Vanderbilt Goes Country

Nashville music executive Tim DuBois explains why country music needs MBAs to help weather the changes buffeting the record business

MBAs with an ear for music and a creative streak will have a chance to cash in on the changes happening in the recording industry, says Tim DuBois, music veteran and soon-to-be clinical professor of management at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville. With traditional record companies being turned upside down by the growth of digital downloads, there is room for an entirely new kind of industry to emerge—and DuBois says he wants to give MBA students the inside scoop on how to make their mark.

A former senior partner at Universal South (VIVEF) and former president of Arista Records/Nashville, DuBois is responsible for discovering and signing talents such as Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Diamond Rio. Since the 1980s, he has worked in Nashville's music industry as a songwriter, manager, record executive, and producer. Originally an accountant and Oklahoma State PhD candidate, DuBois taught accounting at Vanderbilt from 1981 to 1985 while trying to break into the music business.

Now he'll draw on his experiences both as a professor and a music executive to teach a course for full-time MBAs, which is set to launch in early January. He'll also plan other courses and events for executives at Owen who are interested in the entertainment sector. He recently discussed these academic pursuits and the state of the music industry with reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What exactly will you teach?

We call the two-module course for traditional MBA students Entrepreneurship in the Entertainment Industry. In the first module, we're aiming to develop an understanding of the industry as it exists and looking at some of the changes that are being forced on it by digital technology. Then, in the second module, we're going to look at artist management and the touring business and new media marketing and concert promotion. We would like to develop some executive MBA programs along those same lines and look at doing some seminars and perhaps an industry summit. I just accepted the position a few weeks ago, so executive courses are still in the development stage.

What will be the highlights of the two modules already planned?

It's a very exciting time. There are a lot of opportunities to develop businesses that will work within the digital media world. Many of the barriers to entry in the past are leveled when we think about digital technology. The record companies had been the venture capitalists that drove everything in the past. They had huge marketing budgets, took a lot of money to do what they call the A&R spin, which is when you make the albums and market and promote them. The Internet allows much of that to take place in a more cost-effective way. But the biggest thing that changes the whole industry is the fact that, as we move from physical products (CDs) to digital downloads, people are no longer strangled by the physical distribution model. Physical distribution was one of the biggest barriers to entry in the [music] industry. It's in the process of changing drastically and much quicker than any of us expected.

What will your experience in the music industry bring to the classroom?

I have had the good fortune to be involved in almost all facets of the music industry having come up as a songwriter, eventually a record producer, and then an artist manager. Having run a couple of [major] record labels as an executive, I have a rather large Rolodex and a lot of wisdom about how it used to be done. It is truly a time when being called an expert in anything only means you used to know how to do it. You're watching history right in front of you as this industry remakes itself. I hope to bring some guidance and provide some direction. I hope I'm going to learn as much as anybody in that class because it will all be happening and changing as we study it.

What requirements will you have for the class?

The deliverables are going to be a couple of papers and group projects. I don't know yet about a test. I'm still working on that.

Will this be a traditional business course?

I think it's going to be more nontraditional. Over the course of two modules, I have about 10 people I'm targeting as guest speakers. This should give us some interesting interaction with the students, who can talk with some of the decision-makers and people who are very much involved in the changes occurring in the music industry today.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from students?

I was told we have significant interest, and I have been contacted by several of the students. I just opened my office. There are a couple of organizations within the Owen school that are interested in the entertainment industry and music in particular. Some of those students have reached out to me, and I feel like we're going to be well received.

Do you plan to bring in music industry recruiters?

It's too early to tell. The music industry does not traditionally look at résumés and academic credentials in a way that other industries do. The entertainment industry works on what a lot of people call the William Morris system, which is basically to get as much education as you can, get a job in the mailroom, and go from there. As technology has become more important in the business, that has changed a little bit. You certainly have the finance and technology areas [of the business], where résumés are considered. But it's not that way in the music industry as a whole.

What are your hopes for the course?

I'm excited to have the opportunity to reassociate myself with Owen. I think this is a wonderful location for a program that looks at the entertainment industry and the changes it faces as we move into this digital age. I hope we can build a program that gives students an understanding of the basic business model as it exists and also prepares them to be a part of the change that is inevitable in this industry over the next few years.

What kind of professor will you be?

I have taught before. I enjoy teaching. Teaching is in my blood. I come from a family of teachers and professors, and I think that I'm very comfortable in front of a class. I pride myself on keeping people interested and involved and walking away from a class feeling as though they got a lot of benefit out of the time and effort they put into it. We're going to have a front row seat to history. It's a great time to have a business background and an understanding of the media business.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the music industry, in Nashville in particular?

Nashville has been a bit insulated because our major consumers are a little slow to pick up on the new technologies. You don't have as many people who are legally or illegally downloading things off the Internet. That's changing, because more and more people have broadband access and are becoming comfortable with the new technologies that are available. As a result, we get a little look ahead to see what's happening. It's not that we have the ability to change it. But we do see it coming. We see it before we feel it.

I don't think the challenges we face are any different from any other music center. We just have a more cooperative atmosphere in our world. We are a music center, and we have a lot of great rock bands that work out of here. The contemporary Christian music and country music industries are headquartered in Nashville. We have world-class engineers, producers, and executives who make this a very rich community.

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