How does a person survive life in the music industry? Students in a Ball State course that debuted in the fall got answers from people who know firsthand.
They included Kevin Ray, a 2009 alumnus and bass player for the chart-topping indie rock band Walk the Moon. He took advantage of a touring break to give back to Ball State by guest-lecturing for the first time at his alma mater. Over the course of five campus visits that began in August, he covered topics ranging from management and marketing to copyright laws and publishing deals.
“The students took the projects we gave them seriously, which showed me how goal-oriented and career-oriented everybody is,” Ray said. “That was great to see.”
He was among several artists who participated in Surviving the Music Industry, an elective course in which 54 students interacted with touring musicians, industry professionals, artist management, record stores and music labels in Indiana.
“One of the key takeaways for students has been understanding how important networking is going to be to their careers,” said Daniel Porter, an instructor of music media production who led the School of Music class. “Many of our guests live in Indiana, which shows they don’t have to pick up and move to Nashville or Los Angeles to work in the business.”
Senior Kyle Snyder of Greenville, Ohio, said he’d learned so much from the course he felt it should be mandatory.
“Kevin had some great in-depth conversations with us about how he got his start and where it led him. That gave us a sort of starting point for our own careers in a way I’ve never experienced.”
Porter’s class also took advantage of other opportunities, including a visit to Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater, one of the country’s largest dealers of musical equipment.
There, they learned more about the fast-growing company and how it’s become a professional pipeline for Ball State graduates. More than 30 alumni work there now, including 15 hires made in the past year, said Jeff McDonald, Sweetwater’s senior vice president of human resources and recruiting. “One of the things we love is seeing how Ball State prepares its graduates to be progressive, at least from a 21st-century, technological standpoint. We find most to have a very modern skill set and sensibility.”
Visiting Sweetwater was a highlight of the semester for freshman Aaron Holloway. “It reinforced my belief there are all sorts of opportunities for me in music when I graduate,” the music media production major said after the class’s November tour. “I feel ready for a career, whether I make it as an artist or not.”
Freshman Ethan Smith said what most appealed to him about the class was its unconventional format, including the casual but professional way guests spoke with students. “You’re talking shop with industry names and instead of being awestruck, you find what they’re saying to be really relatable.”
Hoosier musician Jimmy Ryser, a singer and guitarist for John Mellencamp as well as a Billboard-charting solo artist, spoke to the students about his career milestones and pitfalls.
“It would have been so cool to have a class like this when I was young,” Ryser told them, “because I didn’t know what I was doing in 1988 when I signed a multimillion-dollar record deal with Arista Records.”
Along with Ray and Ryser, other guests included local business owners and alumni Whitney Stump, ’04, from Muncie music venue Be Here Now and Travis Harvey, ’05, of Village Green Records.
A special partnership
Ray had nothing but praise for Porter, who pulled the class together quickly over the summer after learning Ray’s schedule would allow him to participate.
Like Ryser, Ray wishes he could have taken a class like this during college. He first visited Ball State on a whim in 2005 — he took a campus tour during a family trip from Ohio to Chicago. Once he saw the recording studios inside the Music Instruction Building, there was no turning back.
“They were just finishing up the studios at the time, and I took one look in the window, saw one of the new mixing consoles and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Ray said. “I applied only to Ball State because it was so clear to me then.
“It was the first time I was honest with myself,” he said, sharing with students that, until that point, he thought he’d study nursing. “Growing up in the Midwest, you’re taught to always have a backup plan. But that can really scare you out of pursuing what you love.”
Coincidentally, he and Porter were students in the School of Music at the same time. They’ve since gotten to know one another through their classroom partnership. “Dan has done an excellent job with this class. He’s been killing it with everybody he’s brought in.”
While the majority of students in the course were music majors, it was open to students outside of the School of Music. Some, like Fort Wayne native Paige Fransen, saw the elective as a chance to enhance her resume.
“I love music and want to work in the industry,” said the senior public relations major who is fresh off an internship with the County Music Association. Among the lessons she took from Ray was learning about artists’ use of social media and how bands employ analytics to grow their audience online. “That part was especially great because this course counts toward my marketing minor, so it was a win-win.”
Porter plans to offer the course again soon. Since the class’s mission is to bring in a variety of Indiana music professionals, each offering will feature updates and potentially a new lineup of guest lecturers.
It’s unclear whether Ray will be able to participate but the musician will do everything he can for future students.
“I’ve been talking with industry friends who are open to coming in to speak the way I did, and now that I can be someone to vouch for the program, I think we can make it happen.”