking that!
    I appreciate having less competition that an employer would actually hire and you can keep on flippin’ burgers at McDonalds. I think its a win-win

  15. 1

    Anybody can come up with a how to list. The truth is simply one thing: you have to be hungry for it. If you are hungry you will engage the process which ever way it takes you and ride through the suffering that normally causes the fakers to disintegrate.

    • D.A.

      I don’t think anybody can come up with a free and complete to-do list like this well-written article. It’s okay to recognize other people’s talents.


    I’m really good and I can rap like Nicki minaj or even better I learnt how to freestyle like Eminem and I have writing about 4 albums but yet I find it really hard to get into the music industry and I’m also a Nigerian, so things are hard here I gat a great voice and a great course in the university I just wish I can see a manager or producer who can really help me out, so that I can share my talent to the world . IM also on Instagram and facebook just incase love y’all

  17. double g

    am an up coming hip hop artise but have no record pls can anyone help me in this

  18. stuzah x

    Im really good im hiphop i need some help to be in music industry ..eixx i wish that my dream can come true …but i hope so ..plxxx good people can you help me also in facebook..TUMISO KIDX GAONAKALA

  19. Danilo Alencar

    Just popped up into your website, and man… this should be a paid article! Fucking great. I will be having one daughter and one son, and I feel one of them will go into music industry or similar. Thanks for you outlook. Your business will probably skyrocket.