Welcome to music industry week! Instead of heading down to SXSW this year, we decided to highlight a bunch of music industry professionals who work in various parts of the business to keep it running all throughout the year. A single week down in Austin might seem glamorous for a time, but the truth is the music is an industry just like any other, and if it’s your goal to work in music, that goal is totally attainable without a “networking” trip that costs hundreds of dollars.
You don’t need to travel down to Texas and brush shoulders at overcrowded showcases full of cheap beer, questionable immigration policies and ubiquitous corporate branding. If the point of going to SXSW is to get familiar with the music industry, skip all that and read our interview series instead to find out where you may fit in. There’s so many areas to work in aside from playing music, or even writing about music, and the purpose of this series is to spotlight lesser-known but essential roles that keep the music world spinning.
Mara Schwartz Kuge works in music publishing as the president and founder of her own company, Superior Music Publishing. She founded the company back in 2014 after several years working at music publishers learning the ins and outs of the music licensing and sync world. She kicks off our look into the lesser known jobs that make the music industry tick and gives the best advice in the whole series — always be nice.
What’s the trajectory that led you to your current career path and how did you get involved in the music industry?
I started on this path working for a company that was one of the first places doing original content on DVDs. This was back in thee late ’90s, ’98 or ’99. They hired me to produce their music DVD series, and when I got there I realized they hadn’t made any allowance for music licensing at all. They hadn’t thought about it, they hadn’t budgeted for it, they’d just assumed that they could use any music they wanted for free because it was promotional. Fortunately they got me in there to set them straight on that area, which meant that I needed to learn music licensing and take care of music licensing really quickly and efficiently.
So I spent a lot of time doing that — we had about 20 songs on each DVD so I really got a crash course on how to do that. That company was part of the dot com era, and a dot com company bought us, then they immediately folded. So I was out of a job again, but fortunately I had a lot of contacts from my music licensing part of the job, so when a job at Bug Music opened up, I applied for that and I had some contacts over there already so I got the job. And that was in 2003 and I’ve been working in music publishing ever since.
Where you working in music before you began working for the DVD company?
I had all kinds of jobs in the music industry. I started out as an assistant at Epic Records, and then I was an assistant at Virgin Records. And then after a while I decided I really wanted to work more in music journalism so I was doing that for a while. I ended up getting the job at the DVD company because they were looking for somebody who had a lot of contacts in the music business as far as publicists and things like that. Because they knew how to make DVDs but they didn’t have any contacts in music, and so because I had a lot of contacts in music from journalism especially, that’s why I got hired there.
After transitioning to Bug Music in 2003, what was the pathway from there to starting your own company?
Well, Bug isn’t around anymore, they were purchased by BMG. I had been really wanting to have my own company for a long time. I looked at the founders of companies like Bug, the founder of Bug didn’t start out with any experience as a publisher, he just decided he wanted a publishing company, and he just did it. He worked really hard and created a fantastic company, and I just thought that I wanted to do that. I figured I’d give it a try, and if it didn’t work out, I’d could always go back and get a job somewhere without having any gaps in my resume. But my company has been working out well, I’ve been very happy with the artists that I work with, and my partners at Modern Works Publishing have been great. The company is growing quickly, so I’m glad that I made that jump.
For someone who maybe doesn’t have a grasp on it, can you briefly explain music publishing and what your role is?
Music publishing represents the rights of songwriters, as opposed to the rights of recording artists. So for example, somebody like Katy Perry, she might write some of her songs but she does have other people who write her songs for her who aren’t necessarily performers. We need to make sure that those people are taken care of, too, that their record labels pay them. That if one of their songs is used on film or TV that an appropriate license is paid, that all of their songs are set up with the copyright office, with the performing rights society, there’s a lot of paperwork and collection and administration that needs to be done when you’re a songwriter, and when your songs are used either on a record, or on film and TV, or performed live. And they’re not always going to have time to take care of it, or the interest in taking care of that. And also a lot of the songwriters and performers are the same person, in which case they’re busy touring, and they’re not going to have time to take care of this stuff.
Another big part of publishing is pitching for film and TV and advertising and trailers and other audio visual media, which is a full time job in itself. And you really need to know the music supervisors and know people in that field, because there is a lot of noise out there, and the music supervisors tend to trust their sources that they’re familiar with and they know are going to bring them good music. So being one of those sources is something that’s going to be really beneficial to the songwriters that you work with.
What skills or interests do you think are good for someone who is thinking about this type of job?
In my case I’m a publisher and a sync representative, and for the sync part of the job you need so much tenacity. You just need to be able to pitch and pitch and pitch, and people either say no or completely ignore you over and over and over again without being discouraged. I send things to supervisors multiple times a day and hundreds and hundreds of songs out before I even get a response on anything. And a lot of times I’ll pitch something, won’t hear anything back, and then someone will be interested in it six months later. You need a lot of patience and a willingness to go out there, put yourself out there and network, and introduce yourself to people who you may have seen them on email, but don’t necessarily know. You need to to go out to networking functions until you’re really established. But those don’t necessarily have to be something like SXSW, it can be a networking function in your school, or in your industry, if there’s anything for the entertainment industry. Even just going out to a lot of shows and meeting bands and things like that, all of that can be really helpful in your career.
I know you mentioned pitching for sync as a separate role, but aside from that section of it what are some of the daily tasks that you go through as a music publisher?
One of the big things is just making sure everyone’s paperwork is in order. Making sure that my bands send in everything they need to get their songs set up with the copyright office, or even just with my company. Things like direct deposit forms so they can get paid, and making sure when they write a song with another writer that everybody signs off on what the song splits are. Because if you do it in the studio everyone is pretty clear on it. But say somebody records your song two years later… and there’s potentially some money for the other writer. All of the sudden people’s memories get really fuzzy as to what they wrote. And they always remember that they wrote more, they never remember that they wrote less. So making sure that my songwriters do that, getting in paperwork, sent to ASCAP and BMI and all that kind of stuff.
It’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of negotiating. Making sure when the artists have new albums coming out that they let us know. I’m pitching songwriters for their stuff to be used in audio visual projects, but a lot of the stuff just comes in by itself, and most of that stuff is pretty low budget. It’s people who want to play a song on podcasts, or they’re making a little travel film that’s just going to be on their website, or it’s a student film. And all that paperwork needs to be done too. Especially with the student films, we really want students to know how to license their music properly before they go off and make a feature that they send to Sundance. So we really try to encourage people to do it, but then of course, that’s a lot of paperwork coming in that doesn’t involve very much money, but it still needs to be done. Scouting is an element of it too.
How do you think music publishing is important to the music industry as a whole and how does it function in the grand scheme of it?
Songwriters’ rights are so important and they tend to be forgotten about. People just think of recording artists and their rights. Even right now, the NMPA, the national music publishers association, is working to get digital streaming rates up to to something higher than what they’ve been. There really has not been increases in songwriter payments for mechanicals in years, and there’s a lot of the ASCAP and BMI rates were set back in the 1930s when recordings were first happening. And now that streaming services have come up, those rates really are just not proportional to what they should be. So there’s a lot of fighting for that. Just in general, songwriters tend to be overlooked. People try to license songs through the record labels and they think they’re good, and they don’t realize someone wrote the song and needs to be paid and give their permission as well. So the publishers are not as high profile as the record labels, but they’re really really important in making sure the underlying composition doesn’t get ignored.
What advice do you have for someone who may be looking to get into the music publishing side of things?
Well, if there’s any opportunity to intern, absolutely do that. I know that there’s been a lot of people saying it’s not fair for interns to not get paid and that kind of thing, I actually disagree with that. You don’t have to intern 40 hours a week and be a trust fund kid. You can intern two days a week and work the other five. And, you know, have a roommate and make enough money to do it. At Bug Music we had plenty of interns who ended up getting jobs and doing really well there. I started as an intern, and even if you don’t get a job at the place that you intern, you meet so many people who are your contacts that can help you get a job somewhere. A perfect example is I interned at a place called Enigma Records, and right when I got out of college and knew I wanted to work there, the company folded. And I thought oh this is a bummer, I interned here, I was hoping to eventually get a job there. But what I didn’t realize was three months later all those Enigma people got jobs at different record labels, so I was able to reach out to people at all these different labels.
Also just get to know other people who are interested in music. It’s easier now than when I was doing it because you can just reach out to people online. And if you’re not somewhere where you can intern, if you’re not based in a city that has a music industry, there’s still internships at local venues that you can do, you can be a music journalist, you can blog. There’s all kinds of ways to get involved in music and make connections with people who can eventually refer you to music publishing if that’s what you want to do. The other thing I suggest for people who want to do music supervision, if you’re interested in learning the process of clearing music and having knowledge in that field and getting some publishing knowledge, is to work with people in your school. There’s got to be people who are doing short films, and just put an ad out there if you’re interested that you’ll do some music supervising clearances for free as long as you have a film for your resume. That’s a great way to get involved and start meeting people at different publishing companies.
Any other final advice?
Be nice to everybody! Even if you meet somebody who is kind of talking about being in the music industry but they don’t know when they’re going to do it. Still be nice to them, because you never know when they’re going to get that job in the music industry at some place where you might want to work or do business with. I’ve been surprised at people who I met a long time ago, who I just kind of exchanged cards with, who later on reached out and were able to do some really cool business or project together. So you never know.