For Berklee Artists and A&R Talent, a New Path to a Big Break

Thanks to a new Career Center program, students are building their own pipeline to industry success.

January 24, 2022

Last fall, Berklee student Isa Ansin took the stage at Brighton Music Hall, a 500-capacity Boston venue booked mainly by national touring acts. As the first of two openers, her job was to warm up the crowd for indie-pop singer Vérité, the show’s headliner.

For most young artists, such a gig would serve as an early career milestone. For Ansin, who landed the booking with help from Berklee’s new talent relations ambassador program, it was notable for another reason: it was the first time she’d ever performed her own music live. But you wouldn’t know that based on the crowd’s reaction. The show was so well-received that Vérité invited Ansin to open for her again a few nights later, at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, covering Ansin’s travel expenses and bumping her up to the lineup’s second support slot, ensuring an even larger group of potential new fans to win over. The payoff was immediate: after the Brighton and Bowery shows, Ansin had gained hundreds of new Instagram followers.

“It was crazy,” said Ansin, who performs under the stage name Chrysalis. “It was such an amazing experience, and the crowds, at both shows, were so welcoming…it was honestly a really good reinforcement for me that writing music and performing my originals is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Building a Talent Pipeline

In terms of audience growth, few things move the needle like opening for a popular touring act. But with hundreds of artists vying for these coveted gigs, the chances of landing one, without connections or a proper strategy, can feel about as likely as winning the lottery.

Thanks to a new initiative from the Berklee Career Center, more student and alumni artists are snagging these in-demand support slots. The talent relations ambassador program, launched last fall as part of the Hire Berklee Talent campaign, is composed of student A&R scouts who identify, develop, and track talent within the Berklee community for specific performance, recording, writing, and producing opportunities. The current team—Lilly Patterson, Karissa Bone, Austyn Jones, Jordan Hall, and Daniel Ramos—represents an array of Berklee majors, from songwriting and production to business and musical theater.

Liza Levy

Liza Levy

Patterson, who booked Ansin’s show with Vérité, seeks out Berklee artists who offer a balance to the headliner’s style. She found Ansin through Berklee Connect (login required), a student and alumni directory where artists can upload unreleased music, videos, and other media. “While [Ansin] didn’t have any releases, and that definitely made me a little nervous, I really loved her artistry and personability, and so did Vérité’s team,” said Patterson. “Isa is a lyrically captivating writer; she’s literally a poet. I anticipated that her set would be super chill, which I thought would contrast and complement Vérité’s more upbeat, danceable discography.”

“They’re building a talent pipeline to the industry while helping to super-serve the needs of our employer partners,” said the program’s director, Liza Levy, talent relations manager for the Career Center.

The results speak for themselves, with ambassadors securing paid gigs for Berklee acts at major venues in the Boston area and beyond. In addition to Ansin’s gigs with Vérité, other program highlights have included Lindsay Whiteman, a seventh-semester student, opening for TikTok sensation JORDY at Brighton Music Hall; Jay Alan, a songwriting major, and Laura Danae, a graduate student at Berklee NYC, opening for Evan Giia B.M. ’14, respectively, at the Sinclair (Boston) and Elsewhere (Brooklyn); and Cinya Khan, a professional music major, who’s set to open for indie phenom Clairo at the House of Blues in Boston next month.

There's nothing more powerful than listening to a student talk about why another student's work is inspiring to them.

—Liza Levy, talent relations manager

Levy credits a recent student employee, Rehan Manickam B.M. ’21, for sparking the idea behind the program. “Rehan put me on to all of these Berklee artists, producers, and songwriters that were making incredible music. From there we started sharing this work with A&R execs, publishers, bookers, and managers in the industry,” said Levy. “There's nothing more powerful than listening to a student talk about why another student's work is inspiring to them.” (After graduating, Manickam got a job working in A&R at Love Renaissance, the label home to Summer Walker, 6lack, and others.)

The program began to take shape last fall when Blythe Scokin, manager for Nashville singer-songwriter Ingrid Andress ’13, proposed having a Berklee student open for Andress’s upcoming Boston date. The benefits were two-fold: adding a student to the bill would help build an organic buzz on campus for the show, and Andress could give back to her alma mater by showcasing a developing artist.

Levy sent over a list of potential Berklee acts, and Scokin and Andress fell in love with an artist named Zoe Sparks, who opened the show and ended up attracting a ton of people to it. “So we were like, this is interesting, we could take this whole structure and offer it to other artists—and it doesn’t just have to be Berklee alumni, it could be any artist coming to Boston,” said Levy. “Then, if the pilot goes well, we can talk to managers about extending the campaign to New York and our Berklee NYC students.”

Watch Zoe Sparks perform on Berklee's Two Track series: 

When pitching an opening act, there are many factors to consider. If the artist has a strong following on social media, it’s easier to demonstrate the value they’ll add to the bill. Promoters also look at streaming numbers to see where the artist has the largest followings and where their biggest markets are. “Maybe it’s a specific sound they’re going for—like something that will amp up the crowd,” said Levy. “But value can also come from a diversity perspective. It's refreshing to see so many artists and managers actively working to create a more inclusive music industry.”

Levy had assumed that the ambassadors would spend most of their time pitching labels for songwriting opportunities, due to the pandemic’s impact on the concert industry, but now that live music has come back, there’s been a total shift. “When the ambassadors were hired, I wasn’t expecting them to tour-manage these gigs, but now they are,” said Levy. “They’re advancing the shows, they’re working with the sound engineers and the lighting designers, they’re making sure students get paid.”

Berklee openers earn anywhere from $100 to $500 per show, though it’s not unusual for headliners to pay more. “A few times, I’ve suggested $100 or $200 and then the artist has come back and said, ‘No, we want to support developing talent,’ and offered to pay $500—for a 20-minute set!,” Levy said. Industry contacts are expected to pay for Berklee talent, but students can decide whether to take unpaid offers. Sometimes they don't. For example, Damoyee, a Berklee student who quickly gained fame on TikTok, was invited to play a high-profile gig, but because the offer didn’t include a stipend, she declined, not wanting to set a precedent for other artists in her circle. Instead, she held out for a paid show opening for Sammy Rae & the Friends at the Royale in Boston in March.

Watch Damoyee perform her original "One Day": 

Beyond the Concert Stage

Live music has been booming, but it’s only one part of the ambassadors’ work. They’ve also found plenty of opportunities to work in film, television, and musical theater.

When the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody was shooting in Boston last semester, Jordan Hall, the ambassador for Boston Conservatory at Berklee, booked students as special-ability extras in the film, including several backup singers for the re-creation of Houston’s legendary Super Bowl performance, as well as a student who plays trumpet in the funeral scene. When Courtney Harrell ’01, casting director for America’s Got Talent, was on campus to do some workshops, the ambassadors took advantage of a half-hour break in the alumna’s schedule to round up a group of top student artists for a whirlwind series of 30-second auditions with her. Recently, the team booked Annaliese Wilbur, a Conservatory student, as a featured soloist on a live production of Rob Kapilow’s What Makes It Great celebrating the music of Broadway songwriting team Lerner and Loewe.

Berklee-trained producers, engineers, and songwriters are also in high demand. The rise of TikTok has seen a wave of new performers turning viral moments into publishing deals, and many of these artists need production help. “We work with publishers who say things like, ‘Hey, we just signed these artists, we’re looking to match them with some producers, can you send over some talent.’ And on the song side, it’s, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a power ballad for this artist’s next album, can you send over some songs to check out,’” said Levy.

When Berklee hosts industry professionals on campus, such as, for example, the Atlantic Records A&R team, the talent ambassadors will find students for them to meet with during their visit. With logistics and preparation assistance from Alanna Underwood, Berklee’s talent and career programs coordinator, the team can arrange class visits, showcases, or one-on-one meetings, depending on what the visiting representatives are looking for.

The main thing that drew me to the program was the bridge it creates between Berklee’s self-sustained ecosystem of talent and real-world industry opportunities.

—Lilly Patterson, Berklee student

To succeed in the program, ambassadors need to be skilled researchers. They spend hours checking out live shows and digging into Berklee Connect in search of new talent. Each week, they present an industry update covering topics ranging from emerging platforms and technologies to social media best practices and NFTs, ensuring that the Career Center team is up on all the latest trends when students come in for advising sessions. Ambassadors also serve as “matchmakers” who identify students with complementary skill sets and connect them for specific opportunities, and they help students prepare marketing materials, such as video reels, bios, and one-sheets.

In doing this work, ambassadors aren’t just helping their peers, they are gaining critical experience for their own careers. They might pursue jobs in A&R or work as booking agents or talent buyers. Some are more drawn to the design-centric aspects of the business and could seek out jobs in social media or content creation. Others might find that they love tracking the marketing data and go on to work in research or business analytics.

“My career goals have done a full 180 since taking this position,” Patterson said. After graduating, she’s planning to pursue a career in A&R, ideally with a musical theater focus, but she’s also keen to keep her options open. The ambassadors’ professional lives could lead them in any number of directions, but there’s one trait they all seem to share: an innate drive to build relationships and support the artistic growth of others.

“The main thing that drew me to the program was the bridge it creates between Berklee’s self-sustained ecosystem of talent and real-world industry opportunities,” said Patterson. “There are so many talented people at Berklee, and I love being able to provide a path to exposure and industry connections for Berklee artists.”