During an era in which few rules apply to making records and getting them out to the public, Jason King is living proof that a sound knowledge of the history of the music industry can mean the difference between obscurity and prosperity. The Canadian-born singer, journalist, professor, and manager has spent the last two decades exploring every nook and cranny of the business. Along the way, he’s paved new ground from New York City to Abu Dhabi, having written cutting-edge academic essays on soul music; co-founded the world’s first accredited university program with a fine arts bachelor’s degree in recorded music; formed a retro-futuristic soul/disco band comprised of personnel from half a dozen countries; and consulted aspiring artists on branding, visual presentation, and musical consistency. Justin Kantor speaks with the self-described “aggressive and ambitious” mogul about the makings of such a versatile and successful career in such a fiercely competitive field.
You are co-founder and Associate Professor of The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Tell me how the program was started and about its mission.
I received my Ph.D. in Performance Studies at NYU in 2002 and was simultaneously teaching classes around the campus covering R&B, jazz, and Afro-American and Asian-American studies. I was looking for a position when I was told that board member Clive Davis had given Tisch a check for $5 million to start a music program. Although there are a lot of famous music industry graduates of Tisch, including Rick Rubin, the school had never had a music program. It was well known for theatre and film. I was told that the goal of the program was to be more production-oriented than performance-driven, and was offered the job—with the caveat that I would help create the curriculum and get the program started from scratch. Of course, I said yes!
I knew that Clive Davis wanted this program to have the same stature in the music industry as comparable film and TV programs. In the film world, production means something very specific that’s very business-oriented. And Clive is business-oriented. But production in music means something different, so we had to figure that part out. With the rest of the faculty, I’ve helped define that vision from a leadership perspective for the past 10 years. We started with the base of production and have expanded that now to focus on music entrepreneurship. The idea is that all students who go through the program are both artists and entrepreneurs. They’re getting a bachelor of fine arts in recorded music. It’s the first and only degree of its kind in the world. Students take courses in production, songwriting, and ear training, as well as business classes (distribution, marketing, branding, A&R) and history and criticism. So, there’s a writing component, which looks at the history of 20th century pop music through the lens of artists and entrepreneurs.
At the end of four years, all students create full plans of what they want to launch as a music business. They have to incorporate it and write business and marketing plans. They get five minutes to pitch their projects in front of an invited group of contributors—they can ask for funding or mentorship. So, we build the exit strategy into the program itself, as opposed to other programs one might graduate from and wonder, “How do I get that job?” Since we started in 2003 when the digital age was coming into full swing, we didn’t have that luxury.
Let’s talk about some of the courses in the program. Which ones do you find students most easily become engaged in, and are there any that seem to be particularly challenging?
The students are coming in predisposed to wanting to study the business. Most take to production immediately. At 18, everybody aspiring to a career in the industry wants to be in a recording studio, making music. Many see the business as a way to commercialize and package what they’ve done artistically.
The hardest sell is history and criticism. While we have some students who are aspiring journalists, others have to find their way in writing about music—it’s not for everyone. But we’ve always felt that anyone in any profession needs to know how to communicate. Whether you’re an artist conveying the sound you want to a producer, or doing freelance A&R and trying to sell a band to a label, you have to know how to talk about the music to sell people on the artists you want to get signed.
One of the courses you teach is Music Recommendation and Discovery. Tell me about that.
I constantly strive to have my ear to the ground as to what’s new and around the corner, and I’ve always had an interest in technology. This course looks at the history of how people have learned about and discovered music throughout the years. We start with the analog era, in which people learned about it through trusted record store employees—a lot of young students in the course have never been in a record store. Then, we look at the era of entrusted journalists working on staff at papers such as The New York Times and Village Voice, all the way up to today with recommendation technologies like Pandora and Spotify. We study the technology behind those programs and also look towards the future. We think about taste, as well. What is it and how can we deconstruct it?
In recent years, you’ve also started teaching courses on behalf of NYU in Abu Dhabi. How did that come about?
After serving as Artistic Director of the Institute of Recorded Music from 2006 to 2012, I was due for a sabbatical. But a couple of months before I was going to take it, NYU informed me of a new portal campus out there. I was asked to teach a class on cosmopolitanism in popular culture and looking at the artist as a world citizen. People like Grace Jones, Bob Marley, and David Byrne make music and art that’s not limited to a particular national affiliation. It made sense to teach there since a lot of the students come from all over the world.
After two months in Abu Dhabi, I was offered a position teaching a post-graduate master course in Singapore. It dealt with producing transnational media ventures—helping graduate students from all over the world figure out how to create a music venture and how to get funding from different government sources. Then, coming up with a project that would appeal to the funders and also be popular.
I was asked back to Abu Dhabi, and I committed to three years there. My role is to help build the music major. We’re studying global music making and learning about different traditions in music, whether it be classical, popular Western, Latin-American, Middle Eastern, African, or Indian. It’s very indicative of what’s happening now. An artist like M.I.A. draws on different cultures and fuses them in different ways. I’m trying to create a new approach to thinking about music education that’s global, portable, and uses contemporary technology.
Let’s talk a bit about your own history in the music business. You’ve worked in a number of facets, but a lot of people first became familiar with your name as a contributing writer to music publications such as Vibe and Village Voice. Was that your initial career aspiration?
I was always a good writer and thought that journalism would provide a stable job. I left my hometown of Edmonton at 16 to attend Carlton University in Ottawa, where I studied Mass Communications and Journalism for a year. Even though I was doing well, there was something in me that really wanted to be in New York. So, during spring break, I stayed with a friend in the city, sleeping on the living room floor. I applied to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where I studied musical theatre and took music theory. I spent a lot of time in the performing arts library learning about every musical that had been on Broadway—particularly African-American ones. I was going to leave journalism behind and become an actor/dancer. I wanted to be under the lights.
I didn’t get to Broadway, but I got my actor’s equity card the week that I graduated. I did a lot of stage readings. At a certain point, my parents said, “You’ve got a conservatory degree. How about getting an actual degree?” The New School for Social Research had a deal with the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. They would take your credits and apply them toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre. So, I went back to school while I was performing.
It was there that I realized I could write about popular culture. I knew a lot about it and had spent years researching it, and I wanted to write about it from a different perspective. I had seen some scholarly R&B writing by heroes like Nelson George and Greg Tate, but no one was writing seriously about Jodeci and whatever else I was hearing on the radio. Even though I grew up on rock, R&B is really my love.
I applied to Tisch’s graduate school, but I couldn’t find a department that would allow me to study popular music from a scholarly angle. So, I called an administrator and asked, “Can I study hip-hop, pop, rock, and R&B in this program?” Five minutes later, he got back on the line and said, “Sure, why not?” At the same time, I had gotten into writing musicals, as well as a play entitled, The Story of My Father. Carl Hall played the grandfather; Vivian Reed played the mother.
I now had another take on the industry as a writer. I felt I had more agency, power, and access on the business side of things, meeting all kinds of people. I sent inquiry letters to write for Village Voice and Vibe, and no one would respond. Then, I got a very interesting opportunity to interview Tyrese. I had seen an advance copy of his first album in a record store. I thought, “Who is this guy I’ve seen on Coca-Cola commercials? He’s very talented and his album is solid; maybe I should write an article and submit it to Village Voice.” It turned out there was a snafu. Someone there somehow thought I was already writing for the magazine, so they gave me an in-person, catered lunch interview with Tyrese. That was my first. Still, nobody would publish it. But at least I had a clip that I could use.
Around that same time, I was on a panel with Emil Wilbekin, then-editor of Vibe. He was impressed with my perspective and background, and gave me the opportunity to write for the magazine. I had been doing a lot of public speaking, as well as writing academic essays on R&B artists. One was called “Toni Braxton, Disney, and Thermodynamics,” which I wrote for TDR.
Throughout your experiences writing for major music publications, have you found that you can easily convey the intellectual aspects that you feel are important?
I learned to use different voices for different outlets. The jargon and intensity of academic papers doesn’t work for popular writing. But it’s always the same perspective and content—just delivered in a different language. I’ve always tried to bring a totality to my writing. The business aspect is very important. There’s still not enough attention paid to industrial aspects in music journalism. Who’s putting the music out there? How much is it making, and how does that determine what other content comes out? I’ve also always paid deep attention to sound and voice. For a long time, there wasn’t a lot of sophisticated writing about R&B.
You’ve also become involved in preserving the legacy of a groundbreaking artist in the world of soul and disco, the late Sylvester. What is your role, and how did it come about?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Sylvester’s music, singing, arrangements, and musicianship. As a kid, I had a K-Tel cassette called Disco Dancing, which included “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” I was attracted to the freedom he presented in his music and image. I also sang falsetto, so there was a connection there.
In 2004, I co-produced a conference on his work at NYU. The panel included his colleagues, friends, biographers, and a guy named Tim Smyth, who was making a film documentary of Sylvester’s life. I approached him about it after seeing the trailer, and he told me he was having a difficult time getting it completed. Nobody wanted to touch a documentary about an African-American gay icon. I wanted to help him out, so we became business partners. He had gotten the life rights from Sylvester’s mother, who’s since passed away. This means he has the right to tell his story through any media—theatre, film, etc. I became involved in managing those rights.
We’re working on getting several Sylvester projects out into the marketplace and making sure there’s awareness from the younger generation. We also put up a new website, OfficialSylvester.com. It’s the first ever online hub for all of his work.
I understand you now have a group of your own whose sound is rooted in disco?
Yes, Company Freak! While I was traveling around Europe, the Middle East, and Asia these last few years, I was hearing disco and house music in every club I would go to and every supermarket I went to. House music really is the global music. It made me realize that there was nobody trying to recapture the sound of orchestral soul-funk-disco that was so prominent during the late 1970s and early ’80s. The sounds of Ashford & Simpson, First Choice, Change, and of course, Sylvester. That sophisticated songcraft and orchestral grandeur—the strings, the desire to create a music that is highly arranged, yet spontaneous. I wanted to recapture that moment and also claim the international aspect of disco.
A lot of people just think of the Bee Gees or K.C. & The Sunshine Band. They’re great, but what about the brilliant production and arrangements of Deodato, Manu Dibango & “Soul Makossa”? I also liked the example of Patrick Adams, an entrepreneur with many guises such as Inner Life and Musique.
I’m sort of the Nile Rodgers of the group. I produce, arrange, and orchestrate, and write all of the songs. I sing on all of the tracks—mostly falsetto, sometimes with my natural voice. We’re a loose affiliation of multi-generational singers and musicians. Asha Puthli and Vivian Reed have contributed vocals to several recordings.
I’ve been working with Hubert Eaves of D-Train and Steve Styles, one of the best bass players of today. I’ve also had the chance to work with some great engineers and instrumentalists from countries such as Ethiopia and Turkey.
On the business side, you run a company called Superlatude Music Group. What is the scope of that venture?
I’d been helping shape artists, develop business plans, and getting products released via my work at the Clive Davis Institute. There were so many artists I deeply admire who I felt should have more of a voice. I was inspired by the example right in front of me. Having the rare opportunity to work directly with Clive in developing the program and attending board meetings, I thought, “I have the entrepreneurial skills to do this professionally. Why not put them to use?”
So, I do consulting for artists, helping position them as unique and singular in the marketplace, assisting them in gaining visibility that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to in an era where the middleman has been cut out. Nowadays, you can produce your own work and distribute it cheaply, but that means there are so many more people vying for the same cultural space. How do you break through the clutter? One way is doing work that’s very provocative. My thing is to help artists with that uniqueness. It’s old-school artist development. A lot of artists hire me to reshape their website, or to develop their visual image. I also do consulting with companies such as Spotify on what to do with back-end data and finding ways to use the research publicly.
As someone who works in both the educational and professional sectors of the music industry, what would you say are some of the core components aspiring performers and executives need to best prepare themselves for the future?
The future is great for people who have a real facility for visual design and musical design with a real attachment to aesthetics. That’s the work that’s cutting through and getting noticed. The interface between music and film is huge. Learning coding, Java, and HTML will help you at the end of the day. I read Engineering and IEEE Spectrum regularly.
That said, your main goal has to be driven by passion. In other words, you can’t see yourself doing anything else. If the music drives you, it doesn’t even feel like work. You need a real sense of hustle and the ability to not get frustrated or disappointed. Five people can listen to the same music and have five different opinions—and most of them are completely wrong. At the end of the day, you have to stay true to yourself. You have to be open to recognizing constructive critique and incorporating it, and discarding the critique that isn’t constructive.
A lot of work goes into a longterm career. Knowing the business and being committed to making quality art are equally important. You have to be honest with yourself and take care of yourself.