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Music entrepreneurs advise students to find passion, work hard

“Whenever people tell me they want to work in the music industry,” said Gregg Latterman (KSM96), president of Aware Records and developer of artists like John Mayer, The Fray, and Mat Kearney, “the first thing I say is why? And if the answer is ‘because I have to and it doesn’t matter if I make money or not—this is my passion and my calling in life’—if someone tells me that, I say go for it.” But the trick, he continued, “is to figure out a way to do something that creates value for people in the industry, to make yourself heard, versus trying to go in the front door of a major label or publisher.”

Latterman, who did just that in the early 1990s by creating compilations of unsigned bands that caught industry leaders’ attention, was joined by two other illustrious trailblazers at “Breaking into the Biz: Opportunities in the New Music Industry,” a panel sponsored by the School of Communication Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) on October 7 in Annie May Swift Hall.

Latterman, who’s been called a “label visionary” by MTV and whose label, Aware, works in tandem with Universal Records, moderated the panel. He was joined by:

Evan Lowenstein, the CEO at Stageit, an online concert venue where artists perform for fans directly from their laptops in real time (past participants include Korn, Trey Songz, and Jason Mraz). Lowenstein was also half of the platinum-selling pop/rock band Evan and Jaron, who had three Top 40 hits, including the Top 10 song “Crazy For This Girl.”

Alex White (SESP08), who is the co-founder and CEO at Next Big Sound, an analytics service that measures daily music consumption and purchase decisions around the globe. White co-founded the company during his last semester at Northwestern, and has since been featured in Billboard (10 best music companies), the New York Times, Forbes (30 under 30), BusinessWeek (25 under 25), and more.

“As a senior,” White said, “I thought, who am I to start a company? What do I know?” But he remembered when he interned at Universal after his junior year: “I was up at six in the morning, stapling sound scan reports together for Motown sales. These are weekly CD sales and radio spins, and I knew that my friends were not buying CDs anymore. They were listening to music still, more than ever, but in a million different ways. And it got me thinking about the idea for my company.”

Still, White said, the fall of his senior year was “really difficult. The recruiting season for all the finance firms and consulting jobs is going on around you. I didn’t know what consulting was. I had no interest in becoming a banker, but I put a suit on every day because all the eight guys I lived with were going through the consulting process. And I got a job as a consultant in New York City. They gave me a $10K signing bonus. And I was going to do it.”

Eventually, though, after winning an award for Best Undergraduate Business Pitch at a competition sponsored by the Kellogg School of Management, White and his co-founders decided to roll the dice. He returned the signing bonus, bowed out of the job, and embarked on a white-knuckle, entrepreneurial journey that eventually led to the Next Big Sound.

For Lowenstein, the path was a different. A platinum-selling recording artist in the early 2000s, he took what he’d learned about social media and the way it allowed him to interact with his fans and created an online platform, the likes of which had never been seen before.

“The concept,” he said, “was about giving fans a front-row seat to a backstage experience. Everyone wants to go backstage, right? Well, I’ve been backstage a million times and I can tell you it’s just a bunch of cinderblocks and crappy couches. The essence is Mick Jagger or Adam Levine or whoever it is. So I thought, let me take that guy and put him in front of a laptop so you can hang out with him.”

Through his company, Lowenstein said, “We have artists routinely making twenty- or thirty-thousand dollars a show.” Some make twice that. “And there’s absolutely zero production cost,” he said. “Other than a laptop.”

Proof positive that the music industry is changing.

“Today,” Latterman said, “if you want an international audience with a massive radio hit you still need a record label for the most part. But you don’t need it for distribution anymore. You don’t need it for film and TV. You don’t need it for most of the avenues you used to.”

This opens up all kinds of opportunities for people who love music and want to work inside the industry. Be fearless, Latterman said: “Find something you love, work your butt off, and don’t be afraid to fail. I think it’s important to know that it’s more than OK to take some risks and chances now.”