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.
(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.
#13. Avoid the Horrible Qualities of Youth.
(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).