I get questions about working in data in the music industry a lot. I’m by no means an expert but this all comes from various jobs in the industry since I was 16 ranging from working with startups, radio stations, labels, live, etc. This doesn’t represent data at any one company or any one field, just a combination of working, hiring and being hired in this industry.
Before we dive into getting into it, let’s make sure you’re prepared.
The music industry is a tough one to get into.
It is highly sought after, so you’re competing with a lot of people for roles even with experience, a good network, education, etc., you are still one of the hundreds vying for a small number of roles in a very close-knit, well-connected industry. You’re competing with 25-year-olds with 8 years of experience because they started interning at labels at 17. If you’re looking to change countries in addition to all of this, multiply it by 10. Here is my post about getting a music job in Sweden.
There are more lucrative roles in tech out there.
If you’re motivated to work in tech because it makes money (no judgment, secure that bag!) then the music industry may not be for you. In my experience, the music industry generally pays less than equivalent technical roles that may be at startups, tech companies and especially in industries like finance. For the best of both worlds, roles at the music tech companies (Spotify, Apple, Amazon, YouTube) pay more favorably but are usually even more challenging to secure and often (but not always!) further removed from artists & the “business of music” in those tech roles.
Being technical in a creative industry is tough.
Any time you combine creativity & numbers, there’s a lot to reconcile. The music industry is full of passionate people that have relied on their guts for decades (and often rightfully so!) so coming in with an Excel sheet or an algorithm to tell VPs what to do is not always looked upon favorably. In addition to the technical skills, you have to have thick skin, confidence & strong communication/presentation skills.
Skills to Learn
All that being said, I absolutely love the music industry. Any negativity & cynicism I feel is washed away instantly when I see all the hard work come to fruition — hearing a song on the radio, seeing a live show, talking to an artist about what you’re working on, watching culture change because of what we do… It still gives me goosebumps.
If you’re not obsessed with music, there are probably better options out there for you.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move onto what steps to take. This is very specific to data & music because honestly, I’m truly amazed anyone ever gets a job transitioning into music not working in legal, finance or tech, so I give my perpetual kudos to those people.
Learn the Tech
Honestly, I think tech is the easiest part of this endeavor. I learned most of this with a mix of experience and education. If you have the time & money, I really love General Assembly otherwise, it’s easy to learn with a lot of Googling or cheap online courses like Coursera or Udemy.
- SQL: This is the minimum. This lets you query our billions of rows of data to get out what you need.
- Python or R: This will help you work with datasets larger than 1M rows (max for Excel). It comes in handy to clean, manipulate & acquire data. Both allow you to do data science and visualization. In addition, Python can also be used (more easily) for development, so with a little knowledge of web development, you can develop site mockups or handle some workflows for data engineering.
- Statistics & Math: Self-explanatory, but make sure you understand technically what the numbers are telling you.
- Data Science: Not everyone is going to be a data scientist, so this is optional but it’s as easy transition once you’ve learned everything else above so at the minimum understand what’s available to you in Excel like regressions and be knowledgable enough in Data Science to know how fancy AI data tools work so you’re not constantly being sold products you don’t need.
Learn to Tell a Good Story
- Basic Data Visualization: Learn how to display numbers in a way that people can digest them. I always say, “If I’m doing my job right, no one has to see an Excel sheet.” This doesn’t need to be complex… sometimes, it’s just a graph or conditional formatting.
- Advanced Visualization (Tableau, Data Studio, Etc.): Learn to make things interactive through any data visualization tool. Once you learn one, it’s pretty easy to learn the others. Google Data Studio is the one I recommend most because it’s free to use. Once you have the ability to do this, instead of answering one question, you’ve built something that can answer multiple questions (or multiple versions of the same question) thus saving you time and making others more independent and data literate.
- Teaching, Presenting & Communicating: No matter how good your work is, if you can’t explain it and tailor it to different audiences, it really doesn’t matter. Get comfortable explaining complex things simply and understanding your audience enough to recalibrate accordingly. You could easily have to show the same presentation to your boss, your peers, an artist’s manager, and an EVP in the same week. There’s usually an element of teaching others how to understand data which can require patience and an ability to explain why something is important enough to take the time to focus on it.
Learn the Industry
This can be tough without being in the industry but it’s possible! I also encourage networking to get some of this information first hand rather than just reading about it.
- Read Blogs & Industry News: Read blogs like Musically and Chartmetric and follow the industry as a whole through sites like Billboard. Read up on the industry lists (like Billboard’s 40 Under 40) to know who’s who.
- Understand how the music business works: Understand conceptionally how things work. How does a song get on streaming services? How do artists get paid? What is the difference between a publisher & a label? What are the major artists signed to each major label?
- Get your hands on publically available music data: I usually direct people to learn the Spotify API. As you’re doing data projects, it’s robust, clean data & accessible to learn. In addition to that, there’s tons of data available like charts, Last.fm, Chartmetric and more. Play around with them so you understand macro trends and know what the impact of things like playlisting, radio, and sync are.
Finding the Right Role
Part of the reason, the industry research is necessary is to help you figure out where you want to be.
What do you want to do in data?
So, if you’re feeling ready to apply to roles there are a lot of fields within data & music. I won’t go into all of them, but I’ve normally worked in marketing/commercial and data but I’m a bit of a generalist. I have a bit of experience in data science, reporting, data engineering, finance, marketing, development, visualization, analysis, insights, etc. If you’re in a small territory/country or at a small label, there’s a chance you’re only data person, so being a generalist is usually welcomed. As you get into larger corporations, you may want to try to focus on a certain field. Do your research & consider what you’d like your day to day to look like. If you’re transitioning from another field, consider what skills you have that may overlap to help you make that choice. For example, if you came from a role/have a degree with a lot of math, you may want to consider being a financial analyst or data scientist. Every field in music needs data from marketing to A&R.
What size & type of company you want to work for?
Think about what you want your day to day to look like? Do you want to interact a lot with artists? Do you want a lot of time to code & develop? Do you want to build products? There are big differences between indie labels, publishers and major labels. Even the tech companies differ from the startup to the Google’s of the world. There are also companies often overlooked like the RIAA, IFPI, Neilsen, etc. that are big players in the industry.
Prep for the Applying & Interviewing
- Understand the level of job you’re applying for. Titles can be a bit insane in the music industry, a manager title may not mean you have any direct reports, for example. So, ask around to understand where you’ll be in the food chain, especially if titles & hierarchy are important to you.
- Prepare at least one portfolio piece that employers can easily access. It could be a report, a Data Science project, a Tableau dashboard, even a Github link if you’re applying to a particularly technical role. Here’s an example of mine. This is especially important if you have no prior experience/education in data.
- Depending on what you want to do, consider making your resume a bit more creative. You don’t need to go over the top but remember you’re trying to work in a creative industry — a little color on your resume goes a long way!
- Even if you have a portfolio, be prepared to have to do a technical test AND also present it. This is to ensure you understand data and can explain it to others. If they don’t give you a test, it’s likely you’ll be the only technical person around which has it’s own advantages & challenges.
- Make sure you ask the right questions: What will my day to day actually look like? What limitations/issues exist with the company’s data? What the general attitude on data is in the company? Are there other data people around for support? Who’s job is it to do the things you won’t be doing (like how does the data engineering at the company work)? Does my supervisor have a background in data? This will tell you a lot about what your job will look like, what support you’ll have, and what challenges you’ll face. Coming from outside a company, it’s also tough to work out job descriptions often, so asking questions helps you understand the terminology, like does the international team mean you’re getting people in your country to listen to internationals tracks or that you’re trying to get other countries to listen to your domestic tracks, for example?
Despite everything I said above, a lot of this industry is knowing the right people, being in the right places, and having the right conversations. I’ve gotten as many jobs/opportunities applying through a website as I have by sending the right email at the right time. In a lot of ways, data in the music industry is still a very new thing so you have a lot of opportunities to carve your own path. So, just get out there & figure out how you can add value wherever you want to be. Don’t be obnoxious, though — no one wants that.
Speaking of that… Feel free to send me a message (I get a lot of them which is why I wrote this, so please be patient!). I’m always going to do as much as I can to help people passionate about music get to where they need to be especially women & people of color because they’ve historically had a tough time in this industry.
So, if after all of that, you still want to do this, I wish you all the luck in the world and would love to help!