An open letter first-year music business students

Dear first-year music business students –

Let me begin by commending you for the decision to pursue a college degree. I’m sure prior to arriving on campus your plan to take a scholarly approach to understanding the music business was met with questions, confusion, and maybe even a bit of resistance on the part of your family (they only want the best for you, I promise).

If any of you reading this still believe a college degree guarantees a career in your chosen field know that is a lie. Just as there are countless musicians aspiring to spend their life performing and recording there is an equal number of people vying for the very limited number of paid positions on the business side of the entertainment industry. The competition is fierce, and it is growing increasingly tough with each passing day. You success in college will no doubt give you a leg up starting out, but it is by no means a golden ticket. You will have to fight for every bit of success you find in music, and there is simply no getting around that.

I’m writing you today because there is one lesson no professor could teach me, and learning it has made all the difference in my own journey through this industry. The next two to four years of your life could very well determine the decade or decades that follow, but the deciding factor will most likely not be your performance in the classroom. What will define your career after college is how you utilize the free time you are afforded by pursuing a degree. There will never be another time in your adult life where you have the freedom you will experience during your college years. Some see this as cause for celebration, and to some extent it is, but those taking their future seriously will recognize it as an opportunity to explore the business, find their passion, and begin developing a presence in the music business.

As you head into the fall semester I want to encourage your curiosity about the entertainment business. Don’t worry about landing your dream job just yet. Instead, worry about understanding how people do that job and what separates those who succeed in that skill set from those who do not. Reach out to those already doing the work you wish to do and ask for their story. Listen more than you speak. Learn to ask questions. Not general inquiries, but specific questions geared toward the day-to-day life of those doing the job you desire. Shadow them. Intern for them. Make your name known to the people in the field you wish to enter, and make sure to do so in a way that speaks to your professionalism.  

There will never be a job opportunity in the music industry where employment is determined by your GPA. In eight years of post-grad life the subject has never once come up in an interview, nor has an employer asked for many details related to the classes I took. Employers don’t care what you learned, but rather how you have applied the knowledge your degree claims you gained. It may sound corny to you now, but the ‘show’ in show business applies to aspiring professionals as much as it does musicians. People need to see proof of your talent before they will feel comfortable giving you money to live your dreams. This goes for entrepreneurs as much as people who wish to join already successful brands. No one is going to take a chance on you until you take chances yourself, and the time to do that is right now. Start a blog. Find a young artist or group you believe in and do everything you can to help them gain recognition. Hand out fliers for a venue. Book shows at a local coffee shop. Start small, but start nonetheless.

You also need to network. This can be difficult for people, especially those who believe themselves to be shy or otherwise introverted, but it is an essential component of success in the music business. Everyone who gets anywhere does so because they of their ability to network. You may feel intimidated when contacting professionals, but keep in mind they were once just like you. Nobody enters the music business without first being a fan, and that shared fandom connects us all. Reach out to the people who are helping your favorite artists succeed and let them know you recognize the work they have done. I also urge you to connect with those in your class, as well as others just starting out. Together you could build the next company that revolutionizes the industry, but at the very least you’ll have someone to turn to when things get tough (and they will get tough). No one succeeds in this industry on their own. Find like-minded people and do what you can to lift them up. They, in turn, will do the same for you.

Lastly, pay attention to the industry at large. You may be passionate about a particular genre or scene, but understand you may one day find yourself working in a completely different area of the music business. This industry is constantly evolving, and you too will evolve in time. The artists that inspired you to pursue this dream will retire or go on hiatus, ushering in new scenes and sounds that we cannot yet begin to imagine. When that happens, and it will happen, you will need to adapt if you hope to continue working in music. Keep an open mind, work hard, and you will go far.

Do not wait for this industry to come to you because it won’t. If you truly want this, and your decision to take on student loan debt tells me you do, then you have to chase this dream with everything you have in you. I believe in you.

James Shotwell is a ten-year music industry veteran and the Director of Customer Engagement for Haulix. You can find him on Twitter.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.