The Two Ways to Succeed in the Music Industry

There’s always two ways to approach every industry: to work your way up through the ranks or to just start something your own way. The music business isn’t any exception. Although the music industry was founded with an entrepreneurial spirit, many people have still risen to positions of power through good old hard work in a company.

Jody Gerson, now the CEO of pho-jody-gerson4Universal Music Publishing Group, started her career in administration at Chappell Music, a publishing company. She moved her way into the tape room there and started to distinguish herself as someone who could find a hit. After years at Chappell Music, Gerson moved to EMI Music Publishing and later to Sony/ATV, where she signed Lady Gaga. Through every company, she solidified her reputation for being someone who could see trends before they happened and her tenacity to break an artist. Now, Gerson is the first female that is the head of a publishing company.
gif-geffen-davidDavid Geffen is another example of working your way up from the bottom. He started in the mail room at William Morris Agency until he became an agent there. Geffen left WMA to become a personal manager for clients such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Jackson Browne. His inability to get Browne signed to a record deal led Geffen to start his own record label, Asylum Records. Asylum Records signed the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and became one of the most successful labels of that time. In 1975, Geffen left Asylum to be the Vice Chairman of Warner Bros. Film Studio. After a bout with cancer, Geffen came back to start another label, Geffen Records in 1980. He left the label in 1995 and formed DreamWorks with Steven Spielburg. He retired in 2008 and has been living it up ever since.

The Entrepreneurs

The list of music entrepreneurs is a long one because the music industry has always prided itself in being an industry where the best idea wins. One of my favorite examples of a successful music entrepreneur is Jimmy Iovine.


Jimmy Iovine started his career in the studio as an engineer for the likes of John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. He worked for the New York studio, the Record Plant, until 1990 when he formed his own record label, Interscope Records. Interscope has been the home of some of the most successful artists of the past 20 years, including Eminem and Lady Gaga. Iovine started the Beats headphones company with the rapper Dr.Dre in 2008. In 2014, Apple purchased Beats and gave Iovine a position in Apple Music where he still works today. 

These are just a handful of the success stories in the music industry. Proven by these examples is that it is essential to stay true to what you know and where your individual talents are but most importantly, stay familiar with trends and where the industry is headed. Jimmy Iovine worked with rock artists in the 70’s and 80’s but saw an opportunity in hip hop music. Jody Gerson was able to identify hit songs through her work in the tape room and used that skill to work her way up in the industry. David Geffen saw a flaw in the labels and just made his own. It doesn’t matter which route you take, as long as you work hard and stay true to your own talents.

Here’s some practical advice for anyone considering the entrepreneurial path:



The next phase of the music industry: transparency

Innovation and technology have always steered the music industry from one phase to the next. Phono-records to vinyl to tape to CDs to ultimately where we are today with digital and streaming. The music industry’s history has been laden with unattainable recoupment balances, lawsuits, unpaid royalties, breakage deductions, and shelving. In layman’s terms, the industry hasn’t always been too kind to the artist. Artists have been frustrated by their dismal royalty checks from streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube. Again, the artists are getting the short-end of the stick.

Lucky for us, there are some brilliant people within the industry working to change it from within and to foster a principle of transparency. One such man is Willard Ahdritz, the CEO and found of Kobalt.

Willard Ahdritz

“Someone needs to save the industry. Someone needs to be brave, don’t you agree?”-Willard Ahdritz

We’ve become accustomed to the status quo. A record label signs an artist, has them sign a contract that they really don’t understand, invests a lot of money in them, and structures their deals so that the artist can’t ever pay them back. That’s what we’re mostly used to. Willard Ahdritz doesn’t work that way. Kobalt charges a single-digit percentage administration fee for their services. That’s unheard of in the industry. So much so that some think that Kobalt is damaging the credibility of publishing for charging so little. What Ahdritz shows is that you don’t need to take more than you need to still make valuable strides within the industry. Kobalt rose to relevance by developing a royalty portal for their clients that tracked royalties in real time and not charging the artist a fortune to use it. Kobalt has since expanded to offer global rights management, creative services, record release management, digital marketing, synch and brand partnerships, and label services.

This past summer, Kobalt acquired AMRA, the American Music Rights Association. Through their partnership, AMRA signed a deal with YouTube that sets up a system to monetize every stream. Every stream on YouTube will be accounted for and artists will have a platform that will allow them to check their royalties from YouTube in real time. This is huge step for artists that are usually kept in the dark about the technicalities of the license agreements decided for them.

The internet has created an environment of transparency. We have the information of the world at our fingertips at any given moment in the day. Long gone are the days where someone can’t google what that cross-collateralization clause is in that contract. Ahdritz has believed in honesty from the very beginning. Speaking on what he credits Kobalt’s growth to:

“Trust and transparency are the core of my offering and value — there is nothing that can change that. So even if you don’t trust me, you can trust that being honest is Kobalt’s commercial proposition. I will not lie to you, not simply because it is wrong, but because that is the foundation on which Kobalt is built and valued. And I think that vision and our decade-long mission toward transparency is now really spreading: the tipping point is here.”

Here’s a video of Ahdritz discussing his vision of transparency in 2013.


Smirke, Richard. “Exclusive Q&A: Kobalt’s Willard Ahdritz Is Demanding a Better Music Industry.” Billboard. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

A Lesson in Authenticity

In the age of the Do-It-Yourself and organic foods, it’s no wonder that music has taken on a similar mentality. As a whole, popular music has moved towards a more authentic representation, favoring full live bands to a singer dancing to a track. Those definitely still exist and they always will, but they are generally over-powered by artists with at least a little originality. Just look at some of the biggest songs from the past few years: Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” had a full band including a brass section, Macklemore’s newest “Downtown” brings funk back with trumpets, even Justin Timberlake’s most recent albums were more concentrated on the music than ever before.

With the Internet, we are able to see so much of an artist so credibility is key in this age. We want to know who an artist is and why they make the music that they make. Thirty years ago, it wouldn’t be an insult to claim someone didn’t write their own music. In most genres today, a claim that you don’t write your own music could prompt you to fire back with a series of diss tracks.

If anything feels forced or tortured, the artist automatically loses credibility.

I think that as a whole, we as an audience are smarter than the major labels think that we are. We might listen to a catchy song on the radio, but that isn’t something that we are going to support with our money. The biggest artists over the past few years have been very artistically talented ones (Adele, Sam Smith, Hozier, Pharell, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce).

Let’s look at genres.

Country Music

luke bryan
There will always be the Luke Bryans and Florida Georgia Lines in country music. It’s catchy and it’s fun to dance to. But last year saw the artistic rise of Miranda Lambert. She has a voice, she has something to say, and everyone from the small town to the Grammys has noticed.


The Hip-Hop genre is a prime example of this. Credibility is fundamental to a hip-hop artist’s success. There will always be artists like Fetty Wap that dominate the airwaves with some contrived song that everyone loves dancing to. It’s another thing to have the street credibility and lyrical genius of Kendrick Lamar. Fetty Wap will probably only put out one successful album in his career, while Kendrick already has two under his belt.


It seems almost bizarre to put these two in the same category. Every album of Selena’s has been different. She’s trying for a more grown-up, sexy sound now that’s working for the charts and what kind of music is hot right now. By no means is Selena going to be an evergreen artist that can sell out arenas 30 years from now. Her whole appeal is her youth. Adele doesn’t play by any of those rules. It’s been a few years since her last album and people still talk about her and her new album (that doesn’t have a release date yet!) is already the source of much discussion. Adele makes music that is timeless that anyone can listen to. No matter your age, you can’t discriminate against the talent that is Adele.

Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but maybe I have a point. The transparency of the Internet has made it more possible for truly artistic people to shine. While bad music still exists, it’s always out-shined by true artistry.

Five Best Nashville Venues for Songwriters

1. The Basementbasement

The Basement and the Basement East cater to unsigned and indie artists. These are hot venues for new artist showcases. Each month, there is a New Faces night that features brand new artists to the Nashville music scene. This is a great place to catch singer-songwriters before they’ve got the attention of a major label or publisher.

Come here if you’re searching for the next The Avett Brothers, Ingrid Michaelson, Fiona Apple

bluebird USE THIS ONE2. The Bluebird Cafe

The Bluebird Cafe is a legend in this town. You can name anyone that has been successful in country music and they’ve played here. Thanks to shows like Nashville and people like Dave Grohl and Steven Tyler playing here within this past year, it’s hard to get in here most of the time. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth the hassle. The Bluebird is known for having its artists play “in the round,” which essentially means that all of the artists are in a circle with just a microphone and a guitar and they go around in the circle playing a song each. This isn’t something that you can get often. The opening shows that start at 6:00 p.m. are a great place to scope out potential new songwriters or just a really great song.

Come here if you’re searching for the next: Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Eric Church

3. The Listening Room Cafelistening room

The Listening Room has taken off as an event space used to host showcases and to debut many new artists. Every Monday, the Listening Room is home to the Song Suffragettes, a group of Nashville’s best up-and-coming female songwriters. This is a really great night to spot promising local talent.

Come here if you’re searching for the next: Miranda Lambert, Hunter Hayes, Kacey Musgraves

4. Whiskey Jam at Winners Bar every Monday night

Anyone who’s anyone in country music has played Whiskey Jam. It isn’t just a weekly concert, it’s a tradition. Everyone from Dierks Bentley to the next buzz-worthy band, Old Dominion, have called Whiskey Jam home. Most artists that play Whiskey Jam have had a cut or two but are still pursuing careers as artists. For scoping out future country radio number ones, Whiskey Jam is the spot.

Come here if you’re looking for the next: Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan

5. Acme Feed & Seed

acmeI included Acme Feed & Seed on this list because it brings something a little different from the rest of the locations on this list. Acme is the place to go to discover local artists from the indie and rock genres. Most of the week is filled with artists playing covers to please the load of tourists that charge through the doors. However, Tuesday nights are for the locals. The blog No Country for New Nashville curates an independent music night featuring new, unsigned artists. For a publisher looking to sign some indie acts for synchronization, this is the place to go on a Tuesday night.

Come here if you’re looking for something that doesn’t sound like anything else.