Caller: Did you go to school for music business?
Caller: Do you have any family or friends in the industry?
Caller: Do you play instruments?
Caller: Have you previously interned at any music companies?
Caller: This is going to be really tough…
This is how my first conversation with a music industry professional went. As you can imagine, it was not one that left me feeling encouraged. I was trying to enter one of the most competitive industries and apparently I checked off none of the required boxes. My music career hadn’t even started and it was seemingly already over.
Before I go any further, I should probably give you some background on myself… I was born in Dallas, Texas. My mother was a teacher and my father worked in advertising. As I grew older, I realized that pretty much everyone around me was engineered to pursue the same path. Go to college, get your diploma, move back home and secure a stable job. If you wanted to break that pattern, you were not making the “smart” move. So to no surprise, by the time I got to college, almost everyone I knew was going down the same path as one of their parents.
I want to note that I was not pressured by my parents to follow either of their paths. To my mom’s credit (and her request via FaceTime while I was writing this), I must say that she did encourage me to play piano when I was a kid. I didn’t jump on it though. Regardless, they were plenty supportive of me pursuing what I was passionate about. I was focused on school though, and not once in all of my years prior to college was I encouraged to discover what I was truly passionate about, let alone taught how I could turn that into a career. A career in the arts was never presented as a realistic option. Neither was anything else that was outside of the box. So as predicted, when I committed to the University of Arkansas, I chose Advertising/Public Relations as my major just like my father.
However, five semesters and two internships in, I came to the realization that I was not interested in working at an advertising or marketing company where I’d be selling a product that I felt no emotional connection to. The idea of spending years and years doing that genuinely terrified me. After that, I was determined to spend all of my time inside and outside of class figuring out what I was going to do instead.
It was in this time of reflection that one truth kept presenting itself; I was obsessed with music. I always had been. It was at this point that I decided I wanted to try and find a way into the music industry. But how? I didn’t even know where to start. I began to ask around and ended up being put in touch with a friend of a friend, who was a publisher out in Los Angeles. At this point in the story, we have now arrived at the phone call I described earlier. As one can imagine, this first conversation wasn’t so encouraging. In his defense, what he told me told was true though. If you’re about to be graduating college and haven’t interned at a music company, don’t have family or friends in the industry, haven’t gone to school for music business and aren’t a musician yourself, you’ve got a pretty tough road ahead of you. That said, if this is you, I want you to know it’s not impossible. If you really want to work in this industry, you need to commit to your goal, and then take any and every opportunity that helps you get closer to it. That moment for me was when I went onto LinkedIn and changed my occupation to music. I wasn’t in the industry yet, but I knew that was where I wanted to be and that if I didn’t fully commit to it, I likely wouldn’t make any headway. After that, I began to look for anything that would help me build a resume. It's important to note that regardless of where you want to end up (management, A&R, marketing, touring, etc.), it doesn't really matter where you begin. The hardest part is simply getting started.
This is particularly the case when you’re in in the middle of Arkansas. As you can imagine, there weren’t too many music companies or artists around me. However, there were a lot of parties going on, and a big part of the partying was the music. It was at these parties where I would begin to test out my artist discovery skills. Throughout each week, I would be searching for new artists and new songs, which I would then create playlists with, and test out on people. I had always been excited to find new music and share it with others, but it really became more than that. I wanted to be ahead of the curve. I wanted to know about every artist before anyone else. I began spending lots of time scouring SoundCloud and the blogs. Each weekend (which included Thursdays because it’s college), I was testing out what I had found on all the party goers. There were two byproducts of this; (a) I began to see common characteristics between the artists and songs people reacted to and (b) people began to come to me for suggestions on music to listen to.
The latter eventually resulted in a couple of opportunities. First, I had some friends in a fraternity ask me to select and book a performer for a big party they were having. Not too long after this, the second (and more substantial) opportunity came along. I had a close friend who was investing in various industries reach out to me about an artist that he was looking to help. The artist in mind was looking to transition from writing songs for others to wholeheartedly pursuing his own project. However, he needed a lot of help with marketing and didn’t actively have anyone directing him in this area. My involvement in his career started with me helping him figure out his visual branding and strategy for social media, but as time went on, I just couldn’t help myself but to get involved in every area of his career. I soon began to secure blog placements for him, book shows, set him up with producers, etc. This was my first experience doing a little bit of everything.
It was during this time that I began my classes at YouTube University. I watched countless videos from industry experts, leaders, etc. It’s amazing how much you can learn online today if you just take the time to look. No matter what industry you’re trying to break into, I believe you should take the time to do this. In today’s world, you have the ability to gain a fundamental understanding of essentially anything. The more knowledge you walk into your first gig with, the quicker you’ll be an asset to the company and have opportunities to make a true impact. I knew that if I wanted any chance of breaking into music that I had to learn everything I could independently, so for this reason, I also read a lot of books during this time. If there were one book I would suggest every person joining the industry should read, it would be All You Need To Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman. Another favorite of mine is How Music Works by David Byrne. These are highly informative reads.
At this point, I was a senior in college, and I knew that I needed to add more to my resume while I was still in school. Through my experiences up until then, I had found that I was most interested in A&R and management. I knew that if I wanted to take any steps towards A&R that I needed to step my game up. So, I began keeping lists of all the new artists I was watching and keeping track of their growth. I also began to look for music journalism opportunities as I thought that would help document my taste and add to my resume.
Soon after, I found a couple of hype machine blogs that were looking for additional writers. After showing my taste and some examples of my writing, I was brought on as a contributing writer. This was really fun for me. I finally had a professional outlet for my music discovery. Writing and scouting for these blogs also helped me learn how to articulate what was special about the new artists I was finding, which really paid off in the long run.
That said, as graduation approached, I realized that I needed to find an opportunity where I could learn under someone with great experience as everything I had done in music so far had been me hustling and teaching myself. I needed to find a place where I could both learn and gain credibility. I also knew I needed to move to a place where the music industry was flourishing. Once I came to this conclusion, I spent every waking second looking for opportunities. I didn’t even care where I went. I knew I just had to get my foot in the door, so I applied to internships and entry-level opportunities in Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, London and more despite the fact that I had never even visited in any of these cities. In total, I reached out to over three hundred different companies.
Out of that mass outreach, I heard back from about ten companies, got into serious conversations with about five and was offered internships at three. Two were larger companies and one was a start-up, music-marketing agency in LA called Black Box. The opportunity at Black Box immediately stood out to me for several different reasons. First, I knew it was a very small company, so the likelihood of me being able to do meaningful work was much higher. Second, it was also communicated to me that they were the kind of company that would hire from within. These two aspects were very important to me as the last thing I wanted to do was move out to a new city to grab people coffee for a few months and then have nowhere to go. Third, I knew I would get the opportunity to learn directly under Livia Tortella, who had previous held the position of Co-President at Warner Bros. Records. This was the game-changer for me. As soon as I learned I would have significant access to her, I was sold.
I was offered the internship on a Friday afternoon as I was sitting in my brother’s apartment in Dallas. By the next morning, I had packed everything I owned into my beat-up Honda Civic and was driving out to California. I didn’t even want to give it a second thought. I think this is crucial when you’re pursuing your dreams. You have to do whatever it takes, even if it defies all reason and logic. I was moving out to a city I had never been to for an unpaid internship in an industry I had no true experience or connections in. I didn’t even know where I was going to live. None of that made any sense... But I knew that it was now or never.
This leap proved to be well worth the risk. Working at Black Box ended up being more fruitful than I could have ever imagined. The promise of having access to Livia was certainly followed through on. Every day I was in close-quarters with her, soaking in every bit of knowledge that I could. The work I was given during my internship certainly helped me grow, but nothing had a greater impact on me than simply being around Livia. I would listen in on her conversations with executives, watch how she problem solved, study how she articulated her thoughts, etc. I was essentially given a master class on the industry in just a matter of months. Not only was I absorbing her tendencies, but I was also getting to meet all of her relationships. This absolutely changed my life. I truly believe that nothing will have a greater impact on one’s growth than finding a quality mentor.
As I was learning and growing at Black Box, I was simultaneously taking every opportunity I could to go to industry events and shows. This is crucial for anyone looking to break into the industry. Networking is your new, full-time job. I say that because it really is all about who you know in this industry. Building your own relationships will have two major byproducts. First, you’ll immediately help open yourself up to more work opportunities. Second, and more importantly, you’ll immediately bring more value to whatever company and artists you’re working with. I took this advice very seriously. I met anyone and everyone I could through Livia and the company, but I also began to expand outside of that.
I knew that Black Box (intentionally) didn’t have someone providing creative services, as it wasn’t a core focus of the company at the time. That said, I saw this as an opportunity to show them why they needed this as a part of their offering. I continued to fulfill the role that was in front of me, but in my spare time, I began to look for opportunities to show them how my creative contribution could make a positive impact on the business. It was at this time that I started forging relationships with all sorts of different creatives, including re-mixers, producers, photographers, videographers, etc. After hours, I would show these people to Livia and detail how I thought they could be integrated into our projects. She started to notice that I not only had good taste, but that I could also transform my knowledge and relationships into value for our clients. Next thing I knew, I was making these creative suggestions to clients, and not long after that my role became creative focused and I was brought on as a full-time employee.
I had a long journey ahead (and still do), but I had somehow managed to sneak into an industry where I had no connections, formal education or training. It was a surreal moment for me; what had once been pure aspirations was now a reality. This initial phase of my career was filled with uncertainty, major financial stress and many late nights, but I can tell you now that it was well worth those struggles. I get to do what I love every day and that is incredibly fulfilling. Everyone’s path is very different, but my hope is that sharing my story can encourage those who have the dream of working in this industry and don’t know how to get started. The road ahead will not always be clear, but if you keep your head down and work hard, you can break through too. This is an industry that’s lead by passion and instincts. Go make it happen for yourself, and if you need someone to talk to along the way, feel free to reach out to me.
Dylan Bourne, Creative Director, Black Box
About Dylan Bourne
Dylan Bourne is a budding music executive hailing from Dallas, Texas, who is known for his expertise in A&R, creative and artist development. He currently holds the position of Creative Director at Black Box, a music marketing agency based in Los Angeles.