What the music industry needs from its future leaders

by Jay LeBoeuf, Executive Director, Real Industry
Lecturer | Stanford University, University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon University

“What are the essential music business topics that university students should be exposed to before entering the music industry?”

I field this question almost every day. Through my nonprofit, Real Industry, I work with dozens of universities that deeply care about bringing industry best practices onto their campus. I can tell when I’m working with a great professor, because they always ask some version of “What skills should aspiring music industry leaders be learning in order to prepare for their future careers?”

Most universities have music students considering a career in music, performance, publishing, composition, recording, or any myriad of roles in the music and entertainment business. Many of these schools have neither the formal music business curricula nor the experienced faculty to support them. I’ve made it our mission to support these students through design challenges and workshops. In order to “design the design challenges” though, I need to periodically answer the bigger question: What should we be teaching?

To determine what to teach, I turned to the music industry.

I asked over 20 music industry leaders “What are the essential topics that university students should be exposed to before entering the music industry?”  Put another way, “If we were going to write a book with only 7 chapters to prepare students for the industry, what are those chapters?”

Mentors included representatives from major labels, digital service providers (music streaming and sales), artist management, creative and marketing firms, musician services, music tech startups, and academia.  

After brainstorming and discussion, our group of music industry leaders voted on the topics we felt were most important for future industry leaders. Based on our meeting notes, I created this article to offer the full content and explanations of an acronym and industry-jargon-filled post-it note session.

I present the ranked list of ideas in the section below. These are the topics that I’ll teach in this year’s Stanford University’s The Changing World of Popular Music - the only music industry course available to Stanford undergraduate and graduates.

Music Industry leaders want students to have the following knowledge:


Students should possess the ability to explain the basics of the music industry to their grandmothers. We seek a curiosity and an intuition - a “How Stuff Works”-level understanding - a whiteboard full of block diagrams - of the basic building blocks and economics of the modern music industry.  

Students should under the following topics (in order of importance):

  1. The Business of Music: Understanding the key revenue sources in the music business for artists/labels/management. Understanding the recorded music digital supply chain from artist’s laptop to a consumers’ phone. Building a realistic understanding that the music business is a business.

  2. CONTEXT (PAST): How did it get to be this way? How did the music industry even get to be a business? What were the previous disruptions?

  3. PRESENT: How has the industry been continuously disrupted through innovation and entrepreneurship? Build an intuition of the state of the industry now. Understand the role that those disruptors serve, including their value add, structure, and business models.

  4. FORECAST (FUTURE): What do we think the current disruptions are? Where is the industry going?  What are the forces and trends that are inevitable?

  5. Roles In Industry: Understanding the breakdown of “'where the actual jobs are” and what those job roles actually mean, by % of artists, artist management, marketing, A&R etc...

  6. The Wider Ecosystem: Breakdown of what the different parts of the business do, building up an understanding of:

  • how a modern record label works

  • how the industry functions to enable future leaders to change how things are done

  • the role of publishing/labels/management/booking and the current roles and functions of the different people that work in each part of the business

  • how songwriters, publishers, performers, and recorded music connect

  • how music is monetized across other media: radio, TV, games, VR, movies.


The music industry monetizes the artistic contributions of real, hard working people. To participate in this ecosystem, you must understand who these creators and performers actually are. It’s essential to build a realistic and well-grounded portrait of a modern artist.  

Students should develop an understanding of:

  1. An artists' true needs, understanding their “day in the life”, feelings, schedules, touring, external expectations, and support needed to survive.

  2. The DIY tools, data, and resources that artists now have to promote, build their fanbase, sell merchandise, pitch songs, sell tickets, and build their brands.

  3. The fundamental pillars of artist discovery and development process.


Music is about gut, feel, instinct, and… analysis of data? With access to massive amounts of data and analytics that were previously only available to major artist managers and labels, it’s imperative that today’s future industry members understand:  

  1. Artist Data. How do I access data about my audience, reach, and engagement? Who am I talking to? Where are my fans coming from across all social, website, and digital platforms? How did I acquire them? How did I lose them? How do I sell them merch or tickets?  How do I make insights from this?

  2. Consumption data. What’s available to me, where is it, and what  do I actually do with it? Do I know the basics of statistics? Do I know how to read basic streaming, consumption, social media stats?

  3. Data-driven A&R.  Understand the role that data now plays in artist and songwriter discovery process.


All students should develop a fundamental understanding of the basic intellectual property law that protects music works and sound recordings. It’s tough to make money in or even innovate and disrupt the existing system when you don’t understand the fundamentals of it!

  1. Rights 101. What are the underlying differences between sound recording and  publishing rights? What are you entitled to do with your copyrights? What are sync rights? When do you need to obtain a license from others?

  2. Licensing 101. When and how do I get paid based on my copyrights? What’s a PRO?

  3. International. If I’m distributing works in other territories, what do I need to know about US and global copyright?

  4. Avoiding issues with privacy and child protection laws.


While most of our mentors expertise and discussion focused strongly on recording music, we acknowledge the tremendous significance of live. Live music plays a significant role in the discovery, opportunity, and revenue sources available to the music industry. Fans have an insatiable desire for new experiences, and a basic understanding of the live music and touring ecosystem is key for future industry leaders.

Future leaders of the recorded music industry should understand…

  1. Live music ecosystem, key players, and the individual roles available.

  2. Economics of concerts, tours, and festivals for artists and artist managers.

  3. Benefits of touring and crossover effects towards recorded music revenues.   


Perhaps the greatest struggle of the modern musician is breaking through the noise to expose their music to their future fans. It’s the responsibility of all musicians to establish their own fanbases, their own communities, and develop a foundation for future development.  

Our future industry leaders should understand:

  1. Marketing: Strategy and fanbase fundamentals.

  2. Marketing: Paid versus organic techniques.

  3. Marketing: Social media strategy for the music industry.

  4. Skills: Writing a marketing plan


We expect all future industry leaders to develop a passion and expertise in one of the above areas. However, without developing the soft skills below, the best emerging leaders struggle, fail, and are even rejected by a highly competitive and referral-oriented industry.

Students should understand:

  1. How to network

  2. How to build relationships

  3. How to read basic financial statements (and why it's more important than reading music)

  4. How to hustle and maintain your work ethic

  5. Writing promotional copy

  6. How to allocate your limited time and resources

  7. Ability to synthesize complex information into simple straightforward statements or bullet points

  8. Effective communication skills

So… what’s next?

The good news is that universities with established music industry programs are already implementing most of these recommendations and topics. Schools are looking for ways to expand their offerings to create more industry-oriented concrete value to more of their students.

The soft skills programs that are most often neglected and omitted from a class are the skills most repeatedly identified as essential by industry.

This list of recommendations will be most eye-opening to the colleges that do not have a music industry program - especially the myriad of schools that do not offer a single, dedicated course on the topic. Armed with a list of topics that our industry demands, faculty should feel empowered to integrate these topics in their existing curricula, or advocate for a dedicated course.

In my experience working at the intersection of academia and industry, the majority of university music and arts programs could benefit from implementing these suggestions.