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Advice To Those Starting a Career in the Music Industry

Neil Portnow is the President/CEO of The Recording Academy. He is responsible for overseeing the Grammy Awards and the Grammy Foundation.

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Neil Portnow is the president of the Recording Academy. In this clip Neil gives advice about starting a career in the music industry. He recommends that people keep an open mind to everything and be incredibly resilient about their career. Neil recommends membership in the Academy because it gives individuals access to many aspects of the industry. He also mentions where to find information to learn more about the music industry and how to get involved.

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Neil Portnow: Advice

There’s no easy answer to the question of “what do you do to get into the business and have a great career?” Unlike so many other profession where you’ve got a roadmap, if you want to be a doctor, you know that you have to follow a certain path, there’s a school that you can go to, you wind up with a degree, you wind up doing a residency, hopefully that takes you down the path of a career that you want. In our business it doesn’t exist that way and although there certainly are schools, there are good websites, and clearly what you’re doing here with this program is a good example of how one can get some insight. There are some great books that have been written, Don Passman’s book is as good as it gets, as far as giving insight, but you kind of have to live it out day by day. I think you just have to be open-minded and realize that there isn’t one path to get to this. If I had thought to myself when I was in high school, or even in college, “I want to get from A to Z and here’s the path that I have to go to get it,” and had put blinders on, I would have never wound up anywhere near where I’ve wound up. The reason that happened was that I was open to things that might happen; sort of follow the yellow brick road as it evolves in front of you. Be smart enough to be open to it. If I hadn’t taken those phone calls that came in, if I hadn’t taken advice of friends that came in, recommended meeting with other people, networking, it never would have happened. So I think you have to be open-minded. Number two, you have to be incredibly resilient because unless this is something that you really must do, don’t waste your time, go do something else quite honestly. Because you’re going to have a lot of disappointments, there are going to be a lot of people that say ‘no.’ Knocking on doors all the time is not easy and there aren’t, very often, tangible ways to measure one’s success or one’s value. So how do you get that job? Is it because somebody likes the jacket that you’re wearing? Or did your dad make a phone call? Or what have you, it’s hard to know. You have to have the inner strength and compass to say, “I know I’m good, I’m going, I’m going to stick with this.” I think one needs to be well read and well educated. I always, from the time I could read the trades, read the trades. If I could read books about people in the business, I would read that. If I could get a lunch or a meeting with somebody that could tell me something, I’d be open to that. I think those are the ways that are really about all that one can do to be prepared, but you gotta have it in your heart. You gotta have the resilience and you gotta have the determination to say, “This is it, I can’t really do anything else, so I might as well just give myself up to it.”

Absolutely, I think membership in our organization, wherever you may be in the country is very valuable because you have access to the people that you want to deal with ultimately. What’s great about the Academy, because were not for profit, because we’re about doing good work, because you not about just commercialism, we are close to the flame. The flame is the talent. For example, the Chairman of the Board of the Academy, who’s an elected leader, who volunteers his time, is a gentleman named Terry Lacona. Terry is the producer of Austin City Limits. Austin City Limits is running on PBS for 30 years, it’s the longest running independent show of music. Terry’s so into music as an individual, but knows so many people because he’s been producing this show for 30 years. What’s it like to have access to someone like Terry who goes and does panels and is available? Our Vice Chairman of the Board is Jimmy Jam, of Jam and Lewis, one of the most successful production teams of all time. Jimmy gives of his time. He participates in Grammy in the Schools, Grammy sound checks, panels. He just was interviewed one-on-one at South by Southwest, down there through one of own programs that’s presented. You have people like that that make themselves available, we have our sound check program where artists are performing around the country at concerts and we get to invite high school kids to come in and observe the sound check. If you want to be a guitar player, go hang with the guitarist. If you want to be a sound mixer, go hang with the sound mixer. You get this first hand experience. Grammy in the Schools is a career day program that is produced in each one of our twelve chapter cities year round. It’s having access to that. Plus we have a great newsletter that we do quarterly with a lot of information. is a website we’ve just actually totally redesigned it. is probably the most comprehensive website in terms of referrals to other programs where you can learn about careers in the music business, of any that’s up on the web at this point. Joining our organization makes complete sense, but others as well, you know, others in your community where you might learn something. Here in LA you see LA extension has a great program where you can actually go and study various different courses, the private sector, music education schools are great. As I said, subscribing to the trades where Billboard is the Bible and you read it every week and you start to understand what it’s about, it can only help.

Am I happy that I made a career in music? There’s no doubt about it. I can’t really imagine what it would have been like to do other things. I know that was in my mind at one point but this is just a great opportunity for me to put together all of the things that I am passionate about. I’m passionate about music and musicians. I am one; I’m not good enough to make a living at it but I certainly have a visceral understanding of what it is. For me to be here of service to other musicians and to try to advance the agenda of the music world is a great honor. To be able to be involved in philanthropy and charity, which is something I’ve always been passionate about, and especially for our own music community, what a gift. To be involved in promoting education of young people in terms of the Arts and particularly music, I can’t imagine growing up without having had a chance to play guitar in the school orchestra, or having been in chorus, or having been exposed to music, not just because I’m a musician but because as a human being it’s so impactful on everything that we all do. Imagine a world without music. A quiet world would be a very sad place indeed. So being a part of that… and finally, we didn’t talk about it too much, the Academy’s fourth pillar of activity is advocacy. In a world of rapidly changing technology, and infrastructure, the protection of intellectual property and copyright, and the whole concept of an artist being able to make a living being creative, is something that’s very important to our industry. We’ve been a major force in advocacy with full-time lobbying on the hill; we have a full-time office, we have full-time lobbyists. For be to get to go to Washington as an advocate for the music community is a great thrill but also really is part of a dream of wanting to have been involved in the political spectrum years ago. I’m actually getting to do it but in a different way. So it’s really, everyday is, it sounds like a cliché, but a dream and a gift and I don’t ever take it for granted.

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