Ask an Employer: Mastering the Business of Entertainment

As the president of a record label and a music publicity firm, Dawn Duncan has a lot of fun. In fact her Facebook page features a photo album appropriately titled “A Life of Fun,” with the tagline “Here are the pictures to prove it.” But she is quick to refute the notion that a career in the music industry is just a big party. To really succeed in entertainment, one needs to have communication skills, business savvy, and plenty of ambition.

How has Duncan used education to help boost her career? What traits, skills, and education does she look for when hiring employees? She answered these questions and more in a recent interview. The following is what she told us.

Name: Dawn Duncan
Companies: Yellowbright, Inc.- Publicity and booking firm for musicians;  Sugarfox Records, Ltd.- Record label
Number of employees: 3
Education: Bachelor of Arts in English, University of North Dakota
Years on the job: 26 years in the music industry

What are your goals or biggest priorities when hiring new employees?

A: My biggest goal is always to find someone who brings new energy to the company and who understands the value of a professional image. I look for people who are very driven to succeed and who want to help others. These are intrinsic traits, not ones that we have to constantly try to create in people. I also value writing, speaking, and overall communication skills very highly, so anyone we are courting for a position must possess these skills at an exceptional level. Overall, my goal is to find someone who loves music and who meshes well with musicians.

What challenges have you encountered during the hiring process?
A: I think many people are fascinated by the music industry, but they don’t understand the level of complexity it presents. Musicians are evolving into very savvy, educated business people and technology is constantly changing, so to be successful in the music world, one has to be very quick and able to shift gears fast. I’ve encountered many people who are looking to get rich quickly by hitching themselves to an up-and-coming band – they get sucked into the “rock star” idea, and it just simply doesn’t work that way. This is a business industry first and foremost and although there is a lot of fun and entertainment along the way, it’s a tough gig if a person is looking to do things the easy route.

When reviewing resumes and cover letters specific to your business, how important is education?
A: I value education, however, I work in an industry where it’s not necessarily the norm. Some of the greatest success stories in the music world are from people who didn’t go to college and some didn’t even finish high school; so it’s difficult to place tremendous value and stress on everyone having to get an education. However, I do believe that if you are lacking in an area and you want to be successful in business, get educated on that subject so you can master it, or find ways to create revenue streams that allow you to hire people who can help you out in that realm. (Accounting is the most common one you will hear entrepreneurs talk about—don’t spend your time getting an MBA if all you need is someone to do your bookkeeping and file your taxes.)

My degree is in English—completely unrelated to what I do today. I studied medieval literature and French, and minored in Psychology. Of these, I have used the psych education the most in terms of learning how to deal with different types of people (including some really strange ones!) and my English background has honed writing skills. However, I was intending to be an English professor back in the day, and my career turned the entrepreneurial direction by age 24. From there, the education I have received has always been hands-on, being mentored by others, and attending industry-specific training around the country (such as SXSW Music Festival in Austin, TX each year.) I think getting too focused on having to have a certain educational background wastes time when you could be evaluating what you love to do, what comes naturally, and what you want to offer the world. Figure that out and fill in the education gaps as needed.

What makes a resume rise to the top of the pile for you?
A: Perfect spelling and grammar. Next up would be not writing in first person. I absolutely loathe reading first-person resumes. I see resumes as business documents and I just want to read a concise presentation of data and the facts. However, being able to pair the resume with a well-crafted, personable, and creative email usually stands out to me; it gets my attention.

What makes a resume sink to the bottom of the pile?
A: Spelling errors, typos, and using vague objectives at the top. Everyone wants to be part of a successful company and work with a really awesome team. That doesn’t tell me what gets you up in the morning, what drives you, and how to possibly employ you in a way that benefits my company and clients.

How has education impacted your own career?
A: My “smorgasbord” approach to college certainly gave me a lot of training in many areas. I had five majors in five years! Art, elementary education, psychology, English, and one little blip of a semester in pre-med. It took me five years, but I got my degree and hit the road for Colorado. I think that education is an ongoing process and I value lifelong learning. My college education definitely trained me to explore new areas, communicate on a professional level, and be able to recite several lines from The Canterbury Tales on demand, but I think the training sessions I have chosen to attend over the years in music industry public relations, media, marketing, coaching, etc… have really equipped me to move ahead in new directions.

What tips would you give for someone considering going back to school?
A: This may be an unpopular answer, but I always ask people why they want to go back to school (i.e. before you commit to more investment of money and time, are you certain that you NEED to go back?) Certain fields demand it, of course, but I have watched countless entrepreneurs struggle in business; and when the heat is on them, they get nervous and scramble back to the confines of college. It’s almost a security blanket, and I think many times people think if they just had this class, that training, this certificate, etc… that everything would be easy. Not the case. I respect those who return to school, but I won’t be one of them.

I think if someone is considering going back to school, think about the time and money you will need to invest, the new lifestyle you will need to adopt, and what the end result will look like. Are you confident that this new degree or training will better equip you to do your passion, your preferred work? Are there opportunities waiting for you in that area? If you’re just going back to check off advanced degree on your list and add to your resume, skip it.

How valuable is a master’s degree in this line of work?
A: It isn’t really necessary in my line of work other than for people who want to run major corporations such as global labels and such. I’m sure that an MBA could help in that arena in terms of understanding finance and accounting, business communications, etc… I think master’s degrees related to the music industry that may be valuable would be in international business or foreign languages (depending on if you want to work globally, of course; but the Latin market is huge, and the Asian market for music is massive). If you want to be in the producing arena and have a music background, then perhaps music theory or production would be beneficial and respected. But again, this is an industry where many people don’t have college degrees (many do, but it’s not always the norm), so it really is a per person type of situation.

What is the best career advice you have ever received and who was it from?
A: My father continues to be my go-to person when it comes to career advice. He’s 80 this year, still working (by choice) and has been an entrepreneur since 1957. He told me, “Work for yourself. There’s no security better than controlling your own ship.” I believe that to this day and I think I was about 15 when he said it to me the first time. It has driven me in entrepreneurship daily. When things have gotten tough, and they have for all of us at times, it has sometimes been tempting to think about going to work for someone else because it feels more “secure.” But these words resonate with me and I know that as long as I am working for myself, I can control my career. I can make fast moves in whatever direction I need and I don’t have to be dependent on someone else’s situation in terms of money, ambition, ethics, or vision.

I also have had many mentors and sage advisors over the years and I read a lot of magazines, books, blogs, and newsfeeds each week, so I learn a lot from respected entrepreneurs and authors. My favorite quote of all time is actually by Winston Churchill, so I didn’t get this advice firsthand, of course, but it’s “Never, never, never quit.” He also said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Good mantras to adopt.

What other advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in this field?
A: Embrace technology. Learn as much as you can about social media and not just different channels, but how to really use it in a way that captures attention and engagement from others. Be on your feet, alert, don’t sleep a lot, and be ready at all times for the game to change. You’re running offense and defense simultaneously in this industry, and it’s competitive. But, it’s also fun. Make sure you are ready to tackle loads of incoming requests, communications, and invitations and prioritize in a way that is going to impact you, your clients, and your business in meaningful, positive ways.

If you are interested in exploring education options to help you fill in your skills gaps and get ahead in the arts and entertainment industry, Colorado State University offers online degree and certificate programs that may fit your needs. Check them out:

Core business competencies certificate
Marketing certificate

Bachelor’s degrees
Liberal Arts bachelor’s
Economics bachelor’s

Master’s degrees
Arts Leadership master’s

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