Music is changing, Yale grads are there

Unlike the professions that tend to attract Ivy League graduates in droves, careers in music tend to be slow-starters. Many Yale grads that are also aspiring musicians have had to exercise the virtue of patience in the time since their graduation.

“Both music and journalism are currently in the shitter,” Theo Spielberg ’10 said in a phone interview. “Right now I’m doing a lot of sitting around and recording songs on my guitar and pursuing several music journalism jobs.”

This is a common situation for musicians regardless of the state of the economy. It is generally accepted among music snobs that bands must ‘cut their teeth’ or prove themselves in a local scene before success is won. It is understood that a newcomer to any company, especially one dealing with entertainment, must be an intern before he or she can be an executive. But 2010 is different. Because of the Internet and the changing face of pop music, the music industry, both independent and popular, is in the middle of a very volatile transition period, questioning everything from its revenue sources to its role in bringing music to a consumer.

But, what does this mean for the recent Yale grad trying the industry on for size?

For one, it means that fewer jobs are available across the board. Right now the big names of certain infamous pop stars are the only thing keeping the record industry afloat. This means more and more internships at record labels and music magazines and fewer entry-level positions. That is, if they manage to survive whatsoever. Companies and magazines are folding at a record rate, with the last year seeing the demise of indie stalwarts Paste and Blender magazines and Touch-and-Go Records and the bankruptcy of some of the bigger players in the record industry, among others.

The successful players in the record industry today are small and lean. Labels like Underwater People and Forest Family Records understand that it’s impossible to stop the free exchange of music over blogs and other sources on the Internet, and focus instead on producing small quantities of high quality music, usually in the form of an LP or 7” single. These operations are tiny, run by only a few people, featuring rustic touches like handwritten address labels and hand-packed boxes.

This new music industry favors the self-starter or the entrepreneur. A band can become successful by disseminating their mp3 to today’s cultural tastemakers. One recent band featuring Yale grads Lexi Benaim ’06 and Todd Goldman ’06, the Harlem Shakes, garnered critical acclaim this way before their breakup in Sept. 2009.

Laura Zax ’10 spoke about how useful her time since graduation has been for taking control of her career. “I want to take care of all of the songs I’ve been accruing, so it’s really important for me to learn how to produce myself,” she said.

An aspiring A&R rep can become successful by gathering up a few bands they trust and starting their own label. A music journalist should be devoted to their own blog and volunteer their words to other small Internet sources. This doesn’t make an endeavor in the music business any less risky, however.

Luckily, recent grads may be able to draw on help from their former classmates or even Yalies they don’t know.

“Yalies definitely do stick together,” Spielberg said. “I was interning for Rolling Stone and tried to contact a person from Yale that I had never met and saying I was from Yale definitely helped.”

It’s clear that some time away from New Haven has done these graduates well.

Zax, who recently played at the World Expo in China, said she loves the freedom she now has to “gig around” and work with a producer in L.A.

“What I’m doing now isn’t too different than in New Haven, but being away frees me up,” Spielberg, who is currently living between Los Angeles and New York, said. “I can see friends’ bands and generally be more productive in Manhattan, Brooklyn and downtown L.A.”

When asked about how his time at Yale fostered his musical ambitions, Spielberg remarked that a liberal arts education isn’t necessarily for the determined musician. “If you want to pursue anything and you know it, going to a liberal arts college is a waste,” advised Spielberg.

“Personally, I’m happy for the experience and that I got to pursue different interests at Yale, both journalism and music,” he added quickly.

Yale may not be preprofessional training for those aspiring to run the music world, but the campus emphasizes community, self-sufficiency and creativity — that certainly goes a long way.

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