So you want to go Hollywood? Depending on whom you ask, the entertainment industry is the stuff either dreams or migraines are made of.
Sylvia Massy, a Los Angeles independent record producer, has engineered and produced albums with Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., the Artist (formerly known as Prince) and others. She also owned an independent record label and is building a recording studio.
Richard Schulenberg has been a lawyer for Capitol Records, general counsel for Paramount’s music division and head of West Coast business affairs for CBS Records. An instructor in the entertainment studies program at UCLA Extension since 1979, he also has worked in the television and motion picture industries as a writer and producer. Schulenberg is president of MSH Entertainment Music Group in Santa Monica, where he is producing TV projects and starting a record label.
Massy and Schulenberg recently shared their often-conflicting views of opportunities and obstacles to a career in the entertainment industry in a round-table discussion with The Times.
The Times: How did you get into the business?
Schulenberg: My first job [came from] being informed by my parents, “You’re graduating from law school and you have to support yourself,” which was a terrible shock to me. Literally within an hour of that realization sinking in, I was at UCLA Law School and saw a card on a bulletin board that Capitol Records was looking for somebody to do copyright law. I applied and submitted a 50- or 60-page copyright paper I had written. I suspect they hired me because it was the heaviest paper they got.
I never applied for another job. After [working at] Capitol, people offered me jobs, either because they had worked with me before or because someone recommended me. The music business is really an extended family; it is a business of relationships. [Getting] the first job is always the hardest. You get the first job, you do it well, you meet people--and there will be more jobs.
Massy: I started in radio as a college disc jockey and moved into making commercials. I gained the skills to record music and started sweeping floors at a music studio. I got little jobs here and there and starved for a long time. One day I got really lucky with a record called “Green Jello,” and then all the managers called me at once. I got to choose a really great manager and it’s been solid work ever since. I was about 30 then. I had spent my entire 20s floundering and living with two other roommates in a one-bedroom place in Hollywood. But everything’s great now! It wasn’t even bad then.
The Times: Was yours a traditional career path?
Schulenberg: I don’t think there is a traditional path in the entertainment industry. It depends on luck--being in the right place at the right time--and who you know. A new tradition I’m aware of is people coming up through [unpaid] internship programs. More and more vice presidents of A&R; [artists and repertoire] and people on entertainment panels started as interns. These are tremendous opportunities to get your foot in the door, [but you’ll probably start by] doing some menial job. Sooner or later if there’s an opening, people get moved up into a starting position and they go on from there. One of my UCLA extension students finally wrangled a job over at Warner Bros., and within two or three years he was a senior vice president at another label.
Massy: You could start your career [studying entertainment] in school or do what I did: work for free. There are plenty of little studios that need people and will train you if you’re willing. There is a new generation that comes up every year that way. Or if you have a bundle of money, you can set up your own recording system and invite people to come in and do their project and then shop that tape and get started that way.
The Times: Does age matter if you want to start with an internship?
Schulenberg: It could be a problem. As I become more mature, I’m aware of being treated with a certain level of suspicion by younger people--that “You can’t be hip enough to know what’s going on.” But there are [older] people who seem to do so successfully.
Massy: A friend of mine at a local studio works for NASA during the week on the space shuttle--he’s really a rocket scientist. But on the weekends he works in the studio for free or for very little money because he just loves it and he wants to become an engineer/producer. It’s nice to see people following their goals through.
The Times: How difficult is it to get ahead in the industry?
Schulenberg: It looks glamorous and it looks like it’s fun, so a lot of people come into the business not realizing how hard it is to make it. The competition is outrageous. To be quite honest, if I were coming out of law school today I have no idea how I would get into the industry. Even with in-house positions at the big labels now, the departments are becoming even more departmentalized, so you may work but not get the experience you wanted. You might work for a large record company and end up doing real estate leases for them, never do an artist’s contract or a songwriter’s contract. I was very lucky because we were a small department, so I got about 20 years’ experience in two years. I don’t know if that would happen to anybody today. I was lucky--I was there at the right time.
Massy: There are opportunities in parts of the record industry that are always demanding fresh, new people, like the A&R; departments. There tends to be high turnover there. A&R; always likes to have the younger crowd, because they’re looking for the sound from the street. So they’ll clean house a lot of times. That just happened at A&M; [Records], where they made way for a much younger A&R; department with fresh, new ideas.
The Times: Sounds both exciting and exhausting.
Schulenberg: The entertainment industry is very high on burnout. As much fun as it may sound, there’s only so much time you can spend going to clubs every night until 3 in the morning and being in the office the next day. It’s not all glamour. People think, “Oh, I could do that for the rest of my life,” but it can get very old very quickly.
Massy: It’s hard. I have to say, though, there may be high burnout and it may be a lot of work, but I’d much rather be working in an environment where I can dress the way I want to and listen to music all day than work at the Burger Barn or IBM even, something that would pay more. It just seems there’s a better life to be lived in a more creative environment.
Schulenberg: I agree, but you can’t overlook the high burnout rate. When I teach [music industry courses at UCLA Extension], I warn my students, “Go back now before it’s too late.” Despite the burnout and everything else, [the music industry] gets in your blood and it’s like one of those viruses that don’t go away. Even though you may be burned out, you find yourself over and over coming back to the well. I’ve been in other areas of the entertainment industry and I always find myself back in music. You can’t escape it.
Massy: That’s right. Last week I told a friend, “Look, I might just leave L.A. and go up in the mountains and chop wood and never come back.” And she said, “No, no, you’ll be back.” And she’s right. It’s an addiction. You don’t want to do anything else.
The Times: What’s so much fun about it?
Massy: Part of the fun is that I get to work with some really talented musicians. In a session with Prince, it’s just me and him in a room and he’s playing and dancing and spinning and I’ve got my own private show. I don’t know how many people in the world can say that. Of course, it’s not easy work; it’s long hours--noon to midnight, at least 12 hours a day, six days a week--but there’s a lot of satisfaction in it and that’s what makes it worthwhile.
Schulenberg: It’s not all fun. A negative about being in the industry is that we frequently get to meet our heroes and find out what dreadfully terrible people they are. Talk about feet of clay--it’s all the way up to armpits of clay with some of these people.
Massy: Some of them are true gems, though.
Schulenberg: Sure, some of them are absolutely wonderful people. But sometimes it’s better to have worshiped from afar than to get to know them.
The Times: So there’s a possibility of getting into the entertainment business and becoming discouraged?
Schulenberg: I don’t think there’s a possibility; I think there’s a certainty of that. If you’re going to be in the business, you should become aware of that and accept it very soon because you will not survive. If you can’t weather the downside of this business, you should get out as quickly as possible because it will kill you one way or another--spiritually, emotionally, physically, the whole thing. It will just end you.
Massy: But if you can make it through, there’s a lot of money to be made. I didn’t get into [music] for the money end, but somehow luck was with me and I was able to make quite a bit of money. I live in a wonderful house--I never even thought I’d be able to buy a house--I’m building a studio, I just bought an incredible Mercedes sports car and this is just like, wow, these are all dreams come true. I have to say I wouldn’t have had this opportunity without having gone the direction I went.
The Times: But doesn’t that come with its own cost, like having to put up with yellers and screamers and temperamental artistes?
Massy: Well, there are the “Don’t you know who I am?” types.
Schulenberg: I think it’s the same as in any other business, except that here you have people who are creative--or who think they’re creative because they have a creative title--and assume that gives them a license to go beyond the norm [in dealing with people]. They have a certain level of power, and they feel [they have] carte blanche to go beyond what one would expect in decent society or in business.
The Times: You’re talking in euphemisms.
Schulenberg: Well, I am, of course. [Laughter.] I want to be able to eat in this town. There are executives in music, film, television who are incredibly nice and just sweethearts. You have somebody in the same position in another company that if you exterminated them, you’d probably get the Nobel Peace Prize for saving humanity from them. Some people are black holes in space and suck in all the energy and the work of people around them and take all the credit. And there are some people who mentor others and bring them along.
If you don’t like to be yelled at, you shouldn’t be in the business, because until you become the person who can be the “yeller” instead of the “yelled at,” there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to be yelling at you in one way or another, be it volume or tone of voice. We’re in a business where there is a great deal of pressure. People are always looking over their shoulder to see who’s gaining on them. It is an industry fraught with rejection. The scary thing about our business is that so few actually succeed in it. You have to risk the possibility that you won’t make it, and when it doesn’t happen, you’ve lost something that is absolutely irreplaceable, which is time. You may wake up 20 years later and have no work skills. Now what do you do?
Massy: The industry is full of risk takers and I admire them.
The Times: Why do you suppose this is such a tough business to work in?
Schulenberg: We are an industry built on fantasy and fiction.
Massy: And illusion.
Schulenberg: Yes. We don’t sell honesty to the audience in film, television or music. We sell action films, we sell soap operas, we sell country songs where people sing about being thrown in jail and probably have never seen a prison in their life. We sell dreams to people. We are the Wizard of Oz; we’re all smoke and mirrors and card tricks. Because we deal in fantasy and illusion and untruths, it slips over into the business itself.
The Times: Anything about the business that bothers you?
Massy: One thing I do find restrictive is that the recording industry is really centered here [Los Angeles] and in New York, Nashville and London. I’ve often thought about planting myself in another part of the country, but it doesn’t make sense to leave L.A. Everything’s here.
The Times: But don’t you get to travel a lot?
Schulenberg: If you mean on vacation, no. The last time I had a real vacation was when I was an undergraduate. When you’re in this industry, it’s so much better to plan your trips around business. The first time I went to Cannes for the film festival, I was absolutely entranced. There’s an energy that’s always there. Business is going on 24 hours a day and at least half of that time you get to wear a tuxedo. (I should have been a waiter; I adore going black-tie.) You get to go walking around on the French Riviera and talk business about a business that you love and that is exciting.
Massy: That’s one of the really good things about [the music business]. Different artists like to record in different studios. I’ve done records in London, Norway, Nashville, New York, Arizona, Vancouver and Toronto. I’m usually away a month or two. That’s nice, because you really get a chance to live in another area and get to know what it’s like. Instead of an office environment, where you see the same faces for years, on these [record] projects the faces change every three months or so. You get to be very close with a group of people. You go through this very emotional recording process. They’re spilling their guts to you because they’ve got their music on the line. And then you say goodbye to them, but you’re pretty much friends forever.
The Times: Is an entertainment career a good steppingstone into other industries?
Schulenberg: It can actually be a detriment. I tell people coming into the business that you may want to reconsider because sometimes you come out with a scarlet brand on your forehead--"SB” for “show business.” You’re not acceptable to the outside world because the practices we deal with seem so wack to them. If CPAs who worked in show business doing accounting and auditing tried to go back to one of the Big Eight accounting firms, they’d be [considered] tainted.
It’s not that long ago that they wouldn’t bury actors in hallowed ground, you know. The same is still true in terms of [the attitudes of] some businesses. We are the vagabonds of the business world--very important vagabonds because, aside from building 747s, we’re the biggest export industry in the United States. But some people turn their noses up at us as traveling ruffians, running around the countryside sleeping in barns and saying, “Let’s put on a show in front of the drugstore tomorrow and maybe people will put something in the hat.”
Massy: It’s fun, though. I couldn’t do anything else. I can’t even imagine doing anything else.
Schulenberg: Exactly. We’re ruined. [Laughter.]
Massy: I’ve sold my soul already. There’s no turning back. But I really enjoy it. I love it.