CMU Trends Education & Events The Great Escape 2016

Trends: Building a more skilled music industry

By | Published on Tuesday 31 May 2016

What has the music industry ever done for you?

At The Great Escape in 2013, CMU Insights presented a panel discussion on copyright education. It was motivated by the fact that every time the music industry lobbies government for new anti-piracy measures it will always include a few lines about copyright education at the bottom of its proposal, though those commitments rarely come to much.

Actually, since then the content industries have collaborated with government on the questionable ‘Get It Right From A Genuine Site’ campaign, which was at least an attempt to do something, even if it confused education with public relations, and went with publicity stunts instead of learning.

But back in 2013, the conclusion of our TGE panel was that if the music industry really wanted to try and educate the world about why copyright exists, when it applies, and why it’s ultimately a good thing, then it ought to start with its own people.

Which is to say, many people working in the music industry – and even the music rights industry – know little about the principles and workings of copyright, while knowledge among artists and songwriters, whose entire careers are locked to the exploitation of intellectual property, is even worse.

And if the music industry really wants the world at large to appreciate what copyright is for, how can that be achieved when it can’t even educate the people on its own payroll, or the creators for whom copyright means money?

Not that everyone in music needs to have expert knowledge of copyright law, that’s what the lawyers are for. And artists and songwriters already have too many distractions from their core role: writing great songs, honing great performances, and making great records. But some basic knowledge of music rights would benefit everyone involved in music making, and the music industry at large.

This widespread ignorance about the basics of copyright within the music community in no small part stems from the fact that the music industry has never put a huge emphasis on formal training and education. Most people fall into the industry and then ‘learn on the job’. And it remains true that hands-on experience is perhaps the most important thing for people launching a career in the music business.

And, of course, until very recently, you couldn’t really study the music business. There may have been some business-focused sessions as part of a music or music production course at a university or college, but there were no schools specifically teaching the business of music.

This has changed a lot in recent years, with an ever increasing number of new-starters in the industry having now studied the business in some way, leading to a slightly bizarre situation where those at the top of the sector, while having more experience, might actually have less knowledge than those in entry-level roles.

But while hands-on experience is still key, and some entry-level personnel now come equipped with wider knowledge of the industry, there is still an argument that music companies should get better at providing more formal training for their employees.

We are biased here, of course, because CMU Insights is a leading provider of just that kind of training, but countless conversations with employers, clients and trainees over the years have backed up this point of view. And ahead of The Great Escape this year, we spoke more formally to over 20 people in music industry recruitment roles to get their insights on the value of continued professional development.

Because the music industry is still an evolving beast, with plenty of challenges still to meet, and opportunities to unlock. And with that in mind, more formal knowledge, as well as experience, is necessary to succeed. After all, had the record labels of 1999 not been so locked to the business of recording, pressing and marketing albums on compact disc – had they had knowledge of their artists’ wider businesses – they could have more quickly capitalised on the potential of digital.

In speaking to our 20+ recruiters in the run up to TGE this year, we set out to identify some key issues that cause the skills and knowledge gap in the music industry, and then to outline what those at entry-level should be doing to make themselves more employable, and what those a few years in should be considering to benefit both their own careers, and the artists and companies they work for.


There are various reasons why the skills and knowledge gap often occurs within music companies, and within the music industry at large.

Most people work in silos
This is true of most sectors of course, though there are perhaps a greater number of silos in the music industry. People may be experts in recordings, but know nothing about publishing, or live, or merch. Or even within the label, someone may understand A&R inside and out, but know little about marketing, distribution, licensing or PR.

Of course no one expects anyone to be an expert in everything (well, except maybe the poor old artist manager), but most artists write, record, release and license out songs, deliver music through retail, digital and direct, perform live at their own shows, other people’s shows, festivals and corporate gigs, sell merch, do brand deals, and try to build and sell to an engaged fanbase. So it’s really advantageous if every one of an artist’s business partners – in each of those silos – has a basic understanding of what is going on elsewhere, and crucially how everything fits together.

When people predominantly learn on the job, their skills and knowledge will skew towards the precise role they have been hired to do. And without opportunities to learn beyond that role, the silo problem will remain.

Head-nod culture
Again, you will find this in many other sectors too, but less so in those where continued professional development is a standard requirement.

A lot of people who work in music privately admit to sitting in meetings where music industry technicalities they do not understand are discussed and, rather than asking for said technicalities to be explained, either during or after the meeting, they instead nod in agreement not knowing what it is they are agreeing too.

This maybe in part because of a fear that admitting to ignorance could affect career progression, which – in some companies – may be a valid fear. And, of course, the problem of admitting to ignorance only grows as someone’s career does progress, because it becomes harder to admit to gaps in knowledge as the years go by.

Worries about losing “the dream job”
Another factor behind the head-nod culture is probably that, for many people, working in a music industry role is “the dream job”, making individuals fear all the more that admitting to ignorance could negatively impact on their careers.

Many people in the music business secretly feel that they have somehow fluked their way into that dream job – even if their skills, knowledge, passion and/or work ethic have genuinely contributed to their success – and therefore they fear anything that might deprive them of that role in the future.

Everyone is so damn busy
This is another key factor that it’s important to acknowledge: the majority of people working in music are very busy most of the time.

While the top of the music industry is flush with cash, and bigger music firms have sizeable workforces, the majority of people working in music operate on tight resources, and often there isn’t the budget to hire enough people to perform all the tasks. And often individuals pick up the slack by working longer hours.

Many music roles also involve regular and frequent unmovable deadlines – like release dates and tour schedules – which mean there is always a panic about something. And then there’s a constant feeling that, in addition to your office hour work, you should be supporting the artists you work with when they play live in the evenings.

While most of that is good fun – this is the dream job remember – it also means many people have little time spare to be reading up on music rights and digital trends, sharing knowledge with co-workers, and attending training seminars. Even though doing so is arguably as important as all the other more pressing tasks.

A lot of people work for SMEs, or themselves
Beyond a few major players, most of the music industry is made up of small to medium-sized enterprises, and an unusually high number of people are actually self-employed (especially if you include musicians themselves).

This often means people are even more tightly resourced – in terms of both time and budget – which makes investing in training and suchlike all the trickier.

Many of the bigger music companies do now have in-house training schemes of one form or another, and/or budget available when individuals request specific professional development support. Smaller businesses often have less of this in place, however, which will require employees to be more proactive in seeking such support.

Demanding a seminar isn’t very rock n roll
It is probably worth finally noting this point. Perhaps it doesn’t feel very rock n roll to be requesting a training seminar on copyright law, health and safety, or better book-keeping. Though those working in the music business are there to do the business bit – the artists having the music covered – and overcoming skills and knowledge gaps will help ensure music professionals can truly deliver for their artists.

As mentioned above, for those at the very start of their music industry careers, there are more opportunities to gain music business knowledge than ever before, with a record number of vocational courses available at universities and colleges around the UK and beyond.

Though, perhaps ironically, at entry-level most music industry employers rank experience above knowledge, which is to say every one of the recruiters we spoke to said that some sort of formal music business qualification was not a requirement for new-starters, whereas some sort of hands-on experience probably was. Basically, if you want a job in music, DO STUFF.

This hands-on experience might take the form of an internship at a music company, though again few recruiters said this was an absolute requirement. Any extra-curricular activity that provided experience in music or business was attractive, whether that’s running a gig night, managing a friend’s band, writing a music blog, setting up a YouTube channel, and so on.

Indeed the extra-curricular activity doesn’t need to be music-based, all and any activities or part-time jobs that result in transferable skills are of interest. Though, especially at smaller music companies, projects that demonstrate a passion for music – and maybe some knowledge of one strand of the business – are particularly attractive.

Which isn’t to say that studying a music industry course isn’t of value, it’s just that a qualification of that kind on its own won’t assure a job in music. But what a good music business course does provide is: the kind of wider industry knowledge that will be of value later in an individual’s career, and in the short-term an opportunity to do the stuff that will make a CV stand out to recruiters.

For starters there are internships. In the UK, a much needed crackdown on unpaid internships in the music industry a few years back means most companies now pay their interns the minimum wage, but as a result there are fewer internships to go round. However, if work experience is undertaken as part of a degree, there is more flexibility for the employer, and as a result there are more opportunities.

But more than that, music business students have the opportunity, while at college, to pursue side projects that allow them to learn on-the-job before they actually get the job, usually with much less to lose. They will also likely have access to aspiring musicians who they can work with on grassroots projects.

The most important message from all the recruiters we surveyed was that it is young people who undertake such projects who are the most attractive candidates for entry-level music industry roles.

Once someone is working in the industry – so has hands-on experience by definition – up-to-date knowledge of the music industry becomes more important. And most of the recruiters we spoke to confirmed that – while obviously they look for directly relevant experience from candidates for any one specific role – knowledge beyond the silo, ie of other aspects of the industry, are very attractive indeed.

But how to get such knowledge, given the limitations described above? Some of it comes down to attitude – of not being afraid to ask questions when confusing technicalities are being discussed, though obviously applying a little common sense as to when such questions are appropriate. Finding a mentor, or mentors, slightly more senior to yourself who might offer a little time every few months to answer such questions is one method recommended by many recruitment specialists.

Another possible option is side projects. A lot of people with a full time job in one part of the music industry have a second music role on the side – managing an artist, running a club night, playing in a band etc. Of course, such side projects might make a prospective employer nervous about a candidate’s commitment to their job, though the recruiters we spoke to were either indifferent or positively inclined to such ventures.

Networking outside the silo is another approach. Everyone knows networking is important in the music industry, though it is often tempting to only network with people doing similar jobs, partly because each strand of the music industry tends to have its own trade groups and networking events. These groups and events are important, but trying to build relationships in other strands of the industry is hugely valuable, and away from your own specialism, you may feel more confident asking those who you network with questions about the very basics of the business.

Keeping up to date with the latest trends and developments is another way of expanding knowledge, though there again there is a tendency to focus on the trends and developments within one strand of the industry, rather than across the business. That said, there is no shortage of music industry news services, many offering at least some of their content for free (so, CMU obviously, but other news providers are available! – and it’s always good to take in a variety of opinions).

Though, while it’s good to be up to date with the latest industry news, the key is actually understanding what’s going on. The industry’s many panel debates – at conferences and elsewhere – can help with this, though sometimes there can be more opinion than explanation, and more debate than learning.

Which brings us back to finding opportunities to ask people who have the knowledge you need the right questions, to secure the answers that will help you understand. Which – plug alert – brings us to the more formal training courses offering by CMU Insights, our competitors, and some of the industry trade bodies.

Which is to say, more formal courses with the opportunity to ask lots of questions, preferably in an environment where such questioning doesn’t feel inappropriate or counter-productive.

While some small companies won’t always have the budget for such things, medium-sized to big music firms usually can find the money. Many actually set funds aside for more formal training courses, even if they don’t always promote that fact so well to their staff.

A final question we asked our recruiters was what specific music industry topics they sought knowledge of. The vast majority but three themes top: music rights, digital music trends and social media trends.

Those in the live sector also, unsurprisingly, ranked event production and health and safety best practice highly, though interestingly those on the music rights side rarely cited live event knowledge as important, while those on the live side nearly always put music rights high up the list. Presumably because, while those in the live industry don’t usually own music copyrights, they are customers of said rights.

Though that also brings us back to where we started. If the music industry wants the world at large to better understand music rights, it should start with its own people. Or perhaps its people should take the initiative themselves. Because a better educated and more informed music industry is better placed to seize on new opportunities as they arise, and in doing, better serve the artists they sign and the great music those artists make.