Esther Saka

By Deb Walsh

As part of the Global Digital Business Group at Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., Esther Saka knows how to stay relevant in the digital world. Her work on a given day can range from analyzing web metrics to helping plan online strategic initiatives. The bottom line? “You have to be up-to-date,” she says. “In the digital realm, change is perpetual, there is always more to learn from new technologies, to managing the new issues that crop up every day—all the time. That’s why I am so grateful that Berkleemusic exists.”

For Saka, who has long surrounded herself with musically inclined and creative people, the decision to enroll at Berkleemusic in 2006 was both a practical and fortuitous one.

“In the music business, things are in a constant state of flux, so complacency is not an option,” she says with characteristic enthusiasm. “This business is completely exciting. But it can also be very challenging because you have to stay current with everything.”

“I had looked at other schools, but Berklee had the reputation,” she says. “I was looking for a well-rounded view of the music business, and I wanted to continue working simultaneously.”

Now a student in Berkleemusic’s Master Certificate in Music Business program, Saka is currently enrolled in two courses: Legal Aspects of the Music Industry and Inside the Record Industry. She has completed Music Business 101, The Future of Music and the Music Business, and Music Publishing 101. Coming up next semester is Music Industry Entrepreneurship and possibly, Music Marketing 201. But it is the Future of Music course at Berkleemusic that holds special significance for Saka.

While enrolled in the course, Saka applied for a job in the Global Digital Business Group at Sony Music Entertainment. She had already gone through one set of interviews, and decided to attend Digital Music Forum East in NYC, an annual industry event focusing on the intersection of technology and music.
“I sat in amazement as one person after the next got up to discuss what I was simultaneously studying at Berkleemusic,” she says. “Thomas Hesse [President of Sony BMG Music Entertainment's Global Digital Business and US Sales] addressed the state of the digital music business and my personal favorite, Mark Eisenberg [Executive VP, Business and Legal Affairs, Global Digital Business Group] and David Israelite [President/CEO, National Music Publishers’ Association] went head to head with Jonathan Potter [Executive Director, Digital Media Association] and Jim Griffin regarding copyrights and new innovation.”

“Then we heard music futurist Gerd Leonhard talk about business models and issues with DRM. At the time, I was literally learning these concepts at Berkleemusic in one of our textbooks, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, which Leonhard wrote with Berkleemusic V.P. Dave Kusek,” she says. “It seemed that I was actually a part of ‘the future.’”

After the conference, Saka asked Leonhard to sign her copy of the book. Three weeks later, she was at work in Sony’s Global Digital Business Group.

“I can say, unequivocally, that what I was learning at Berkleemusic helped me land a job. Berkleemusic gave me relevant things to talk about in my interviews. I had the knowledge to know who the key people were—what they had written, and what issues real people in the industry were dealing with. The classroom knowledge really gave me more self-confidence.”

Looking Back

Like many Berkleemusic students, Saka had long held dreams of working in the music business. From age 5 until graduating from high school, she sang in the choir at her synagogue in Houston. At 18, she fell in love with the musical history and culture of New Orleans and enrolled at Tulane University, earning a degree in marketing from the Freeman School of Business. At Tulane, she interned in the marketing department at Metro Networks, a Westwood One radio news company. Soon after, she connected with concert production company Superfly Productions, and was in on the ground floor when Superfly founders Jon Mayer, Richard Goodstone, and Rick Farman—along with Bonnaroo mavericks Kerry Black and Paul Peck—decided to produce the first Bonnaroo festival.

After moving to New York in 2002, Saka scored a job with her now-mentor and friend, Terri Baker, Esq., who has represented such well-known artists as The Notorious B.I.G., The Band, Los Lobos, Sean Paul and his producer Jeremy Harding, and Kevin Lyttle, just to name a few. There, she saw more facets of the industry than she had ever imagined—pitching sponsorships, doing licensing deals and approving license requests, working on publishing agreements and performing rights society affiliations, filing trademarks and copyrights, revising recording agreements, A&R and pitching artists to labels, and attending showcases.

Today, Saka’s growing business acumen is put to work daily as she helps to enhance the web visibility and fan bases of Sony artists through their digital presence on MyPlay, Sony Music Entertainment’s on-demand video network.

On the side, Saka’s steady diet of music-related projects and educational pursuits includes her two Berkleemusic courses, work with VH1’s Save the Music Foundation, and taking in all the music NYC has to offer. She is also helping a foundation called Sweet Home New Orleans along with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, raise money and support to preserve the music and culture of New Orleans.

Through all, Saka articulates an unwavering determination to stay at the top of her profession, which she hopes will someday encompass strategic marketing and planning, sponsorships, and business development. When asked if she would you recommend Berkleemusic to someone looking to further their careers, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes, Yes, Yes! 150% recommended,” she says. “Berkleemusic provides an excellent, affordable, and convenient way to continue learning and stay involved in the music business. I intend on being affiliated with this school for a very, very, very, long time.”

Berkleemusic recently talked with Saka regarding trends in the music business and how her online experience has helped further her career.

BERKLEEMUSIC: Are there parts of your certificate program you’ve particularly enjoyed?

 ES: I really valued learning more about business models - how much artists actually take home at the end of the day; what percentage the labels and publishers usually get and take; what kind of options are available to artists and the reasons and expenses behind the whole thing. Going from the artists’ side to the label/corporate side of things provided me with more of a context and added a lot of value to what I had been learning in my courses

I found portions of the courses, where we learned about how to utilize the changes (i.e., improving quality, adding value to content and of course making product and accessibility more convenient) incredibly interesting.

BERKLEEMUSIC: What do you see as the biggest changes that have come about recently in the record/label industry?

ES: I’d say that the biggest changes would be watching the physical CD become an anachronism, D2C Sales, and The Rise of Mobile and OTA.  Because my father owned video stores and his cousins own two of the largest Latin American retail music chains on the continent, Ritmo Latino and Mix Up, I am particularly sensitive and aware of the effects on businesses when there is a change in platform/format. However, new technology and innovation will continue to be developed, these changes are inevitable.

Do you think that Web 2.0 has redefined ways to reach core customers?
Yes, absolutely. Web 2.0 has redefined the music business and increased and maximized opportunities for artists and labels. The community provides a place for users to interact with other users and stay engaged with their favorite music and artists through forums, uploads, contests, audio streams, and a zillion other new interactive features.

Basically, Web 2.0 is really allowing artists to live out their potential and maximize the experience of the fan. Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and Radiohead provide a few great examples of what embracing changes can accomplish… and yes, I learned about those accomplishments in my Berkleemusic online classes.

BERKLEEMUSIC: Many Berkleemulsic students are working musicians. What ways do you see that artists can to monetize their websites or use marketing innovatively to brand themselves?

ES: I truly believe that providing great content is the best way to monetize an artist site.  Give the fans what they want.

BERKLEEMUSIC: Have you met or worked with any artists you'd like to mention?

When I was working with Terri Baker, I was fortunate enough to help launch the careers of Sean Paul and Kevin Lyttle. I am still very close with Sean and his manager and producer, Jeremy Harding. Jeremy produced Beenie Man’s “Who Am I,” and is one of the smartest people I have met in the business.

I am also proud to say that DJ Logic, the jam band turntablist, is a dear friend of mine. I met Logic while interning at Superfly in 2001. Logic is an innovator and frankly, from my perspective, gives jam band music exactly beat that it desperately needs.

BERKLEEMUSIC:  What’s your quick take on the future of your career?

ES: I think that an artist’s web site and development in the digital space will largely help in building the artists/bands as brands. I see my future in the industry becoming increasingly more brand-centric, utilizing the 360 degree concept with focus on the artists as brands themselves.  Brand building will involve all aspects of an artist’s career from their publishing to their merch to their touring. I am very interested to see how the careers of artists recently signed to deals with Live Nation turn out.

BERKLEEMUSIC: What are you listening to?

ES: Lately I’m listening to the radio a lot! I’m into 101.9 RXP streaming radio on their website—it has that nostalgic MTV of the early-90s feel, but with new releases.  I’m really enjoying the The Avett Brothers, the new T.I., Amie Mirello, a lot of 80s new wave, the new Little Jackie single, and for some reason anything with Akon and/or FloRida.

As for live music, I do see quite a bit.  I am going to see Madonna on Saturday and The Black Crowes at the end of the month and Fleet Foxes this weekend, to name a few.  I’ll also be attending CMJ Music Marathon at the end of the month.

BERKLEEMUSIC: What kind of advice would you give someone looking to break into a career like yours?

ES: They should really figure out what they want to do within the industry, find a mentor and pursue a well-thought-out plan. Of course, the industry is in a constant state of flux so be prepared for chaos. Many paths might lead nowhere and sometimes you have to cut your losses and chalk things up as lessons learned. Read everything you can, all the time. I’m still on my journey - perhaps I will always be. I like a saying from my favorite fortune cookie: "Your path is arduous but will be amply rewarded." I sure hope so.