Jeff Rabhan is the chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). A seasoned writer, music industry executive, manager and consultant, Jeff got his first job in the music industry fresh out of journalism school, when he wrote articles for music magazines such as Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe. During his over 20-year career in the music industry, he has worked in almost every area of the music industry, with artists that have earned over a dozen Grammy Awards and sold hundreds of millions of records, including Kelly Clarkson, Lil’ Kim, DMX and Jermaine Dupri.
I recently got to sit down with Jeff and talk to him about his experience in the music industry , the value of a well-rounded music business program and some advice he has for aspiring artists and executives that want to achieve success in the modern music climate.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Jeff. Tell me a little bit about your experience in the music business.
My first job was when I came out of school as a journalism major. I did some writing for Rolling Stone and Spin. I also did some freelance work for The Source, Vibe and some other magazines before I moved from New York City to California, where I did A&R and soundtracks for Atlantic and Elektra. After that, I did some music supervision, A&R consulting and managing. I also worked at HITS writing two columns. One was called “Wheels and Deals,” which was a service to the A&R community. The other was called “Shoots and Scores,” which was a film music tip sheet as well. I was a partner at a company called The Firm for five years as a manager. I also had my own management company and a label through Universal.
Over the years, I have worked with artists including Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson, Kelis, Everlast, Kelly Rowland, Jermaine Dupri, Lil’ Kim and DMX.
What does your position at NYU entail?
I am the chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. I oversee all the faculty, the curriculum, admission, etc. for this program, which is the premier training ground for tomorrow’s music industry entrepreneurs. We train executives, digital marketers, techpreneurs, artists and producers. The curriculum is very holistic in the sense that everybody has to learn all the different areas – business, production, history and criticism – in order to be as well versed in all the different areas of the business as possible. You have to be as informed and educated as possible regardless of which area of the business you want to go into.
You and I are peers age wise. We both came out of NYU, which seems like it puts you a year ahead of other folks, because you’re already ensconced in the industry you want to be in by virtue of being downtown in New York City. In the mid 1990s I found that after a year of interning at record companies some of the music business school graduates ended up reporting to me, even when they had come straight out of a music business program. Today, it seems that in order to get your foot in the door in any major music company, you need to have a music business degree. Is this true?
That’s a very good question. There have been music business programs around for a long time. A majority of the music programs are centered around conservatory training, and there is an audition component that is required to get in. We don’t do that, and we never have. We’re the only music business program of any in the country that does not require an audition. I think what that does is attract a different type of kid. You don’t necessarily have to play an instrument to be in the music business. A lot of us in the music industry don’t play instruments; we just happen to love music. When you create an environment where there is an audition, you’re taking a huge part of the population out of the equation.
I don’t think you need to have a music degree or a music business degree to get your foot in the door in the music industry, but it sure helps. There are a lot of different ways to get in. But in today’s industry, you really do have to know how to do a lot of different things in order to be successful. The jobs are still there. But the job descriptions have changed. When an artist manager comes out of a program and knows how to engineer and produce records, that has a lot of value. For me, as a manager, it took me 15 years of knocking around to figure out which buttons did what, and I still don’t really know.
I think there is also a great synergy for an artist to understand the subtleties of business and marketing in order to put together business plans. Those are skills that are very important and without question put you ahead of the game. There’s always going to be room for the hustler – the person who works hard and is out on the street making it happen. That’s what makes the music industry great. It’s not like the world of banking where everybody has an MBA or a finance degree. People come from all different places in the music industry. But a music business degree definitely puts you a little bit ahead.
I find in the consulting and teaching I do that I end up teaching very basic business and marketing skills. Which tools do you feel are essential for people walking out of your program?
There are a few areas that are important. So much is happening in terms of the way records are made. Therefore, I think everyone should have – and everyone who graduates does have – a good understanding of a lot of recording software, like Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live and Reason. Those are skills that everybody needs to and should have if they’re going to be involved in music in any way. That’s really how a lot of records are made.
On the history and criticism side, I think you have to have a really good grasp of popular music, its evolution, sound, the technology and the economy surrounding that as well as what was happening in the world at the time when specific types of music was being produced. For example, how can you talk about the music of the 1960s without understanding the Vietnam War, the “Summer of Love” and other things of that nature? I think making that connection is very important.
A skill that is rapidly diminishing is learning how to articulate and understand what it is you hear. That really falls into every area of music. You have to know how to write. And in the Twitter Age, people don’t write the way they used to. But if you know how to use words, it helps you communicate your lyrics as an artist, communicate with the artist as a producer and as a manager, it helps you communicate with everyone you have to deal with.
On the business side, you have to understand the fundamentals of all the different areas of the music business, from publishing to marketing, to management, to how records are distributed, released, made, marketed, etc. That’s going to be the building block that helps you discover your passion and what you want to do. Without a great understanding, it’s going to be difficult to excel in any area.
When I was in my early 20s and starting to join the work force, everyone wanted to be in A&R. Is there an area that a lot of people in the program wants to be in now or does it vary?
That’s a really great question, and I’m not sure that there’s one answer. The thing that’s interesting about the kids in our program is that a lot of them are hyper intelligent. Our average kid comes in with a 3.6 GPA and a 1360 SAT score. A lot of these people are very entrepreneurial types and very interested in launching their own ventures. They are also interested in really talking to their audience in a niche sort of way. For example, they are interested in sub-genres of hip hop or in alt rock or in what is happening in the Brooklyn scene. We also have a number of kids that are interested in vinyl-only companies.
A lot of kids are interested in launching their own ventures, because, for them, the consumption level is still very high. They’re not thinking of building an internationally-scalable business; they’re interested in continuing to make a living in the music business doing something they love, which is the exact opposite philosophy that a lot of people getting into the music 25 years ago had. Those people wanted to take over the world.
There has been a lot of criticism of music business programs in general. Critics have said these programs may be preparing people for jobs that might not exist in an industry that might not support them. As far as I’m concerned, just because I point somebody towards the diving board and teach them how to dive doesn’t mean I’m helping them jump; it just means I’m protecting them should they decide to jump. Do you think the business will be able to sustain the many music business students that are out there right now?
That’s a fair and accurate question. You have to be nuts not to evaluate the value of a music industry degree during this time, not only as a bright-eyed 17-year old applying to schools, but also as a parent. You have to evaluate it, because you’re spending a lot of money on a college education when you don’t know what’s out there; it really is the great unknown. We still don’t know what the music industry’s going to look like in four or five years. It’s a huge leap.
The thing that’s most important about what we do – and I can’t speak for other programs – is that from the moment kids enter our program, we’re preparing them for their exit. We have done an amazing job of blurring the line between academia and the professional world. I hate when people say “the real world.” A lot of our kids are working two jobs and are in bands along with being in school. It’s real. I don’t know how to separate my “real” from their “real.” It’s all real.
We operate our program like a professional space: Our studio is run like a professional space; our classes are run like a professional space and all our faculty members are working professionals. We don’t have career teachers here. What you get is an experience which has prepared you for your exit. If kids that have graduated from our program are sending out resumes waiting to be discovered, we’ve failed. That doesn’t happen here. It does happen in other programs. I think a lot of our success has to do with the way we’ve been set up and also our location. I don’t care if you’re the greatest hip hop artist of all time; if you don’t know how to write a business plan, make a presentation, sell yourself and if you don’t know the ins and outs of the business, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I think schools that don’t teach you to do that are missing the boat.
You’ve worn a lot of different hats in the music industry. Is there any general advice you have for executives or artists about which areas they should be focusing on if they want to make it?
I think knowing how to communicate ideas and articulate what it is you hear and express yourself are all critical skills. The business is changing. We’re probably in year five or six of a ten-year storm. It’s going to be different; it’s not going to be the way it used to be. One of the reasons I took this job is because I got tired of people talking about “the good old days.” I’m too young to talk about the “good old days.” My best days are ahead of me. And there’s more music, and more ways to get it and distribute it and more methods of understanding what other people like than there have ever been before. And that creates opportunity.
I think you have to find what you love and give it 110 percent. Those things never change. You just have to go for it. Most people get into music because it’s what they love, and they don’t consider it to be a way of getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. People want to make a living doing what they love. If you approach it in that way, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
You can read more about Jeff Rabhan by visiting his personal website. He also has a book coming out entitled What You Can Do in the Music Business. To learn more about NYU’s music business program, check out the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music website.