DEREK WILLIAMS TALKS MUSIC BIZ AT BELMONT UNIVERSITY
Derek Williams grew up in Nashville, surrounded by all the opportunities Music City has to offer aspiring musicians and industry personnel. He taught himself to play the guitar, practiced constantly, and earned a degree in Classical Guitar from Austin Peay State University. He cut no corners on his way to becoming a professional musician. He was prepared and ready for whatever the job market would throw at him. What he wasn’t prepared for was exactly how to find that first gig. Derek quickly discovered that having a superior skill set doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a job. He’d made all the right moves up to this point, yet there was no clear path on how to turn his resume into a paycheck. Determined, he tread the waters of the music scene, made connections, and found employment. Derek has now shared the stage with many of the big names in country music, touring with Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett, and playing with Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley, Billy Gibbons, and many others. He’s played venues across the country and made numerous television appearances. Having gained a 360 view of the music industry, Derek turned his knowledge and experience into a mentoring program and a career minded website. In 2013, he founded That’s My Gig, LLC (TMG), with a mission of giving aspiring musicians the tools they need to build a successful career. This year, he’s adding a new dimension to an already pioneering product.
Never one to wait for opportunities to find him, Derek created a market for the product he has to sell. Having been a college student, sated with knowledge but nowhere to display what you’ve consumed, he recently turned to the college market to share his experience and advice on the music business. Belmont University is located in Nashville, Tennessee, and offers a wide variety of degree options in music education through the Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business. Partnering with the Country Music Association (CMA), Belmont hosts an official CMA EDU chapter on campus for students seeking additional opportunities to explore the industry, network with professionals, volunteer, and participate in related projects. Each sanctioned chapter is led by student officers and one faculty adviser. The Belmont Chapter is led by student president, Kalyn White, who is assisted by Lexi Smith of the leadership team and Tim Rencken, vice president of membership.
In late April, Belmont University’s CMA EDU chapter played host to Derek Williams in an open forum that was free for all Belmont students and student members of the CMA EDU organization. The event was scheduled for an hour, during which Derek talked about his experience and offered advice on how to successfully enter the job market, followed by a question and answer session. Tim Rencken was the liaison for the event between Derek and the university program, having met him in August of 2013, his first week in Nashville. Tim is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist from Nashua, New Hampshire, who takes part in Derek’s career counseling program. The CMA EDU chapter routinely hosts guest speakers and industry panels to give the students a wide range of exposure on topics that relate to their music and career goals. Derek’s speech would be an insider’s view for this room full of students, having been in their shoes and forged a successful path they’re just learning how to navigate. The theme for the evening would be to rethink their image and identity.
To understand the power of the message, let’s put ourselves in the student seats for this event. I’ve seen Derek Williams, professional guitarist, perform alongside Jake Owen on a very grand stage. He was living his dream of being a rock star. Now, he’s standing at the front of a classroom prepared to give a speech that will help me become his peer. This already tells me there’s more to a musician’s life than just tour buses and concert appearances. If it was just about the music, Derek could likely school us from the stage. Success isn’t guaranteed by how well you play the notes, it’s about how well you understand the game. Derek’s speech is a lesson about the music business and the importance of understanding that the emphasis is on ‘business.’ In the classroom, Derek is a businessman first and a musician second. His intention is to get students to think that way.
Students of music are inclined to show off their skills to foster an identity. Derek’s first point is to think of yourself as a product, not a sound byte. As a musician, you are more than just the instrument you hold, and you must exceed the level of your playing ability to sell yourself as a vital entity in a town saturated with exceptional players. Using Tim Rencken as our prototype musician product, the goal is to build Tim Rencken, Inc., not Tim Rencken, guitarist for hire. Derek tells the students to think of themselves as a business, not a musician. The skill set you have is the product you’re selling, and your success depends on how well you market the product. Musicians tend to spend large chunks of their time practicing and refining their skills. Derek stresses that at some point you have to stop obsessing over refinement and start selling what you have. As a guitarist, find your niche and become an expert at it. Mastering the style of Jimi Hendrix won’t get you a gig if you can’t convince a potential employer why they need that expertise. While being a student is an important part of adding to your skill set, he warns not to get too comfortable in the mindset that your diploma will guarantee employment. Use the time you have available to look beyond campus life to the real world that’s waiting for you post graduation.
Derek’s emphasis in this speech was clearly on marketability over showmanship. Tim Rencken may be able to slay a guitar solo in the spirit of Jimmy Page, but if no one needs that particular rock star ability, you’re nothing more than a fleeting YouTube sensation. The most successful artists have a team of people around them to further their interests and sell their brand. You’ll find publicists, managers, sales people, and accountants all directing their future success. Fresh out of college, you’re not likely to have the finances to hire such help. Derek tells the students that they already are all those things they can’t afford. He advises to come up with a plan and surround yourself with people that will support and energize your goals. In the beginning, pushing your product may mean giving it away for free just to position yourself in the playing field. Don’t assume that having an expert level skill set will automatically sell your product. Your job is to sell it as unique and vital to potential employers. In any audition situation in Nashville, you may be in a pool of 20 guitar players, all with exceptional skills. How you make yourself stand out amongst the crowd will be the difference between getting the gig and losing it to the competition. Coming out of college, the biggest transition you’ll make is turning your focus from learning new skills to selling what you’ve learned.
Derek’s last point to students was about the importance of using social media as a marketing tool. The word ‘social’ in the title tends to undermine its biggest assets. College is all about being social, and connecting with people via social media is practically a hobby. As you transition from student to the professional world, using it to your advantage can be crucial to gainful employment and building a career. Derek stressed that Fortune 500 companies use social media strictly for marketing purposes. They believe in the product they’re selling and use social media outlets to get their message out to the public. Individuals may tend to think of this as self-promotion and recoil at the idea. Thinking of yourself as a business with a product to sell is key to using social media to your advantage.
The turnout for this event was the largest for a spring event that Belmont’s CMA EDU chapter had ever had. Coming at the end of the school year, students were likely thinking ahead to summer plans and finding employment to supplement their learning. Many may be entering the job market for the first time as a professional musician and took advantage of this rare opportunity to hear from someone with Derek’s experience and expertise in the marketplace. His years as a career counselor make this type of event tailor made for him. He’s used to seeing young musicians with stars in their eyes who have no idea how to make their dreams a reality. His natural bent towards teaching and mentoring make him a valuable resource for young talent in need of direction. Beginning this fall, Derek will embark on a new venture in taking his advice about the music business to college campuses across the country. A number of colleges and universities host CMA EDU chapters and Derek’s goal is to share his experience with a wider audience. It’s part of a larger plan to update and expand the idea of TMG as a job resource with career counseling options. Belmont has already expressed interest in having Derek return in the fall, during freshman week, for a kick off with a TMG event where he will join other touring pros on the Q&A panel.
Derek Williams has learned to navigate the many avenues of the music business because he’s spent years traversing the options. He spent countless hours honing his skills and getting an education and then had to find his way to a profitable gig without a GPS. What he lacked in direction, he decided to create so others wouldn’t have to navigate blindly as he had. TMG was the product he created to fill that void. Through interviews with experienced professionals, they offer useful advice to up and coming players. TMG covers the gamut of things you may experience in finding a gig along with the view from the other side once you’re gainfully employed. Tour life can be an eye opening experience, and TMG gives you a window on that world before you step blindly into it. The range of services TMG offers is expanding. The website is being updated and their reach now includes the west coast as well as Nashville. In addition to the music lessons and career counseling TMG offers, it will also be a job resource center for musicians looking for opportunities to suit their skills. They’ve already assisted in placing many musicians in their current gigs, including a stadium tour with a major artist. The new platform will be an extension of that goal.
As a music student, the most important thing you can take away from Derek’s speech is that they don’t call it the music business for nothing. Music is the song people want to hear, but without a stage to play it on, other players to support the effort, and the fans to buy the music, the concert tickets, and the merchandise, you’re just another starving artist. The value of music is directly tied to the ability to sell it. If the best music were valued accordingly, that would be the goal. Realistically, marketing trumps expertise. Derek gets that because he’s spent years working in that reality. Through his efforts at TMG, you can learn from his experience and that of others who contribute to the site. By all means, play like Jimi Hendrix if that’s your dream, but market yourself as the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Through TMG, you’ll be able to answer the question, “Are you experienced?” Yes, and you’ll be on your way to career success.
Check out That’s My Gig: http://www.thatsmygig.com/
Visit Derek’s website: http://www.derekwilliamsguitar.com/#!
Pictures from the event are courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography.
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