A Q&A With Industry Professional (And Digital Media Academy Lead Instructor for Music Production) Peter Borotto
Many young people dream about a career in music but few actually make that dream come true. Even talented musicians can struggle to make a living doing what they love. Does that mean that making music for a living is an impossible dream? Far from it. Not only is a musical career possible, there are steps you can take right now to make it happen.
Peter Borotto is an accomplished producer, composer and educator, whose career has taken him from Washington, DC to L.A. He has performed extensively in prestigious venues like the Kennedy Centre and has written music for big names including Warner Music, NBC, Bravo, ESPN, and others. He has also developed audio engineering and music production curricula that have been distributed globally and has won a number of industry awards. In short, when it comes to music industry experience, if Peter hasn’t done it himself, he knows people who have.
Peter is the Curriculum Designer and Lead Instructor for the Music Production Career Track at Digital Media Academy, meaning he has trained and mentored many young people who’ve pursued successful musical careers themselves.
We sat down with Peter to talk about what it means to be successful in one of the world’s most illustrious businesses.
*answers have been edited for brevity and clarity
How did you get involved with Digital Media Academy? And what do you like best about being the Lead Instructor and Curriculum Designer for Music Production?
I got involved with Digital Media Academy through a friend who worked here. He knew that I had written curricula for another music school and that I was very, very interested in writing more.
I love contributing to the next generation of songwriters and producers in North America and around the world. That’s my real desire for the educational side of my career. It’s very important to me because I feel like I have a lot of industry insight – I’ve just been through so much in the industry and seen so many different sides of it – and I feel a responsibility to share that insight with other musicians to advance the craft and keep it alive.
It’s so hard to make it in this industry, and if people didn’t extend their hands and help people who are getting started, then no one would ever make it.
Most of us can name at least a few musical artists – Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Khalid – but being a famous performer isn’t the only way to succeed in the music industry. What are some other types of careers that people can pursue?
Most people, when they think of becoming a musician, they either want to be performing artists, be in a band or be a music producer. And those are all options.
Some people are general musicians, which encompasses multiple genres. They might be playing nightly gigs at local venues in a rock band, performing as a classical musician with an orchestra, or working as a jazz musician.
Most of the time musicians do several different things. For example, even if you were a famous violin player in an orchestra, you would probably still have a small chamber ensemble on the side. And every time Tony Bennet was in town, you might be the leader of a little string group that he puts together.
So that is one avenue to pursue in the music industry.
Another avenue is music production, which involves working with anyone from record labels to indie artists to record and produce music tracks, singles or full albums. Components of music production might include overseeing the recording process, contributing to the writing or editing, or doing the audio engineering. Audio engineering is a very popular option because of how much education there is out there, both in technical institutions and accredited colleges
Another path into the music industry is to create arrangements. This could include writing sheet music arrangements or creating arrangements for a performing ensemble.
Beyond careers that are directly involved in the music itself, there are a lot of positions in the industry that people don’t always consider.
For example, royalties is a huge, huge industry. A job in that industry might involve analyzing royalties for labels and artists, or working for a big royalty administrator and doing copyright claims.
Heading up catalogues and music libraries, business development and ANR, which is talent scouting are options as well.
There’s also music licensing, which involves negotiating licenses. It’s a less obvious path than becoming a performing artist, but people make a lot of money in that field.
And of course, music education is, in my opinion, an extremely rewarding path.
Is it necessary to be trained as a musician in order to succeed in the music industry?
The answer is no, but I would say it definitely helps.
There are plenty of very successful people in the music industry who never studied music formally at all. Everything that they learned from music was just playing in bands and working in studios and getting hands-on experience, learning how to succeed as they went.
That said, it is a very competitive field, so anything you can do to set yourself apart is important, and having an education of some kind is a key way to do that. Music education can take a number of different forms. It could be high school music classes or a university degree, like I did, or it can be technical skills-based courses like the ones I teach at Digital Music Academy.
If you are pursuing music production as a career for example, having thorough training in industry-standard software is going to be hugely beneficial.
You’ve had a very successful career in music – what was your path into the business?
I’ve been a musician my whole life.
This took many forms, such as being in choir, band, orchestra, rock bands and making beats – all sorts of stuff. But my career actually started when I was about 16 years old and started to do gigs for money. I also took an AP music theory class and did really well on that test, which let me know that this wasn’t just a hobby for me – when you’re a kid, you don’t always know what’s a hobby and what’s a real career yet.
From there, I pursued a Bachelor of Music, where I studied composition and conducting. While I was in school, I was also playing in bands, writing music for artists and working in the recording studio. When I graduated, I was signed right away by Warner Music to work at one of their studios in Washington, DC.
I learned a lot at Warner about the music industry and how everything works. At the same time, I began working on sheet music arrangements for a music publisher, as well as becoming involved in education and writing instructional books.
Eventually, I decided to take a career risk and moved to L.A., which is a much more musical town. I worked for different labels there and spent some time in music royalties before moving into music production for film and TV. That’s when I really started to turn out tracks as a composer and arranger, and started making a lot of my own music.
I’m not Kanye West, but I work completely in music and I feel like that’s a huge blessing because so many people want to be doing this and they’re not able to.
Is this a path you’d recommend? Why or why not?
Should you, as an emerging musician, go for every opportunity available, expose yourself to as many types of music and as many performing opportunities as you can and then get formal training in music? Yes, absolutely.
Should you move to a town where you don’t know anyone, without a job lined up? That’s questionable. I took a huge risk moving to L.A., but that kind of risk might almost be necessary. This is very much an industry of no pain, no gain. It’s a question that you need to answer for yourself once you’ve finished high school and are beginning to make your own career decisions.
Are there other ways to build a great career in music production than the path you took? Any tried and true methods that will ensure success?
I do recommend a formal education, either through a college or through a technical program. But there are alternatives to that approach.
One alternative is to become an assistant at a music production company, studio or label. You’re going to do everything from handling the scheduling and answering the phone to cleaning the studios. But you might also get your hands on a mic and recording equipment, or help them run a session or bounce some stems for them when they go home for the day.
Another path into music production is to be a touring musician. If you want to be a music producer, composer or songwriter but you’re getting more gigs as an actual performer right now, keep doing that and keep gathering contacts. People move between being on tour and working on the label side all the time, so taking as many gigs as you can and meeting as many people as possible along the way at those gigs is another way to gain industry experience and contacts besides being an assistant.
What qualities does someone need to be successful in the music industry?
I would say that there are three main qualities a person needs to succeed in this industry.
The first one is determination. You can’t give up if someone doesn’t like your music, you can’t give up when someone says no to you, and you can’t give up if no one wants to buy your first CD. You have to persevere.
The second quality is to have a vision. That means setting goals for yourself and having a good idea of what you actually want to do. I think that’s the biggest thing for people who are just starting. To be honest with you, I didn’t know what I wanted to do at first. I didn’t really understand all the avenues, even after getting a college education, so I started working. You have to be able to adjust your goals as you progress.
The third quality you need to succeed in the music industry is thick skin. If people don’t respond in the best way to your music right off the bat or you have trouble getting gigs in a new town or whatever it is, you have to believe in yourself and not let those things get to you.
What role does talent play in success?
Talent matters, but knowing the right people is actually more important to success in the music industry.
Ringo Starr, the drummer for the Beatles, is the perfect example. Ringo was not very good as a drummer. There are rumors that Paul McCartney and John Lennon actually played the drums rather than Ringo on many of their records.
Ringo was in the Beatles not because he was the best drummer but because he was someone that the rest of the band liked and trusted.
If knowing the right people is so important, how can you get into the industry if you don’t know anyone?
Networking is number one. Meeting the right person at a club or event can do a lot more work for you than sending out 50 promo kits to all the labels in the area.
Just making friends and going to networking meetings at every opportunity is really important, even if you think no one important is going to be there or you don’t like the venue, or previous events have felt like a waste of time.
Another way that you can get into the industry without knowing anyone is having a really good social media presence and a very, very good way of digitally presenting yourself. If you don’t know anyone but you’ve got a lot of followers on social media, that alone will give you weight when you’re trying to pitch yourself to a label.
The same thing applies with press kits and photos – they have to be high quality. How you present yourself actually makes a huge difference in getting to know people and getting your foot in the door.
What’s one of your favourite experiences that you’ve had working in the music industry? It might be a show, a collaboration, a particular piece of music you composed – anything!
I write a lot of music for various media, like TV shows and movies, and I’m very proud of that work.
But I think my favorite thing that I’ve done in the industry was going on tour with the orchestra I played with in college. That was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I got to play great works by many classical composers and perform in different cities with my friends. Everyone was a top-notch musician and the conductor we had is now a famous conductor for a symphony. So it was just a really, really good time.
I still look back on that time very fondly. You don’t really get the chance to do that again, outside of college, unless you become a professional orchestra musician, which isn’t the path I pursued.
What advice or encouragement would you give to a young person who is interested in pursuing a career in music production or songwriting?
First, figure out what your influences are – what kind of music you really like, and what kind you might want to make. Then, get started with the technology – whatever you can get your hands on, use it. GarageBand isn’t a professional tool, but it’s still really good, and it’s free on Mac computers. There are also web-based programs like BandLab and Soundation that allow you to make music on a browser for free right away. Get yourself a little USB microphone, or a professional microphone if you can afford one, and just start recording.
Another great way to learn to use professional tools is to take a course through Digital Media Academy. I’ve designed the curriculum to provide practical, real-world experience with the music production tools that professionals use
Another important piece of advice is to not focus solely on the music. As I mentioned before, your image – how you present yourself and where you are online – contributes almost as much as your actual tune. If you send in a demo track with top production quality but don’t present yourself well, a production company will turn it down, even if it’s flawless. They might even assume that you aren’t serious.
The final piece of advice I would give to a young person interested in music production is to say yes to every opportunity to play and perform, whether that’s singing in the church choir or jamming with your 45-year-old uncle. If there’s a band at your school that’s good, even if it’s not your favorite style of music, go play with them and learn a new genre, because you never know where that band is going to go. They might make it big, or one of the band members might start their own label. Even if nothing happens with that band, you’ll still learn so much about how to set up a gig or distribute a demo, or how to create good material for your promo kit.
So play with anybody. Take every chance to play that you can, no matter what the genre is.
Do you want to learn more about Music Production from Peter or one of our other industry-professional instructors? Check out Digital Media Academy’s, career-building Music Production Career Track.