Schooling the Music Biz

Schooling the Music Biz
What do you need to become a rocket surgeon? A high school diploma, a BSc, maybe a BEng, for sure an MD and a couple of PhDs. But the music business ain't rocket surgery. Who needs post secondary education to, like, promote a show or put out a record? The answer depends on how successful you want to be, and how many rookie mistakes you think you can make (and there are plenty to be made) before you totally have to move back into your parents' basement.

Certainly a large number of important and successful people working in the Canadian music business get by on talent and determination. And that's a wonderful thing: the fact is, it's incredibly difficult to "make it big" in this industry, and so above all else, you've got to have passion and drive to survive. But having an industry built on passion rather than knowledge can lead to some serious industry-wide skills deficits.

"There is a certain lack of professionalism in the music industry that sets it apart from other industries," says Shauna De Cartier, a U of A MBA grad who is founder and president of Six Shooter Records (, a thriving independent label and artist management company. "I am not talking about what people wear or how they speak, but the lack of professional designations, mentorships, and formal training that happen in other fields. The music industry tends to be populated by independent managers and labels who are trying to find their own way, without the training and support that a corporation or a professional organization would have in other industries. This is made even more challenging because music is such a youth-driven environment... new industry members often enter the field without any real experience and transferable skills from another industry."
Educational programs geared toward the music industry are comparatively new. It can be argued that the reason for this is directly connected to the digital revolution that began in the '80s. Before digital technology made music recording affordable, power in the music industry was concentrated mainly among major labels and a few indies who could afford the daunting expenses of recording and releasing music. Apart from the technical trades, you really didn't need to have a specialized music industry program to train people who were going to end up working for one of five companies. Music business executives were educated like every other kind of business exec, in business schools, law schools and so on. Or they had uncles in the biz.

But the indie music explosion starting in the late '80s changed all that. If you could record a decent-sounding album in your buddy's basement, and you could figure out how to get it pressed, packaged and distributed, then ta-da! You ran a label! Of course, you probably made six thousand mistakes along the way, and it's that experience that ultimately launched many of the music industry programs available today.

This year, the Harris Institute ( marks 20 years in audio and music business education. Says founder and music industry veteran John Harris, "The consensus view [of our 68 faculty members] is that their students are learning in one year what it took them ten years to learn by trial and error."
Including both technical and business programs, there is now a range of options in Canada, from community college programs to private colleges to degree-granting universities. You should consider a robust curriculum and cost of attendance as starting points. Beyond that, probably the most important criterion will be whether attending this school can get you a job in your chosen field.

Good schools will be happy to provide names of alumni who have gone on to success in the business; indeed, many of them will post alumni names on their websites. Schools should also be able to provide you with placement statistics stating what percentage of their alumni end up employed in their chosen fields, and how long it took them to get there.

Rather than just shipping out an application, you should take the time to research the school, in person if possible. A good school can arrange a tour of the facilities and a meeting with a curriculum director or leading instructor before you decide to apply. If you can't get there in person, make a phone appointment with the department head. In addition to questions about the program, ask if they can refer you to any alumni who have agreed to speak to prospective students.

Like any other business or trade school, a good music business program should have a strong practical focus. Ideally, its instructors will have demonstrable experience in the music business, so take the time to review staff bios, which will also be posted on the website or provided in the admissions package. Diversity in courses offered is also incredibly important. As John Harris puts it, "The digital revolution ended an era of specialization in the music business. People are expected now to have a much broader range of knowledge and the number of areas of expertise has grown exponentially." So it's not good enough to focus simply on artist management: you also need exposure to traditional and viral marketing, media training, contract negotiation and so on.

The music industry in Canada is very much a "who you know" business. It could be argued that who you know is just as if not more important than where you went to school. So, it's important to choose a school that offers internships and networking opportunities within the music business. These should also be featured in the school's information packages. Bearing in mind the old adage that "those who can't do, teach," why not go the extra step and research the businesses that the school is partnering with. The Canadian music business is chock-a-block with "players" whose claim to fame is one album nobody heard; these may not be the best guys to teach you how to get a hit.

The music business is above all else a business, and so it's absolutely worth taking a general business or commerce degree. Any program that can teach you how to write and make a budget, how to comport yourself in a negotiation, and how to run your business like a business, will give you a valuable skills set. As a proud Canadian, you need to know how to write a kick-ass grant, how to spend the money when you get it, and how to report responsibly on the results.

Finally, if school isn't in the cards, check out continuing education offered by your local arts council, provincial music association (shout-out to Manitoba Music for its excellent workshop series), or professional trade association or funding body (FACTOR, SOCAN, SAC, AFM et al). And you can learn a lot and make valuable contacts by attending the workshops and seminars offered at conferences and festivals.