Too often, following your dreams comes with a hefty price tag. Breaking into a career in the music industry is billed as coming with a lot of sleepless nights, dead ends, exploitation, and worse.
According to Drew de Leon, The Digilogue’s Co-founder and Head of Marketing, and Ian Rifkin, Head of Music Careers, we don’t have to suffer for our dream jobs. Driven by a community-focused ethos, Drew, Ian, and The Digilogue connect hungry upstarts with music and tech companies, all while building a system of music creatives who work together for the betterment of the culture at large. In sum, The Digilogue helps you break through, network, and get paid to do what you love.
As 2020 draws to a close, Drew de Leon and Ian Rifkin call me up to give me—and everyone reading—the ultimate guide to looking for a career in music.
How important is community to what you’re building with The Digilogue?
Drew de Leon: We stress community versus industry. I didn’t have a mentor when I first started as a manager, and I had to learn on my own. It was a lot of trial and error. So, in 2016, we didn’t just want to create events for people to network. We wanted to create [events] where everyone that loved music could meet without any reservations of who they are or what their title is. It’s about music and learning; I wanted to create parity.
We’ve all been to industry events where it feels clique-ish and cold. I wanted to change that with The Digilogue events. Community is super important because there’s a misconception of what the music business is.
Ian Rifkin: Same position as Drew, I struggled hard to find my first internship in the music industry. I was feeling sidelined and didn’t know how to make connections. There weren’t resources available [for me]. It’s important to me, now, as I work so closely with students and recent graduates. We’re finding people who are dedicated to pursuing careers in music but are struggling to find community [with] how competitive the industry is. Having a place they can go and call their community, [where they can] share and create opportunities… I wish something like this had existed when I was early in my career, but I’m glad it exists now.
Backing up, what makes someone cut out for a career in the music industry? People hear I’m in music and think I never sleep, know lots of famous people, and have to be super cutthroat. But that’s not the whole picture, right?
Ian: Drew, you’re guilty of not sleeping, I think!
Drew: There’s a lot of perceptions. One of our designers, before she joined and met me, she had a mentor that said she’s too nice and shouldn’t be in music. For her, that stood out. “Why can’t I be nice? I’m talented, so why can’t I be nice?” I’ve seen both sides of it, working at a label, where there is the side where you work a lot of hours, and it can be very cold. At the same time, there are people you build strong friendships with because you’re in the trenches, working every day. I remember working at Def Jam, and it felt like it was a dorm. We would stay late, laugh, and have camaraderie. People wanna win together.
Ian: To add, obviously, you have to be passionate about music. As casual as it is in appearance, when you look at the optic differences between working at an investment bank versus a record label… That doesn’t mean [music industry workers] aren’t grinding just as hard as people in venture capital firms. People will assume [music] is all glamorous and exciting, which it is, but there’s nothing there that’s taking away from how hard people are working to put projects together.
If you want to get into the music business because you want red carpets and private jets, I would advise you to do something else. There are easier ways to make a lot of money. If you’re genuinely passionate about projects and relationships, and doing it in service of a product you would be paying attention to even if you weren’t getting paid, those are the people who succeed.
How important is it to have your net cast wide when you are looking for a music industry job?
Ian: It’s a fun, sexy job, at a glance. As much competition as there is, I would advise you to take the opportunities that come your way. I probably wouldn’t share that advice outside of the music industry because I do believe you should like what you do. But the reality of the situation is, most people don’t end up in their first job forever. So many departments within music companies have such crossover; there is a lot of room for mobility.
You’re gonna be an assistant somewhere, and more important than anything is you get in the door, show them how invaluable you are, and work your ass off. And make an impression! Your second job is something that comes from recognition. Pursue all opportunities.
Drew: It’s important to be intentional, as well. You need to do your homework with the people you reach out to.
Should people lower their expectations as they start searching for a career in music?
Drew: It’s a question of being able to do your homework in terms of the music world. There’s a lot of popularized roles, and you see these roles talked about all the time. Everyone wants to be a manager, but there’s other roles people can be passionate about—finance, law, marketing, data. We just wanna be able to expand that perspective. Even when it comes to writing! There’s not just one or two roles available.
How does someone set themselves up for success when they land their first music industry gig?
Ian: You can’t be too hard on yourself. It’s scary being the youngest in an office setting, in any industry. Your first role, you’re gonna screw up. You have to accept that and forgive yourself and get over it quickly and learn from your mistakes. You have to ask a lot of questions and can’t be afraid to make decisions. Lack of communication and timidness is a recipe for disaster. People are forgiving. We’re all humans.
Be nice to people! This isn’t whatever TV show where someone works in entertainment and is kind of a jerk. That’s not real life. Most people who are successful are also nice people. In a business that’s so reliant on relationships, those relationships follow you for your entire career.
Drew: It’s important to find out who, in those early weeks [at the job], can be your early champion. You reach out to [a potential mentor] for questions. I’ve experienced that with a lot of our interns, and now they’re young digital managers. Entry-level, recognize who enjoys talking to you and wants to lean in.
Then, having a team mentality is super key. It’s really the person who is adding value behind the scenes and helping people [succeed.] You wanna be missed when you’re not there.
Below, please find their top 10 tips for finding music careers.
You don't have to only be an A&R or Artist Manager. Whether you are into marketing, operations, data, law, finance, etc., there are jobs in the music business that require those skills.
Network laterally. Don’t just reach out to the senior executives. Make an effort to connect with people who are earlier in their careers and have [most] recently experienced a transition into the work environment. They will be able to offer more relevant tips as to the realities of starting out in the music business and will likely have more time to connect. And make sure to do your research before reaching out. If they were featured on a podcast you listened to, or if you attended the same school or have mutual connections, mention it.
Apply for internships early during your junior and senior years. The longer you wait, the more competition you will face.
Proactively educate yourself! Listen to music business podcasts. Attend lectures. Read books, industry trades, and blogs. Continuously seek out opportunities to learn from those who are willing to share their knowledge. There are tons of free resources available.
Don’t box yourself in. Remember that your first job won’t be your only job. Take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to showcase your work ethic and build relationships. It is common for people to move throughout different positions at a company over the course of their careers. As someone just starting out, there are likely jobs you don’t even know about yet but will be interested in once you have been exposed to them.
Connect with a mentor. It can be someone who just started out in the business or an experienced professional, but most importantly, build a genuine relationship rather than a transactional relationship.
Don’t fall into the “peer envy” trap. It’s easy to get stressed when friends and classmates may be receiving job offers months before graduation. It’s also important to recognize that historically, the music industry recruits on a needs basis, which means open positions are not planned a year in advance but rather weeks in advance, so expect to do the majority of your interviewing after you have graduated and are available to work full-time.
Don’t wait for opportunities. Create them yourself. Don’t be afraid to branch out as an entrepreneur and create something on your own or with peers. If you are passionate about something, whether it’s building playlists, designing merch, managing indie artists, etc., channel that passion into a side project that will allow you to gain real experience while building your portfolio and network.
Fail fast. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; everyone does. What’s important is that you recognize and take ownership of missteps and learn from them so as to best avoid repeating them.
Your reputation is your resumé. Music is a relationship-based business. Whether it’s your VP or the intern, treat everyone with respect!