Drew Young, a visiting professor of music business at CU Denver, can relate to budding college musicians and industry hopefuls. His career started as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia––the timeless tale of a young man who thought he could make a few friends by playing the guitar and starting a band.
His tale could have ended there, as many do. But from that time Young took his small successes (a summer tour funded by a bandmate’s dad and pizza delivery money, a single that was played on local stations) and his big failures (signing what he calls “the worst record deal ever”) to forge a life in the music industry on both sides of the recording booth.
A Desire To Live a Life in Music
Although Young said it took years to unravel that record deal, he was not discouraged. He carried on and eventually signed a publishing contract in Nashville. At a time when he was building his name as an Americana artist, he was just beginning to understand the other side of the business.
Young took a job in marketing at Lionsgate Television in Los Angeles and then at Putumayo World Music in New Orleans as a director of product development. He also built his own music strategy company, Better Than Pretend, and was successful not only in navigating the music industry himself but enabling others to do so as well. In 2011, Young was named an artist in residence at University of Southern Mississippi, where he was able to create a music industry curriculum. While there, he worked to expand the state’s musical tourism industry to a global audience with a strategy centered around the state’s musical history, a history steeped in blues and roots culture.
“There is such a compulsion to build a life in the music business,” said Young. “I’ve seen it from both sides, as a businessman and as a musician, and I realize it’s important to understand and teach music not just as a product, but from its emotional core.”
As a recording artist, Young has released four full length albums with a few of New Orleans‘ most well-known musicians and songwriters—Dr. John, Anders Osbourne, and Jim McCormick. He is planning on releasing a full-length album this summer. Young brings these industry connections to the classroom, too. Several industry professionals visited Young’s CU Denver virtual classroom in the fall semester, including McCormick, Michelle Garramone, managing director at Blue Rose Records, and ET Brown, senior director at SESCAC (a performance rights organization).
‘Empowering the Artist and Training the Professional’
Young brings these diverse experiences to CU Denver, where in fall 2020 he began teaching as a visiting professor. He teaches a mix of students who want to find success as musicians or industry leaders and believes that departments like CU Denver’s Music & Entertainment Industry Studies (MEIS) make the business better as whole.
“Education in the music field leads to increased transparency and a larger entrepreneurial space,” said Young. “A more open platform for ideas and creativity to flow through the system makes the structure stronger and with more opportunity for equity.”
Young’s students learn about intellectual property rights, royalty distribution, publishing, and also developing trends in emergent fields such as music supervision. Music supervision is the broad art of adding music to film and television to decide tonality and augment impact, a role Young held on the television show Mad Men while he was working for Lionsgate. He identifies this as a huge growth area for songwriters like those in his CU Denver classes. Young said he chose to pursue the opportunity to teach at CU Denver because of the tremendous reputation of the MEIS program, which supports both the artistry and business angles of the music industry.
“It’s about empowering the artist and training the professional,” said Young. “It takes critical thinking to navigate this industry from either side and often people who don’t follow norms are the ones who find success.”
Music as a Strategy to Rebuild an Economy: Then and Now
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Young was working as an artist and repertoire manager for Putumayo World Music spending his professional time between New Orleans and New York. New Orleans’ economy was ravaged, and Young knew that music would be vital to its resurrection. It was not just about bringing back the music clubs and festivals that New Orleans is celebrated for—it was using music as an economic driver to bring back tourism, hospitality, and film, as well as inviting new businesses and industries to enrich the economy. Young partnered with the State of Louisiana in leading press junkets, consulting businesses, and taking the stories of New Orleans’ musical heritage on the road to invite investment and human capital back to the Crescent City. Music became a force behind the resurgence of the economic development that brought the city back.
“Music can be as simple as strumming a guitar or as complex as global movement,” said Young.
That’s how Young began a relationship with Sound Diplomacy, the international thought leader in creating blueprints for cultural strategy and musical economy. Sound Diplomacy also partners with CU Denver and MEIS to build curriculum and opportunities for music business students.
Currently, with his music strategy venture, Better Than Pretend, Young is working with AT&T to use artists and record labels to showcase the newest technology products for live streaming. He just wrapped one of the projects using New Orleans artist Trombone Shorty.
Perhaps because of these profound undertakings, Young puts an emphasis on global education. He developed and ran a global music industry study-abroad program to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France, which is how he met fellow CU Denver music business faculty Stan Soocher, one of the many connections to the position he holds now. He also developed and ran a songwriting and production study-abroad program to Sweden and hopes to continue these ambitious programs at CU Denver whenever travel resumes.
Young sees several similarities between his time spent reviving New Orleans and the COVID-19 pandemic. But he knows the power of music to help foster recovery. Music will again bring people together, open venues, and revitalize urban areas and cultural economies.
“We will soon find ourselves at a watershed moment,” said Young. “And music will be the strengthening link.”
Guest contributor: Alice Crogan