This is an op-ed I wrote for The Talkhouse about my career thus far in the music industry, and the key lessons for musicians I have learned along the way. It is published on TheTalkhouse.com and LinkedIn.com.
When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a Spice Girl. I grew up living between NYC and Bombay, and so their girl-gang element, music and fashion resonated with me deeply. Being a Spice Girl as a professional career choice seemed within the realm of possibility, and to that end, I started drumming when I was eleven. As I grew up, all throughout middle and high school I would be the one organizing music shows in school so that I would have a place to play, and I found that serving both roles was actually really exciting — plus, it was the best way for me to learn about all aspects of being a musician.
Below is my music industry story thus far — along with the most important lessons I have learned along the way.
Attending College — and Playing the Drums
As I moved through high school into college, my life as a drummer felt extremely separated from my life as a pre-professional.
I attended Georgetown University, where my education prepared me for jobs in consulting, banking, diplomacy or law. Meanwhile, in my junior and senior years, I started playing drums or percussion at various clubs and lounges in Washington, D.C. That eventually led to a prestigious weekly residency at Thievery Corporation’s Eighteenth Street Lounge, where I played live percussion alongside DJ Thomas Blondet every Sunday in 2010. This became my happy place: it was where I saw my friends, where I played my best music, where I felt most inspired — and where I came of age as a musician.
But I started to get frustrated that my life during the day was very different from my life at night. I wanted to live a life that was totally immersed in music. So I started thinking about how I could use my academic education to work in the music industry, instead of in the more traditional fields my classes were preparing me for. What if, instead of using my mathematics degree to be a banker, or my political science degree to work on Capitol Hill, I could apply all this knowledge to a changing industry such as music?
Breaking into the Industry
This way of thinking landed me my first gig in the music industry. A friend of a Georgetown alum was looking for an intern at Interscope Records, and I got the job. While it didn’t make my parents happy that all I could get after school was an internship, I was excited to be working at a real label and I was determined to turn it into a full-time gig.
At Interscope, I was tasked with running tests for the head of the digital marketing department, exploring patterns in Spotify and YouTube streams — as well as the correlation between online chatter about an artist and album sales. At the end of my internship, my boss created a full-time position for me as digital analyst. I was the first person at the company whose sole job it was to delve so deeply into social media and streaming music.
During those two years at Interscope, I learned three key lessons that I don’t think I could have learned had I been solely working as a musician:
1. Release video content for a song no later than two weeks after releasing the single.
You never know how your fans are hearing your music, but you can be sure that some of them are discovering you on YouTube and other visual media platforms. With compelling art that captures your aesthetic and your story — be it music videos, lyric videos, gorgeous Instagram content or website landing visuals — you can enchant your audience, plus compel them to share. This lesson has helped me today as a musician because I see the value in working far more closely with my artist and designer friends to create videos and other media for the Madame Gandhi brand, instead of forgoing that kind of content because I’m not personally good at making it.
2. If you’re a new artist, you shouldn’t expect spikes in Spotify stream counts until weeks after release — but you’ll have to work for that bump.
Discovery takes time, and the key to discovery on Spotify is sharing: namely, Spotify users sharing songs with each other and curators playlisting their favorite tracks. So, artists looking to win Spotify should: 1. Reach out to influential playlist creators and ask them to listen to their music; 2. Give their fans a reason to share their song by offering a reward; 3. Ask their musical peers to share or playlist their new song.
The reason why this kind of outreach matters is because of listening behavior: most Spotify users consume music via playlists daily, encouraging repeat listening behavior. Thus, a two-pronged strategy must be employed: one in which key influencers are able to discover the artist’s music, and the second in which the song sticks on playlists that are played through repetitively. This means that the song will live on well past release date. In short, if artists want to see the same kind of returns on Spotify as they might have seen on iTunes, the goal must be to get the song into playlists where it is listened to repeatedly, since the song makes money off of number of plays.
While many would say that you’ll never make as much on Spotify as you might have on iTunes pre-streaming, I would argue that the opportunities to get your music seen by a wider audience are far more plentiful on Spotify than on iTunes. Stream counts can also then be used as pitch ammo down the line for opportunities including booking gigs or licensing. Additionally, artists can now request data from Spotify, including how their music is getting discovered and which part of the song listeners skip over. If I had this data, I would spend time looking at how most users found my music, and would make sure to promote my music more actively through those channels.
3. User-generated content is the best way to engage fans.
We are in an age of narcissism, where people want to share stories that they feel directly connected to or represented by, where they can express their own opinions on multiple platforms, and where they can share photos and content in order to look cool or culturally relevant. Therefore, when you release music, give your fans a way to promote themselves, too.
In theory, making awesome songs that fans can share should be enough, but sometimes creating clever art, photos, tweets, etc. can also do the trick when it comes to engagement. Many of a label’s most successful campaigns are those that encourage fans to create their content — be it album art or dance videos — or to unlock a prize, such as concert tickets, by completing some kind of task. But remember, any successful campaign today has to be something that makes the fan feel involved.
Going to Business School — and Hacking the Music Industry
At the beginning of 2013, I was accepted to Harvard’s MBA program. As I wound down my time at Interscope and got ready to move to Boston, I was excited to be at a place where I could learn even more lessons about business that I could apply to the music industry. Unexpectedly, at that time I was also invited to tour with M.I.A. as her drummer. The tour took place the summer before school and extended into the fall of my first year, so I went to class by day and spent the nights and weekends playing with M.I.A. It was a very wild time in my life, but a time in which I learned the meaning of hard work — and two more lessons.
4. Protect your study of music with your life.
As artists, we often will get lots of opportunities, but in order to be successful, we have to be discerning enough to protect and focus on what is the most important.My mantra was “cases and drums” — which were my business school case studies and my drumming for M.I.A. I learned that routine and hard work actually makes the art that much more special because you have to work for it. Don’t make excuses for not practicing, or place limits on yourself about which life path you must choose. It is possible to have both academic nourishment as well as nourishment for the soul — if you choose to make it possible.
5. Progressive artists realize that ubiquity is their friend and that money follows cultural relevance.
During my two years at business school, my goal was to engage as many minds as possible to tackle problems in the music industry, so I started something called Music Minds where we had Harvard Business School students, MIT students and Berklee College of Music students come together every other week for a ninety-minute hack session around a music industry challenge. During one particular session, we asked whether SoulCycle was a music curator that added promotional value to musicians when spin instructors played new songs during their classes, or if it was a music thief that wasn’t fairly compensating artists for its commercial use of their songs.
The lessons that came from this session stay with me today: instead of gating a song, having the song accessible, loved and heavily played is more valuable in the long term when it comes to building a fan base and selling out shows. All of that is worth more than making a few cents off of some plays in a spin class each month. Later on, when the artist reaches a certain level of fame, music licensers are often more than happy to come knocking and pay to clear a song that they know for sure will resonate with their audience. I saw this all the time at Interscope — the licensing dollars usually came six months to a year after breaking a new act.
In my case, I had a tougher time licensing my music, but as my work in music, feminism and menstrual health started to get global traction, it became easier to create more organic opportunities.
Working for Spotify — and Creating Madame Gandhi
When I graduated from business school, I spent several months working on a consulting project for Spotify. I was valuable to them because of my experience on both the business side and as an artist. I was thrilled to have this opportunity, because it put both sides of my brain to the test. Can artists be business people? Can business people create music? Our generation of musicians has been forced to think more this way, because the labels that used to be sure-fire money-makers are no longer so, and the industry is being remolded to meet the streaming era.
Having a music industry background as a musician is hugely empowering. Over the past six months of working for Spotify by day and producing music as Madame Gandhi by night, I have learned several lessons:
6. It is incredibly difficult for a song to live anywhere beyond SoundCloud if you’re sampling sounds and musical ideas without clearing your work.
Furthermore, it is difficult to claim future financial value for the song if that is your goal. Even when working with friends, make sure to establish as much of an agreement as possible as to who owns which parts of the song. If you sample from someone else, contact them to let them know. Even the largest labels receive calls and emails from lesser-known artists, and getting approval early when nothing has happened with the track is far easier than getting into legal trouble with friends or labels later.
I learned this lesson when I won GrammyU’s annual Business Plan Competition and had the opportunity to spend the day at RCA Records. The woman in charge of licensing for the label told me that even high school students will call to get permission to use a song, and are often granted free usage of the song on the spot. Knowing this felt empowering, and the thought of contacting labels felt less daunting than I would have imagined.
7. From being both an artist and an industry thinker, I have learned that you must actively shut one brain off while the other is on.
I have been in situations in which I would think too much about whether the song I was making was blog-worthy or relatable or playlist-worthy or culturally relevant, instead of just creating from a purely human or emotional place. It would destroy the song and the vibe in the studio almost instantaneously.
Elite jazz musician Kimberly Thompson (pictured below) once told me that an audience can always tell whether a song is created from a pure and human place, and so the best music is often captured when the creator is raw and not hesitating — or being too “heady” about it, as M.I.A. used to say when she didn’t like my drumming. For this reason, I have had to learn that when I am in a creation phase, I make what is true to Kiran, to Madame Gandhi — to her passion, her joy, her sadness, her beliefs, her core. And then, when I am ready to start sharing the music with the world, my business mind will get switched on.
If I believe that my music can do good for others, thinking of clever ways to make sure that they can hear it and I can support myself from it is hugely important to my mission. This is true for all of us. In getting creative about new business models for selling and sharing our music, we end up serving as a roadmap for fellow musicians today — and the next generation of artists to come. In fact, it just might be our duty.