Mike King is a course author, instructor, and the Vice President of Enrollment at Berklee College of Music and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Berklee Online. Prior to Berklee, Mike was the Marketing/Product Manager at Rykodisc, where he worked with artists including Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Jeb Loy Nichols, Morphine, Jess Klein, Voices on the Verge, Bill Hicks, the Slip, Pork Tornado (Phish), Kelly Joe Phelps, and Frank Zappa’s estate. Mike’s music business advice has influenced thousands of musicians at Berklee and beyond. Here he shares more on how he got started, as well as his top tips.

What attracted you to the business side of the music industry?

I was a history and politics major in college and had an epiphany my senior year that my path post-graduation needed to be something where I could have the largest possible positive impact on people, and I landed on music being the vehicle to do this. I have minimal musical aptitude, so the business side was where I gravitated to. 

What was your first job on the business side of the industry?

I started my career as a college radio rep at Rykodisc, which at the time, was a large independent record label based out of Salem, MA. Ryko got purchased by Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) and I moved to NYC to work for him in Columbus Circle. I came back to Massachusetts a year later to take on the role of Product Manager at a small offshoot of Ryko located in Gloucester. All in, I was there for six years.

Do you think having an understanding of music helps with how you do in the music business?

I think you have to define what “an understanding of music” means. I dont think you need to be a musician, but I think that it is really helpful if you are a student of music (depending on what your role in the business is). If you look at someone like legendary producer and label head Rick Rubin, who is still one of the most in-demand producers, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music but is not a musician. I think if you are a musician, it makes a ton of sense to learn as much about music—theory, harmony, ear training—as possible, but if you aspire to work at a management company, or a licensing firm, or a publisher, I don’t think it’s a necessity. 

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Please describe your own musical background. 

I’ve played guitar and bass for 25 years, but my interest is in learning and playing cover songs for the most part, and jamming on two-chord vamps with some friends.

If you were starting out now and you had to choose one area of the music business to start learning about, which area would you start with?

Well, I am biased, but I think marketing is a transferable skill—the foundational aspects can be used no matter where you end up in the music business. But I like the idea of being a 360 music business entrepreneur. I think that having an understanding of copyright, publishing, marketing, touring, licensing, and how all these areas work together, is a really appealing concept.

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What is the biggest lesson you learned the hard way in the music business?

It takes more than raw musical talent to be successful in the music business. When I started at Rykodisc in 1997, I worked to familiarize myself with the entire roster of artists. Through this process, I discovered Nick Drake, who I thought was amazing. At the time, Pink Moon, his seminal record, was selling 100 units a week—certainly not a commercial success by any means. Nick was a musician’s musician at the time, those who knew about him loved him, but his catalog sales were not strong. It took a Volkswagen commercial in 2000 for Nick to reach more mainstream success, 25 years after his death.

Nick Drake’s song “Pink Moon” in the famous Volkswagen commercial.

I think the music business is extremely challenging, but I do think that there are more tools now, and data is more easily available now, than ever before, which has the potential to help, but it takes a lot to motivate people to listen and engage.

If you could offer one piece of advice to a musician who is trying to become more business savvy, what would you say?

The necessary skills to become successful in the music business are out there and learnable. No doubt that there are a number of peculiarities in the music business, but if you focus, actively search out information, and associate yourself with folks who have experience and know more than you do, you are going to do well. I’ve found that some of the heaviest hitters in the music business are eager to help.

There are a number of peculiarities in the music business, but if you focus, actively search out information, and associate yourself with folks who have experience and know more than you do, you are going to do well. —@atomzooey Click To Tweet

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