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Making it big in the music biz

A journey to a career in the music industry starts with love, passion and a desire to be a student of what is an ever-changing field.

Then learn how the business actually works.

That’s the advice from those who have decades of successful experience in managing, producing and performing music.

Ohio State alumnus Chris Woltman manages Twenty One Pilots, the Grammy Award-winning duo from Columbus, Ohio, and 2018's breakout hip hop artist NF. Woltman graduated with a degree in journalism in 1989 and had stints with a couple of major record labels before founding Element1 Music, Marketing & Management.

“Learn as much as you can about the music business and all of its facets and surround yourself by people who can teach you,” said Woltman, whom Billboard listed among six music industry powerbrokers to watch. “If you’re passionate about music, and you’re passionate about learning about the business, then you will find your lane.

“We’re at a time in the music industry where it’s tremendously vibrant again, where it has not been for a number of years. The world of streaming has breathed an amazing life back into the music business.”

Mark Rubinstein, an audio engineer who teaches classes in The Ohio State University’s Music, Media and Enterprise program, has been playing and recording music since he was a child. He worked as an audio engineer for many notable artists, including Cher, Liza Minelli, Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige.

“If you want to be in the professional music industry, whether you’re a performer or working behind the scenes, it’s important to try to understand as much as you can about how the music business works and how money flows through it,” Rubinstein said. “Learn all you can about how the industry actually works as opposed to how you think it works.”

Get grounded, get friends

Understanding publishing, licensing, what performing rights organizations do, how money flows for live performers and discerning what your place could be in that infrastructure is enormously useful, Rubinstein said.

He cautions that music performance and the music business are extremely difficult fields to break into — meaning those who plan to enter into it should also have a way to subsidize their careers until they’re established. The music industry, Rubinstein says, is contracting more as consumers’ tastes evolve away from purchasing a physical product. But there are still opportunities, he said, especially entrepreneurial ones.

“If you can create something useful to music consumers, useful to musical performers or that can be useful in the industry, there are ways of monetizing that,” Rubinstein said. “But that requires having a good idea and an ability to implement that good idea.”

Even in an “Internet-based” industry, Rubinstein said, you need to start by being where the music is being made — places such as Los Angeles, New York and Nashville. There you can find a concentration of people with similar interests and become part of a community. 

“It’s easier if you’re where the infrastructure is. It’s harder to make it happen where you are,” Rubinstein said. “Most of my work and opportunities came from people who are genuinely friends that I met through jobs.”

It may seem like common sense, Rubinstein said, but making friends and working hard are crucial elements to a successful career in music, just as they are in other industries.

Balancing the passion, the dream and the vision with the logistics and economics of a career in the music industry is a critical factor to being successful, said David Bruenger, director of Ohio State’s Music, Media and Enterprise Program and author of Making Money, Making Music.

“What we find is for people that have started out purely as performers, they’re often all about the dream and not about the numbers at all,” Bruenger said. “So the challenge for them to build a career is to be able to do both those things in some measure, and it’s often quite difficult.”

Speaking from experience

Woltman, who manages Twenty One Pilots and other artists with Element1, sees himself as the person who stands at the intersection of art and commerce.

Looking back on his more than 30 years in the industry, Woltman said his passion was a catalyst.

After deciding not to play music, he worked his way from odd jobs at the Newport Music Hall, a live music venue across from The Ohio State University Columbus campus, while he was a college student, to being a “label person” — learning all he could along the way.

“I always wanted to work for myself, and I was able to take all of that knowledge that I collected and go out and put it to work and try to build this business and brand for the artists that Element1 represents.”

Launching a career in the music business doesn’t happen overnight for many, certainly not for Twenty One Pilots.

As much as the industry has changed, much of the industry has stayed the same, he explained. The fundamental reality remains that you need great songs, great lyrics, great connections and then the ability bring that music into the marketplace, tour and build appropriate strategies for a global position.

“There is no magic key that turned everything to make this work on the global level for Twenty One Pilots,” Woltman said.

“The real core of the strategy for Twenty One Pilots was rooted in a simple idea that their body of work, not being dependent on one single for radio, is what drives discovery. And that’s been the same since the Beatles landed in the United States to bring the first real wave of the British Invasion. That discovery is one of those magical parts of what is the music business.”

In order to be successful in the field, there needs to be a balance among making music, making some kind of social contribution and having a sustainable economic model, Bruenger added.

“All three of those things have to be present. So whichever one motivates you to begin with, you have to factor the other two in,” he said.

He encourages his students at Ohio State to look at how people monetized music in the past and how streaming services such as Spotify are doing it now, as well as how live shows bring in revenue and how changing technology, such as virtual reality shows, are changing how people experience music.

“We can look at things that seem to remain persistent over time,” Bruenger said. “Today, performing live concerts continues to be the most important revenue stream in music. People live for the live shows. They make life worth living.”

Have range, get to work

While identifying what skills are needed for the specialty you want to work in is a good idea, Rubinstein said, it’s also helpful to have diverse talents and versatility.

“It hasn’t hurt me to be a generalist. I came up in Texas doing a wide variety of things. I went to New York, and I found that pretty much no one was a generalist; everyone was a specialist. And I was able to sort of get a foothold in a number of narrow specialties,” he said. “Versatility and a wide range of interests were other things that gave me some room for success — being able to do a number of things at a level high enough to market myself as that thing.”

Woltman attributes his success to hard work and staying grounded. He embraces every day as an opportunity to learn more.

“The ‘what else’ you have to do is that you have to get up every day and go to work,” Woltman said. “Being a part of the team requires a certain level of selflessness — go in and try to do the right thing every day. Be prepared to learn by your mistakes.”