Fine Tune a Career in the Music Industry With an MBA

Music Industry Program Coordinator, Robert W. Smith, is seen in the recording studio located in the John M. Long School of Music.

Music Industry Program Coordinator, Robert W. Smith, is seen in the recording studio located in the John M. Long School of Music.

The music industry is a business like no other. It produces a product that reflects the entire human condition and provides the soundtrack to our lives. Those seeking a career in the music industry find that it’s a diverse and ever-evolving business, employing millions of people and generating billions of dollars in revenue. However, it’s also often cited as a notoriously difficult industry to break into and find success. Could a specialized MBA focusing on the music industry teach you all you need to know about the music business worldwide to enjoy a successful career in the industry?

Robert W. Smith, Professor of Music and Coordinator of the Music Industry Program at Troy University — and a highly accomplished composer, publisher, musician and music industry professional — certainly thinks so.

Smith, along with his colleague Dr. William Neese, Associate Professor of Marketing and Director of the MBA Program, has been instrumental in creating a new MBA program at TROY that is designed for professionals seeking to advance their careers in the music industry.

While Dr. Neese takes care of the traditional business side of the MBA program, Smith adds the relevant industry detail to make the Music Industry MBA a truly unique and immersive experience.

From Music Pro to Music Education

Smith’s career in the music industry stretches back to 1983 when, after being discovered at an event, he was invited to join the sheet music publisher Columbia Pictures Publications.

“When I started with Columbia Pictures, they were looking for somebody who could bridge the gap between various sides of the music industry,” says Smith. “They needed somebody who understood things like orchestra, marching band, concert band and other forms of educational music.”

Smith explains how the American education system is a driving force in the domestic music industry.

“America is one of the only places in the world where music is compulsory in our education system,” says Smith. “Basically, 100% of students in elementary schools have to take music. As a result, we have a significant music education system. This creates opportunities for businesses that produce teaching materials, the books and the music that is written for kids, and the manufacture and supply of affordable student line instruments.”

Smith’s career saw him work for various iterations of Columbia Pictures Publications and Warner Brothers Publications before becoming the vice president of the CL Barnhouse Company, the second oldest music publishing company in the United States. He then launched his own music publishing company and became a professor of music at TROY.

Alongside his academic career, Smith continues to compose, score music for films and television, write pop songs and play keyboard and trumpet with several ensembles.

“Most people know me as a composer,” says Smith. “But I’m also a conductor, a producer and a songwriter. This gives me a unique perspective on our music programs here at TROY.”

Smith explains that people often joke that he has never quite found his niche in the music industry. However, it’s this eclectic skill set that Smith cites as the secret behind his success.

“A mantra for us here at TROY is that our music students must be a jack-of-all-trades and master of three or four,” says Smith. “So we focus on the music, the media, the music technology, the music distribution companies, the vision, the entrepreneurship and the business to sustain gainful lives and careers in our industries.”

Shaking Up MBA Programs

According to Dr. Neese, the music industry’s rapidly evolving nature represents the perfect opportunity for TROY to shake up the way students access and benefit from their participation in MBA programs.

“MBA programs have been around for a long time,” says Dr. Neese. “I got my MBA from a sister university in Alabama in the 1980s, and that program is still basically the same today. One of the things that I enjoy about being an MBA director at TROY is that I’m working with people who really want to improve the MBA program by modernizing it and making it a different thing from what it’s been for literally the past 50 or 60 years.”

While Dr. Neese has a long and distinguished career teaching marketing classes in MBA programs, he’s quick to credit the vision of Dr. Judson Edwards, Dean of the Sorrell College of Business at TROY, along with the experience of Smith, for making the Music Industry MBA program so compelling.

“Our dean is an open-minded, free-thinking person who is extremely intelligent, and he just likes innovation,” says Dr. Neese. “He thinks outside of the box, and he knows a lot of people. So he and Robert got together and came up with this thing that we’re truly blessed with.”

Dr. Neese explains how TROY’s Music Industry MBA program covers the usual economics, ethics, finance, marketing and management classes that students would expect to find in a standard MBA program, before introducing electives designed around the music industry specialization.

“It’s a unique program,” says Dr. Neese. “We are the only university with a Music Industry MBA that is accredited by the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business).”

Music Industry Connections

Dr. Neese is particularly proud of TROY’s access to leading music industry professionals, thanks primarily to Smith’s connections.

“Robert knows some of the most famous people in the world,” says Dr. Neese. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he walked in the door one day with Elton John!”

Smith’s address book reads like a Who’s Who of the modern music industry.

“Gloria Estefan introduced me to Victor López,” says Smith. “He was the trumpet player in the Miami Sound Machine and is a great writer. Victor and I are best friends to this day. He was the best man at my wedding. I’ve had the opportunity to work with legends like the late jazz icon Dave Brubeck and legendary film composer Henry Mancini. I’ve also worked on a lot of the printed music from Star Wars and Harry Potter and have had the opportunity to do orchestrations and arrangements for John Williams as his iconic music is published and distributed worldwide.”

Smith’s industry connections are often invited to speak to his students at TROY.

“We recently had Shaun Murphy come in,” says Smith. “She’s the female voice on Eric Clapton’s ‘Leila’. She’s also on everything Bob Seger has ever recorded and was in the original cast of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So that was a big deal.”

More recently, Smith invited Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Chris Vrenna to visit as a guest lecturer and share his experience of the industry as a bona fide rock star with TROY’s student body.

“Chris Vrenna is the drummer and founding member for Nine Inch Nails,” says Smith. “Chris is a dear friend. It was amazing to have him working with our students.”

But Vrenna isn’t just a good friend of Smith and a vocal supporter of TROY’s music programs. He’s enrolling in TROY’s MBA program as a student.

Smith explains how Vrenna made the transition from rock star to MBA student.

“Situations like COVID did not deter Chris Vrenna. He’s a very smart guy and took up a teaching position at a community college here in Alabama. He taught people how to record and use Pro Tools and all the music-producing technology we use in the studio today.”

Why Get an MBA?

According to Smith, Vrenna is joining the MBA program for two reasons.

“He wants to learn more about the business,” says Smith. “The stuff he wishes he had known when he was younger and started Nine Inch Nails. Secondly, there is no doctorate for those that teach music industry programs in higher education. So this MBA will be considered a terminal degree. That means he can move up the tenure and pay scale and work up the academic ranks to become a full professor. So we’ve got a rock star that will be one of our first students. That’s pretty amazing.”

It’s not just musicians that Smith invites to TROY to speak about their experiences. Vrenna and his fellow MBA students will benefit from the insight of numerous visiting professionals from the business side of the music industry.

“We recently had Paul Quin, an entertainment attorney to megastars, visit,” says Smith. “He was able to share his incredible insight into the legal and business side of the industry.”

Smith explains why it is so important for students to learn from industry professionals like Quin.

“I want them to be able to read a recording contract and understand everything inside that contract,” says Smith. “They still need to get an attorney to be involved, but they will be able to have meaningful and productive discussions regarding the content of that contract. What makes our program decidedly unique is the balance between the business and the art.”

Real World Music Industry Experience

According to Smith, students in the MBA program will graduate with real-world experience.

“Students who join our MBA program are not just going to study,” says Smith. “We put things into action and learn by doing. For example, we run a record label here at TROY. Ilium Records is a student-operated, independent record label that gives our students real-world experience of the ever-changing music business.”

TROY also has an in-house pop group, POPulus.

“The group represents an opportunity for students to write and play music together,” says Smith. “But it also creates opportunities to be the engineer, the manager, the agent, the marketing team and the record label. I call it a biosphere of the music and entertainment industry. So when you finish at TROY, you have the skills and the professional credits where the rubber meets the road.”

The Scale of the Opportunity: Music Industry Jobs

According to Smith, the music industry represents a massive opportunity for musicians and business professionals with many different skill sets looking for jobs in the music industry. However, to succeed, just like in any other industry, you need to understand how the business works.

“The sun never sets on the American music industry,” says Smith. “American music is streamed and played live in literally every country around the world. I travel and perform around the world. I’m still amazed when I perform in places like Asia, and they’re singing the words in English. It’s a huge, multibillion-dollar, global industry, supporting millions of jobs within the music industry.”

Smith explains that jobs within the music industry often look like careers in many other global industries.

“I challenge my students here to name a job or occupation that’s not in our music or entertainment industry,” says Smith. “They’ll start grabbing straws out of the air, but they cannot name a job that’s not in the industry.”

According to Smith, once business students understand the breadth of the industry, they start to appreciate the scale of the opportunities ahead of them.

“Whenever and wherever humans have existed on the earth, so has music,” says Smith. “You cannot separate it. It is a universal human need and it will never go away.”

Smith explains the biggest challenge for business students interested in following a career in the music industry is learning how to render it in different ways and monetize it.

“When people say there is no money in the music industry or that it is a difficult market to break into, it’s not that there’s not a demand for our music,” says Smith. “It’s that we don’t understand the market. We don’t understand the type of music people are looking for. And we don’t understand the delivery systems and how to monetize it.”

Hybrid Learning

In many ways, TROY’s MBA programs mirror the ever-changing business landscape of the music industry.

According to Smith, the Music Industry MBA program is delivered using a Flex format.

“Our lectures will be delivered live on campus,” says Smith. “I’m a firm believer in that. I love the interaction.”

All live lectures are streamed and recorded for synchronous and asynchronous participation, which means they can be accessed whenever it is convenient for a student’s schedule. Whether a scheduled, in-person experience or a more flexible, self-paced opportunity is preferred, the various formats create opportunities for working professionals and internationally-located students to enjoy the same rigorous standards of a world-class MBA program.

According to Dr. Neese, the flexibility of learning options creates opportunities for students from many different backgrounds.

Counterintuitively, Dr. Neese explains that many students who attend campus are international students, while the online students are typically more local in terms of their location.

“The international students often have visa requirements that mean they must study on campus,” says Neese. “Our online students at TROY are typically working adults or military. Alabama is a military-friendly state, so we have a lot of military students in our programs.” 

Learn More About the Business of Music

The Music Industry MBA is the latest program to join the portfolio of business degrees available from TROY’s Sorrell College of Business. To learn more about the various programs or to speak with a member of the school’s business faculty, please visit the music industry program page on our website.