When Students and Teacher Make Music (Podcast) Together: An Interview with Larry Miller

Amid the disruption whiplash that continues to shape the music industry, reliably predicting the “Next Big Thing” has become close to impossible.   The best anybody can do – be they artist or bean counter – is to try to keep his or her head above water.

And yet, people in the any industry can always benefit from some solid business analysis of what’s happening and why.  At least, that’s what Larry Miller, a clinical associate professor at NYU Steinhardt, thought when he launched Musonomics in April 2015.  Produced in partnership with Miller’s students in the music business program where he has taught for three years, Musonomics deals with such trending issues as the state of music retail, how artists create scarcity to drive revenue, and what makes Drake’s most recent album release a “mixtape.”

Miller must be on to something because his inaugural podcasts (of which there are currently three) have attracted more than 75,000 downloads.  Miller discusses why, in the crowded music podcast space, Musonomics has so quickly found its audience.

With so many music podcasts out there, were you surprised that Musonomics was so popular right out of the gate?

I was surprised at how quickly it happened, but I don’t think the field is as crowded as you think.  In fact, that’s the reason why I decided to launch Musonomics, because I didn’t see anything out there that dealt with the business end of music in a tight, disciplined format.   A lot of podcasts tend to involve long, unstructured conversations. What we have gone for was a more journalistic approach that was heavy on information, with knowledgeable and credentialed guests, and that had the highest-quality production values.

Alyse Howard, a recent music business graduate, and Larry Miller, on the set of Musicnomics.

Before becoming a teacher, you had a long, successful career in radio and music.  Did that help you in developing Musonomics?

Yes, to the extent that I understand what attracts an audience.  I started my career in radio very early.  I’ve had a somewhat conspicuous “radio voice” since I was 14 so going into radio broadcasting seemed like a natural choice.  I worked for practically every rock station in Boston and New York, including being one of the founding broadcasters on Z100 in New York, still the most listened to pop station in America.  I ended up at NBC radio and there I made the switch into management.  So it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been on the air.

But most of my ideas for Musonomics came from being a podcast listener.  In particular, I’m a big fan of Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson, and that was the sonic model that I had in my head and wanted to emulate.  There really was nothing in the music space like that, and I thought there was a need for it.   And the numbers we’ve been getting prove we were right.

How do you choose what topics to cover, and how to cover them?

I wanted the podcast to reflect the strengths of the music business program itself and we do this by being both timely and expert.  Teaching and learning about the music business today isn’t an easy thing to do – it’s such a moving target.  In order to do well by our students, we need to continuously update the content of our curriculum so that it’s truly reflective of what’s really happening in the industry.   But just as important is that our students receive sophisticated music training, and learn about business practices through courses we offer in conjunction with NYU Stern.

Similarly, with the podcast, we were determined to tackle the most pressing and immediate issues facing the music industry, but we are committed to addressing them in a meaningful way – conducting thorough research, interviewing the foremost experts, and reporting from the field.  This way, we’re respectful of our listeners’ time because they can be confident that they’ll gain real knowledge by tuning in.

How do the students get involved?

I mentioned it in class and they put themselves forward, and I have to say I’ve been fortunate to attract an incredibly talented and skilled group.  We do have a couple of employees working professionally on the podcast – Sam Behrens who graduated from the NYU’s journalism program last year.  But we also have current students doing the reporting and our technical producer Travis Fodor, who is really outstanding, is a rising senior in Steinhardt’s music technology program.

To what extent do the students influence the character of the podcast?  And what do you think they get out of it educationally?

They influence it a great deal.   Granted, the structure is set, but they’ve affected the tone greatly by selecting the music, and they also bring a different sensibility to the subject.

Older people have seen the industry grow and then shrink, in terms of revenue, profitability, number of employees, or primacy of cultural import.  The students are unburdened by that baggage.  They aspire to create a new industry and start new businesses and I guarantee you many of them will go on to have great careers of a type that simply didn’t exist five years ago.  If we’re doing our job well, we’re giving them the tools to realize that ambition.

— Interview by Shonna Keogan