taking care of business
Here's what HT's music business certificate taught me that my 4-year degree didn't
In 2023, Huston-Tillotson University entered the new age of music business. Now, registration is opening again for a new semester of condensed learning for potential managers, superstars, and more, whether they’re enrolled at HT or not.
An introductory music business class led by Philip Payne, the former manager of Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, transformed his insider industry knowledge last semester into something students could digest in just six classes. And as cursory a look as that is, the "Music Business Fundamentals" certificate program was more than a crash course for many students.
Back to the biz
The university invited me to join the inaugural class, for the entirety of the course: six weeks of two-and-a-half-hour classes, plus some extracurricular tours with partners C3 and SXSW. I already have a bachelor’s degree in Music History and Analysis, but it was very heavy on (you guessed it), history and analysis — not so much business. While I picked apart music theory and cultural context, my peers learned about contracts, promotion, and A&R jobs.
I’ve always been conscious of these holes in my knowledge, so I’ve tried to fill them with voyeurism into my musical friends’ lives and various readings (more on that later). I wondered if a certificate anyone could join — with any amount of experience — would really teach me much, and what kind of people would sign up.
It only took half a class to realize Payne was taking his job very seriously. Waiting at each seat was a “Music Business Foundations Student Workbook,” with 27 pages for guided note-taking. The class was smartly organized; The first half was dedicated to lectures and questions, and the second was for case studies and group work.
This was my first foray back into school since graduating in 2017, and the difference in tone between an undergrad classroom and this all-ages certificate was striking. There's something special about being in a lecture because everyone really wants to be there. There were no credits, no requirements, no grades — just the eager exchange of experience and ideas.
Despite my blend of arrogant hope and existential fear that I knew enough to be unteachable, this class literally schooled me. My biggest doubt going in — that it would be too theoretical and anecdotal — was completely squashed. There's enough hard information to keep uptight students like me engaged, and enough of a personal spin to make the in-person format absolutely worth it.
Here are 7 things I learned during the course:
1. People of all ages and backgrounds are still actively trying to make it in music. Okay, so we all already knew this one. Austin's stages are full of college kids and entertainment vets. But these students didn't fall neatly into either category. The most vocal attendees were mostly artists (although we also had producers, photographers, writers, and likely aspiring managers). The only thing they seemed to have in common was a serious sense of self-made momentum.
2. Secrets. Lots of secrets. A common refrain was "Don't tell anyone I'm telling you this," so I'll gatekeep a bit, here. Payne took plenty of opportunities to drop in opinions and anecdotes. The instructor dissected some industry beef (it's always a misunderstanding, he says), gave tips on which companies musicians should stay away from, and laughed at some of the ways he's gotten an audience with folks who didn't really want to talk to him. None of it was really confidential, but it's not the kind of stuff you'd see in a published online class. Viva in-person learning.
3. The entertainment lawyer who wrote the music industry bible graduated from UT. Donald S. Passman, a University of Texas graduate, is the reason for my hubris. I read part of his famous book, All You Need to Know About the Music Business, which has been endorsed by Adam Levine, Katy Perry, Quincy Jones, and more. But it's about as dense as a book can get, and that information is always changing. In one class, Payne told us he listens to the audiobook from time to time, just to stay up-to-date. (The book is now in its 11th edition.) Treat this class like a book club, and you'll really get the best of both worlds.
4. No industry pro is skilled enough to replace genuine interest in your career. Images of the slimy record exec are everywhere, and it's not historically inaccurate. But Payne was adamant that a business relationship will not work if the team is not unified by a genuine belief the artist will succeed — and Passman backs him up. About managers, Payne says, "There is not anything that's not your fault"; About artist and repertoire (A&R) folks, he says a skill is being "delusional" and a responsibility is to "die on this hill for a living." Good luck doing that for someone you don't care about.
5. Seeing any money come in for creative output is crucial for an artist's mental health. Payne isn't saying artists need to be rolling in it right off the bat — actually, on several occasions he liked the idea of lowering artist advances to mitigate risk and stay practical. But that also means recouping sooner (essentially getting to a point where the record company has made its money back), and getting checks sooner, too. There are other ways to do it, like negotiating a small payout before recoupment, but what's important is the result: an artist getting validation that they can make money for their creations.
6. You will always regret going into business with someone, at some point. No partnership is — or feels — perfect all the time. Payne offers several habits for cushioning those moments of doubt. He talks to people at every label to verify that they stick to their word once the contracts are signed and the honeymoon period is over. He encourages artists to walk away from an offer they're not happy with; If that label was interested, someone else will be too. Most important, he says, "I don't believe in beating up the label for the most aggressive [deal]." If everyone feels good about the deal, that's incentive to make it work.
7. It's hard to flop if you're independent. Socially, we espouse the idea that we're all out own worst critics. But a musician's worst critic is sometimes a record company in the red, uninterested in taking any more risks. A truly independent artist doesn't have to prove anything about the marketability of their work; They just have to put it out there, and hope people listen to it. There's a lot to be gained through joining a powerful label, but there will also be a lot to answer to.
I'm sure some of y'all have skipped ahead for this moment of truth: Would I pay for this $500 certificate? Yes, if I were ready to hit the ground running. That could mean applying to internships, reading Donald Passman's whole book, or even just making a list of personal goals going forward. The beauty of this class is the level of detail. It's not just a fun primer; It's a starting or continuing intensive for people early in their music careers.
Registration for the second semester of the "Music Business Fundamentals" certificate program is live now at htu-musicbusiness.com. It is "open to students and adult learners," meaning that anyone can sign up, regardless of university enrollment. The course will still be taught by Philip Payne, and will start on February 22.