Grammy, Tony Award Winner Tells Music Business Students: Be Unique
Be you, be unique. Get inspired. Do what excites you. And when you get stuck, stop and do something else, then get back to work becoming you. That’s just one of many tidbits Tony and Grammy Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik shared with Converse’s Introduction to Music Business class—tips that apply to any college student facing fans in a theater or potential employer. Sheik phoned into Professor John Jeter’s class from upstate New York, where he was taking a break from recording with lead star of the Broadway musical hit, Matilda.
“You need to find your unique voice and your unique sound, and I think it’s really important that no matter what it is that you’re working on, you’re not second-guessing what an outside audience is going to be into,” said Sheik, speaking from 25+ year career as a major-label recording artist, and singer/songwriter. Karen Lopez ‘18, a junior earning her BA in music at Converse, said she got a lot out of Sheik’s 45-minute all-over-the-map conversation: “All of the information he gave us was great … saying that we need to find our unique voice and sound. He’s such a great guy, and I really hope to be as successful like him one day.”
Interviewing a major star is just one of the benefits of the college’s Music Business & Technology Certificate courses. In the last three semesters, students in the new program have talked with the likes of Norah Jones’ agent and a manager for Corey Smith; gave a shout-out to Converse on live radio at the WTPT-The Planet and WROQ-Classic Rock studios to some 200,000 listeners; toured backstage at Greenville’s Peace Center; visited a professional recording studio; chatted with one of the original promoters of Bonnaroo; and put on their own concert with a touring band whose music has been on TV’s Nashville.
Sheik, who broke out with his Atlantic Records hit, Barely Breathing, in 1996, has had his music on multiple television shows, including Glee, Girls, Cold Case, 90210, and more; movies, such as What A Girl Wants, TransAmerica, and Great Expectations, among others; and on Broadway. Sheik has migrated from what he called his resistance to pop stardom and “plotting the destruction of my own Top 40 career,” he says to lots of laughs. “It was mostly unconscious.”
“Duncan is incredibly chill, kind, and truly in it for the art.”
Janae O’Shields, the assistant director of the Lawson Academy of the Arts and a Music Business certificate student, was impressed by how down-to-earth Sheik is. “Duncan is incredibly chill, kind, and truly in it for the art,” she says. Everyone in Jeter’s course wanted to know how Duncan Sheik got involved with the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. Sheik said, “My reaction to it at the time was—I was such a brat—‘Musicals are so lame. I don’t want to do that,’. When that (comment) comes out now, I can’t believe how my mind worked at that time.”
Spring Awakening won a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 2008 and two Tony awards the following year. To achieve that kind of success requires you to strive for the real you, Sheik said. “Whenever I’ve tried to be mercenary and write a pop song for the sake of being a pop song, I’ve either been really disappointed with the results or it’s not something I’m ultimately as proud of.” And when you’re stuck (or stressed)? “Unless you have a real inspiration, it’s better to kind of step away from the piano or step away from the guitar, step away from the laptop, and go see some art or go for a walk in nature,” Sheik advised. “Watch a really good TV show that’s not reality television.”
Brianna James ’19, an Accounting and Sports-management major, blogged about how Sheik’s talk applies to her 15 years playing basketball and her part on Converse’s Valkyries team: “There is lots and lots of hard work that goes into being a collegiate basketball player. This also applies to Duncan Sheik’s answer. A lot of hard work goes into being a singer-songwriter/composer. Sometimes it gets hard, but you have to remember to never give up on your dream.”
Article used with permission from Adjunct Professor John Jeter. Professor Jeter teaches Music Business at Converse’s Petrie School of Music. His January Term class, Creating Your Own Brand, leads students to design their “resume-on-steroids”; as Sheik says, noting the likes of Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar and Sia, “crafting their own image and their own brand.”