[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Hugh McIntyre and is our latest in the on-going Life During Quarantine series, aimed at lifting artists up during our, well, on-going ‘unprecedented times’.]
Right now, everything is still on hold. Most people can’t go to work, they shouldn’t be congregating in large groups or leaving their home if they don’t need to, and musicians can’t head to the studio or play for a crowd almost anywhere, (at least not safely). These past few months (not to mention who knows how many more to come) may feel wasted to many, but they don’t have to be! Artists can use this time to create music and begin preparing for when the world is back to normal, but one thing that seems to be missed is that this can be an excellent time for everyone to educate themselves!
Since most people are stuck inside, this troubling period can be the perfect opportunity to turn off Netflix, stop scrolling through social media and pick up a book, take a course, or watch a documentary about a superstar. There is so much free (or cheap) information and content out there, all it takes is the will to learn and become better and some time to read, watch and listen.
So, since you have the time, why not begin a whole new chapter of your musical education right now?
This may be something you’ve been putting off for quite some time, but if you want to make a living and survive the complicated and cutthroat business that is music, you really must educate yourself on how the industry works. That means reading up on everything from what a manager does to how streaming royalties are calculated and paid out (and so much more).
There are a surprising number of books out there that can give you the information you need (at least start you off on the right track), but there is one title that is highly regarded as a must-read for anyone who wants to work in the field: Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business. Passman has been updating this Bible of sorts for years, so it’s not an outdated look at how everything functions (and that’s important to note, as things change quickly in this business).
That is always my number one suggestion, as I found it incredibly helpful when I started covering the music industry as a journalist, and it ends up on nearly every list of must-reads for anyone in music.
Read Even More
In addition to reading books that dive into the inner workings of the actual business of music, it’s also worthwhile to spend some time poring over the pages of some excellent biographies, autobiographies and titles that talk about the history of the industry and the titans who have come before and made it big. Many tomes are filled with important lessons, wise anecdotes and stories of how a certain artist broke out or what made an executive rise to the top.
It’s harder to nail down only a few examples here, as there are countless books by musicians and industry figures themselves, so perhaps it’s best to look through some lists compiled by respected journalists, industry vets and publications to see which titles interest you. If you’re a rock musician, you may want to focus on the biggest names in that field, while if you want to make your living in marketing, that’s a completely different subset of options.
Just like books above, there are two kinds of music-related films you may want to spend your quarantine time watching, though when it comes to this medium, there are far more options in one category than the other.
There are plenty of documentaries about the music industry, but only a few really stand out as ones worth seeing, such as 20 Feet From Stardom, The Defiant Ones, Scratch and Woodstock, which focus on more than one person, though they won’t be as educational as some of the books mentioned previously.
The vast majority of music films are either concert-based or are documentaries that are centered around one name. They can be incredibly entertaining and insightful, but you should consider that more often than not these days, the musicians being profiled also have a say in what the audience sees, so it’s not always brutally honest…though that’s not to say they’re not worth watching.
Recent releases from the likes of Beyoncé (Homecoming), Lady Gaga (Five Foot Two), Taylor Swift (Miss Americana) and Amy Winehouse’s team (the Oscar-winning Amy) are just a few of the high-profile launches of the past several years that are exciting, heartbreaking, and wonderfully loud.
This section is especially important if you are a musician, as you should be aware of the art that paved the way and changed the landscape of the industry we all work in. Stop listening to the same albums you love dearly and try something completely new. There are likely hundreds of artists whose names you know, or perhaps there are a few tracks that you’re familiar with, but you have never taken the time to explore their catalog and really get to know their full-lengths that have gone down in history as pioneering works of art.
Whether you define yourself by the genre you primarily work in or you classify yourself as a lover of all music, don’t be afraid to press play on anything, even if you think you may hate it. From albums that dropped last year to those that can be hard to find because they’re so old, be adventurous with your listening!
There are many, many lists of the best albums or the most important albums, and while it can be hard to know where to begin, you may want to simply select one ranking and start. I suggest looking at Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time or Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, though there are plenty of other suggestions out there as well.
Since we live in an era when seemingly every title featured on these lists is readily available on Spotify, Apple Music and the like, is there really an excuse not to begin pressing play?
A college education is almost always a good idea, but I’m not going to sit here and suggest that everyone reading this who wants to be a musician or who is looking to work in the industry should sign up for a full degree simply because there’s some free time now. Instead, why not consider taking some classes, either on making music, or to help you better understand the business?
Aside from signing up for proper courses offered by expensive institutions, there are countless free or relatively inexpensive options, and these are the ones worth investigating the most right now.
Platforms like edX (which has free courses from Harvard and Berklee), Coursera (which also features many Berklee classes and some from Yale and the University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill) and Udemy (individual tutorials that can help anybody learn to play piano, guitar or master electronic production) have sprung up in the past several years, and they have become massively popular as their options are seemingly endless. Even if you only stick to music, you’ll still never run out of things you want to learn.
Masterclass has also established itself as a company worthy of paying for, as it has recruited many of the biggest and most successful names in the business—Timbaland, Santana, Christina Aguilera, Usher, Hans Zimmer and even Itzhak Perlman—to teach you anything and everything from production to composing to how to belt. Though these classes can add up financially, they’re better than anything out there.
Hugh McIntyre writes about music and the music industry and regularly contributes to Forbes, Sonicbids, and more.