Are you curious what it’s like to work in A&R, sync licensing, music supervision, music journalism, or as a guitar instructor or music school owner? We’ve talked to successful people in these fields, who all happen to be artists. Here, they share an inside look into their work and ways to get started.
Working as a music journalist or editor (where you manage other writers, field story pitches, and edit copy) requires a deep love for music, writing, and reading. Taking classes to practice the craft of journalistic writing is a good first step. Music journalism tends not to be very lucrative, so you’ll need passion, a knack for creating story ideas that publications accept, and it helps if you can write quickly, yet effectively (combining craft and inspiration). Research and fact-checking are also essential skills, and you have to be able to meet deadlines. Most writers start with smaller or more local publications to build their portfolio of writing samples and work their way up.
Melissa Clarke is the managing editor at Americana Highways, a blog for Americana and roots-rock music. “There’s an avalanche of demand for coverage in a music magazine, but the financial payoff is a bit elusive, so it takes a level of scrappiness to stick with it long enough to turn a corner, grow the business, and begin to be self-supporting,” she says. “My dream is to write, listen to music, and photograph. The music business is full of kindred spirits who know what it takes to navigate our society in pursuit of a dream.”
Clarke also has a Ph.D. in philosophy, which has served her as an editor. “Years of researching solidified skills for navigating today’s online world, writing and grading honed my editing skills, and teaching gave insights on how to network and talk to people at different levels,” she says.
Music supervision involves overseeing the creative and legal uses of music in a piece of media (film, television, advertising, and video games, etc.). To learn more, we spoke to Eric Kalver, an award-winning music supervisor formerly of Activision Games, and also a drummer and composer. “We work with producers and marketing departments to make sure that all music uses are placed within the production, and we also work with labels and publishers to negotiate the license and pay them,” he says.
Having an understanding of music licensing and administrative skills is very important for the job. “Many study music business or take music supervision classes during or after college,” Kalver says. “Getting a job as a music coordinator or administrative assistant will help train you on how to eventually become a music supervisor.”
To feature a song or composition in a visual media form, you need to obtain a music synchronization license—aka sync license—from the copyright holder (usually the composer or publisher).
Brandon Schott is the senior director of licensing at Concord Music, a creative rights company, and he’s also a singer-songwriter:
“I head up Concord Music’s music clearance and licensing department, leading a team that clears our diverse catalog for various TV, film, advertising, and sample projects,” he says. “As a songwriter and performer, music publishing seemed like a holistic fit for me, and I started my journey to sync at Warner/Chappell’s copyright department, learning the ins and outs of publishing before gravitating towards film and TV specifically. I remember seeing the ‘Tiny Dancer’ scene in Almost Famous back in the late ‘90s and was completely transfixed with the power of marrying music with image.”
“Someone in my field needs to have a firm understanding of the organization of a music publisher or a record label, be an advocate for creators, and have a creative passion for the various visual mediums,” Schott says. “It’s quite a rush to see the fruits of our labor play out on the big or small screen.”
To become a great guitar or bass teacher, you need to enjoy helping people to express and empower themselves through music. A talent for breaking down information helps, and also being patient, encouraging, trustworthy, and able to read different people quickly and get what inspires and motivates them.
Some teaching jobs require a bachelor’s degree in music performance or music education, if you’re expected to teach students from beginners to advanced and use method books to teach note reading and music theory. But there are many great teachers who run other kinds of music schools successfully.
Krystle Baller is the founder of Pachyderm Music Lab in Charlotte, NC, which offers private lessons, “Lady Rockstars” group classes, “babyPUNK” classes for little kids, and more. She’s also the bassist of Hey Richard.
“The key to being a successful instructor is building genuine human connections,” Baller says. “Be present for people and listen to them the way you listen to a song you want to learn. This makes people know they are valued, and their confidence will grow in time. Loved ones see the change in students after having lessons with me, and everyone naturally spreads the word.”
Mandy Rowden is the founder of Girl Guitar in Austin, TX, and also a singer-songwriter. Her school offers guitar, songwriting, and band classes for women 21 and up and group classes for teens and kids. Rowden’s teaching concept focuses on the communal aspect of playing music.
“I’ve kept women coming and, more importantly, returning to Girl Guitar for nearly 15 years by reminding them that music is so much more fun when it’s shared, and that the sense of community around playing music can be just as rewarding as the notes being played,” she says.
A&R (Artists & Repertoire)
Most people have vague ideas of what an A&R division does beyond scouting talent. To get a better grasp, we spoke to Greg Sowders, senior vice president of A&R and catalog at Warner Chappell Music, one of the world’s largest music publishing companies. Sowders is also the drummer of The Long Ryders.
“People confuse A&R with research,” he says. “Searching Spotify and trying to craft algorithms for something that’s moving on TikTok is a research project, and that’s very important for what we do, because the age of sending demo tapes, your CDs, or going to see a band at a club is different… it’s not quite like that anymore.”
“But research is only a part of it… pure A&R is a creative pursuit. Relationships are number one in this field. There will be artists, writers, producers, managers, attorneys, A&Rs, or labels sending talent your way. As an A&R person, you have to assess the talent to see if it’s a flash in the pan—and we publish lots of single hits—or if it’s a career writer, producer, or artist. If it’s the latter, we figure out how we can take them to the next level or get them started. Maybe it’s by seeing who they can collaborate with, or if it’s an artist, who can produce them. We figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are and where they fit on the roster. Do we have too much rock? Too many rappers? Too many producers and not enough top-line writers? As an A&R for a publishing company, you assess where your writer might fit on your roster, and where they fit in the songwriter, producer, or artist community. Will they write songs that are relevant? Will they write for other artists? How can you convince them to try different things? That process has been very similar over the years.”
According to Sowders, the roles of A&R at a record label or publishing company have many things in common:
“As an A&R person at a label, you’re signing an artist, but you still need to have good relationships with songwriters, producers, and music publishers. In the world we live in now, most artists do collaborate. They tend not to write 100% of their own material. So that person has to know people like me, and vice versa. I’ve always worked with artists that are songwriters rather than just pure songwriters. If I sign an artist before they have a label deal, I have to decide which label would be good for them. And if they’re on a new label, I have to assess if it’s a good partner that can promote their music. Finding good partners, good writers, a label, manager, a big booking agent… it’s hard to do what I do.”
An entry-level position in A&R, such as an A&R assistant, offers many creative opportunities, even if you’re learning the business from the ground up.
“Assistant is a good place to start because you’ll learn how to do admin, keep calendars, do writer camps, and learn how to interact with managers, attorneys, songwriters, executives, and more,” Sowders says. “Everybody is creative in this team, so even if you might be doing some of the logistics, you’re also listening to songwriters, putting collaborations together, and trying to bring in talent. Whether it’s me or the young woman who works for me, who knows where the next hit will be coming from?”
There are many ways to get started in A&R, but you need to be very driven, clever, and resourceful.
“People can have all sorts of backgrounds: college intern, club rat, songwriter, drummer… there’s no rule,” Sowders says. “Usually, there’s a reference or word of mouth that they’ve worked with someone we know. I found my way in from playing in bands in clubs to becoming a senior A&R guy for one of the world’s biggest music publishers. People did help me along the way, but you have to be resourceful and do a lot of it on your own. I never went to school for it. I found my way. You have to use your intuition and skills as a human to network, get in there, and follow your dream. It’s supposed to be hard. It weeds out people who aren’t committed. I never had a plan B. You have to want it more than anything else.”
Nikki O’Neill is a recording artist, guitar instructor, and music journalist.