Co-instructor Bo Bodnar works at a mixing board during a music business class at Essential Sessions music studio in St. Paul on March 7, 2013.

Students Become Industry Insiders in Evolving Music Business Program

As far back as she can remember, senior Natalie Gillespie-Gaskins has loved music – whether it was singing with a choir starting when she was a young child or experimenting with making her own music in high school.

When it came time for college, Gillespie-Gaskins considered taking the pre-med route at a big university. However, something didn’t feel quite right. After talking with her mom, she decided to embrace her passion for music and an interest in business by becoming a music business major at St. Thomas.

“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Gillespie-Gaskins said. “It’s been a wild ride, and I’m so happy I did it. This industry is so invigorating and it’s constantly changing. It’s cool because it’s creative, and you get to mix business in with it.”

Like many of her music business peers, Gillespie-Gaskins has excelled at St. Thomas by taking full advantage of internship opportunities, extracurricular activities and challenging classes. Now she’s ready for the next phase of her life: Prior to graduation, Gillespie-Gaskins accepted a full-time marketing and sales job at the New York headquarters of Warner Music Group, a major music company connected with hundreds of notable artists including Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Dua Lipa and Charlie Puth.

Along with rigorous coursework, Gillespie-Gaskins also credits the strong St. Thomas alumni network, her fellow music business majors and faculty, including Steve Cole, head of the music business program, for her success.

“I love trying to find the next big thing – the coolest opportunities – and [Cole’s] been completely supportive and never doubted me in what I wanted to do,” she said. “Having him behind me has propelled me forward and made it possible for me to make big leaps.”

Making Connections

Since he took over the music business program five years ago, Cole has listened and shaped the program to students' ideas. Their interests run a wide gamut: sales and marketing for a major record label; managing artists; music publishing; running a record label; and booking shows. Cole has made huge strides in supporting those interests by facilitating strong connections for students with members of the Twin Cities music community and beyond. He’s created opportunities for students to work with a variety of music-centric entities, including Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current, the hip-hop collective Doomtree and global brands, including PledgeMusic (a crowdfunding platform for musicians) and NoiseTrade (an outlet that helps musicians get their music discovered).

“My focus has always been to have the St. Thomas music business program be seen as a collaborative partner with our local music industry, and also regional and national, as well,” Cole said. “We want to be seen as an industry partner and support structure to them and also as a place where they can mentor the next generation of leaders in their industry.

“Where we’ve made great progress is in outcomes – internships, opportunities for students to present their work and build strong bonds with the industry,” he continued. “We have been able to engage the most forward-thinking and legitimate thought leaders in the Twin Cities music scene."

Cole said the value in each connection is reciprocal as students deliver valuable solutions.

"We appreciate their engagement with us, their mentorship and their offering business challenges to us that students can experience solving and adding value to them," he added

Aaron Mader, known professionally as Lazerbeak, is a music producer and Doomtree member. Through Cole, he’s developed a relationship with St. Thomas speaking to music business classes and working with students on a variety of projects, including researching the constantly evolving ways people consume music.

“For one particular music business class, the challenge was solving a question someone in the field actually has,” Mader said. “I liked that challenge and I also wasn’t going to turn down the free advice. This is the second time I’ve done this particular class. I’m throwing students some big universal questions that nobody really has the answer for right now in the industry: What does it take to succeed? Is there room for an independent label in the current climate? How do you release an album in 2018? What does the budget look like? What does marketing look like? They had lots of great questions right off the bat.

“It’s like I hired a consulting firm,” he said. “They check in with me throughout the process and then at the end there’s a presentation pitching me on their ideas. It’s pretty special. It’s cool. You see all this work come together – it’s great information.”

A mixing board is seen during a music business class at Essential Sessions music studio in St. Paul.

A mixing board is seen during a music business class at Essential Sessions music studio in St. Paul.

Industry Insiders

In March, Cole and six music business majors, who are also part of the Music Industry Club, went to SXSW, one of the premier music industry networking events in the country. Along with attending panel discussions with major music industry leaders, students were instrumental in helping put together a four-day music event with 44 bands. They did everything from assisting with event setup and promotions to meeting with artists and managers.

“Students didn’t go to SXSW as spectators, but as industry insiders,” Cole said.

Senior Hannah Rosentreter was one of the SXSW attendees. She’s also another music business major who already has a full-time job lined up before she graduates with Effect Partners, where she’s been an intern for the past year.

“I knew I was interested in getting a business degree,” Rosentreter said. “Something felt generic about getting a general business degree and I knew I wanted to be involved in music. Finding out St. Thomas had a specific degree for music business sealed the deal.”

Along with developing core business skills through courses at Opus College of Business and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, music business majors also benefit from a comprehensive music and liberal arts core.

“Not only can I speak on business issues, but also on musical aspects in the industry,” Gillespie-Gaskins said. “I took musical theory, music history, a musical instrument – mine is voice.”

At Effect Partners – a company that’s worked on initiatives for big-name companies and musicians including Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Toyota, U2, Target, Black Eyed Peas, Live Nation and Apple – Rosentreter is part of a team working on marketing, project management and consulting for musicians and brands who want to incorporate social impact into their messaging. She’s currently helping pair nonprofits with musicians to educate fans about climate change.

“I’ve always had an interest in sustainability and it’s only grown since I’ve come to college and seeing how I can practice those things in my life,” Rosentreter said. “After hearing Michael Martin (Effect Partners founder and CEO) during a convo hour, I realized the world of music can collide with that – it was fate.”

Music faculty member and nationally recorded saxophone player Steve Cole poses for an environmental portrait in Brady Educational Center auditorium.

Music faculty member and nationally recorded saxophone player Steve Cole plays his saxophone in Brady Educational Center auditorium.

Entrepreneurship Similarities

Cole doesn’t just teach music business, he lives it. A successful jazz artist (he plays saxophone) with multiple albums under his belt, Cole is well-versed in many aspects of the music business. He realizes that, like himself, his students have various interests when it comes to the highly disrupted music industry.

“In terms of philosophy – we share a lot with entrepreneurship,” he said. “We share a philosophy of the importance of design thinking and human-centered design where we primarily hope to build empathy and a true understanding of the audience, the fans and what they want, what motivates them, what constitutes meaning for them. We build solutions based upon our understanding of our audience – whether that’s an artist connecting with fans and building a community; a record label creating content and hoping to engage audiences in that contact; distributors trying to facilitate that change of content creation; to the audience or concert promoters wanting to create engaging experiences.”

Senior Liz Legatt is a marketing intern for acclaimed Minneapolis rock club First Avenue. Legatt started out as a music education major, but shifted her focus after taking an intro to music business course. During her time in the music business program she’s had a chance to work on a number of projects, including developing strategic initiatives for The Current radio station and helping with the Doomtree Zoo music festival.

“Cole brought in a band manager and I’ve been working with that person on the side with other projects. It’s cool that he’s connecting our major to his personal connections within the Twin Cities and creating new connections for us. He’s given our program a good name, which is great," said Legatt, whose dream job is doing logistics for big festivals. “Getting that overview of the business classes was great. ... I got to take an extra marketing class and really identified with that. But the music business classes specific to our major, I loved them because we got to work on things that are applicable to my career in the future."

Adjunct music faculty member Brian Casey ’05 majored in music business at St. Thomas and - while the program has changed quite a bit since his time as a student - he said having a business background has helped him in his career. As a creative director at In the Groove Music, a Minneapolis music house that creates original music for advertising, Casey has scored music for a variety of commercials and TV shows including “20/20,” “Good Morning America” and CBS Sports programming.

“I think the business part of it made me think resourcefully about what opportunities there were rather than having this pie in the sky dream of, 'I’m an artist, I can just make my art, people will pay me for it and it will be lovely,'” said the multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, and producer. “I was realistic and knew that it was going to be hard.”

Casey said Cole’s influence on the music business program has been substantial.

“It’s not just academia in a vacuum; Steve understands the industry is about community,” Casey said. “There is no industry without the community of musicians. It doesn’t matter how much you learn in a vacuum if you’re not out there engaging with the people. He’s definitely taken a step forward – the program has been evolving in a positive way.”

During her time at St. Thomas, Rosentreter explored how a music business degree would set her up for future success. Just as importantly, she also found a supportive community along the way.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s completely enriched my college experience. I feel inspired by the people around me. There’s something about music business majors at St. Thomas that everybody has this driven, ambitious personality, but we’re all laid back and friendly. It’s not competitive, it’s more like family. I feel inspired daily by the people I’m around. That’s a cool feeling.”