Kyan Palmer has straddled both sides of the music industry. A few years ago, Kyan trekked from Arizona to NYC to take a job at a major record label. This experience opened his eyes to a side of the business he had never before witnessed. At the same time, Kyan’s hit single ‘Burn Mona Lisa’ was rising up the charts. On a journey of self discovery, Kyan wrote this letter detailing his decision to leave the label to pursue making music full-time.
In 2016, I started my first job in the music industry.
I worked not as an artist or songwriter, but behind the desk working for a high-level executive at the top record label in the US.
I’d studied marketing and it was a job that made sense… but two years later, everything has changed.
I’m now on the other side of the industry, performing and songwriting, something I never thought would happen. As I’ve come to learn, life has a strange way of taking you on a journey you never quite planned for.
I’d always been interested in music, both performing and learning what goes on behind the scenes. Growing up in small-town Arizona, the only way I thought you could “make it” was by going on American Idol.
Consequently, I shied away from pursuing a career in music because I couldn't see a path to discover my own artistry. My self-doubt prevented me. Up until the age of 21, the only performance I had ever done was a high school talent show (unless you want to count my personal shower performances).
But something clicked for me right before my college graduation.
I had freedom to pick a thesis topic as long as it related to my marketing major. I’d always been curious about the logistical aspects of marketing a record, which is the subject I chose.
For this project, I decided to write, record, and promote a single, but the process was far easier said than done. I spent countless days trying to contrive stories.
Ironically, the one day I had decided not to write was when the idea for “Burn Mona Lisa” came to me. I started writing about how I felt, what was going on in my life, and the song just flowed. I recorded it in some random guy's basement, and within a day, I had the finished product.
Then, I needed to learn how to distribute music. Having no clue, I turned to Google. I ended up distributing the song via Tunecore. I had no idea how much work went it to getting a song onto streaming platforms.
Then came the promotion, the ads, the press outreach, the self-promotion. I wrote about the experience in my thesis and figured that was the end of my songwriting career. I’d given myself a shot as an artist. It was fun, but I was off to start an office job in the music industry in New York.
If I thought that distributing a song was hard, I had no idea what I was in for working at the record label.
I walked into the office at 9AM and left at 11PM (sometimes later).
Even after leaving, I was always on call.
The job was tough, emotionally draining, and far more data-driven than I had expected.
While the music industry may look creatively driven from the outside, I encountered an obsession with data, numbers, and trends, that up to that point, I had not experienced. The job was no longer about how good the music was, but about what the numbers said was good music.
Also, I learned what goes into a record deal, the parameters of publishing deals, the ways in which you can market music (physical billboards, online ads, radio campaigns, DSP support, traditional press, or newsletters) and, more than anything, the importance of working as a team.
This is not a one-person game.
One day, sitting behind my desk at the record label, I got a call from one of the senior A&Rs. He asked me if I was “the Kyan Palmer” that was trending on Spotify’s viral charts. Unclear on what that even meant, I went on Spotify and took a look… believe it or not, “Burn Mona Lisa” was climbing the charts in the US, Canada, and Singapore.
This was the last thing I had ever expected.
I thought the song would just disappear. I felt simultaneously proud and self-conscious. I did not expect the song to take flight.
Quickly, word spread.
My boss, my friends, everyone knew that I’d written this song rapidly approaching one million streams. I built up an abundance of false hope from people in the industry telling me that they would “absolutely sign me,” and things of that ilk.
Of course, that never happened. The industry is full of hype, but it can be hard to see through the facade when major execs are telling you exactly what you want to hear.
As “Burn Mona Lisa” really started to gain traction, I made the sporadic decision to leave my job. Partially driven by the exhaustion and stress, I resigned to pursue music full-time.
When I first left, I felt angry, irritated, and almost resentful of the record label and how much energy it zapped from me. Not until now, about a year and a half later, I can finally look back and feel thankful for the lessons I learned, not only about the ins and outs of marketing my music, but also life skills.
So, what have I learned, you may ask? Well let me share some of it with you.
1. You don’t just wake up on one day and get a record deal.
Before someone else can help you with your music, you have to exhaust all possibilities on your own. In many ways, the most successful artists are those who really understand the industry and study what goes into making, distributing and promoting music. You don’t need to work at a record label to gain this knowledge, but my experience certainly served as an unexpected crash course in the music industry. The key to success is not just being talented, but also being willing to work really damn hard.
2. You need to build a team around you; a team you trust.
So much work goes into just one song. Trustworthy producers, a manager to leverage your music, a publicist to get the word out, and people that just want to help you out and see you succeed all play a part. Most importantly, these people have to care - they have to care not only about the music, but also about you.
I met my manager (who is also my publicist) while she was working at the same record label. We just clicked. She’d never managed anyone before, but she cared. Anyone who meets us will say that we have one of the strongest manager-artist relationships. She cares as much as I do about the music and my own well-being.
Music is a tough career. It can be lonely and exhausting. You need to surround yourself with a support system that can not only help you leverage yourself in ways that you can’t, but also have your back as a family. You talk to these people all day, every day. You have to, at the very least, like them. The goal shouldn’t be to sign with a huge management company. Work with the people who want to see you thrive and will make your success a priority.
3. Stay true to yourself and your sound.
At times, you may feel tempted to alter your sound to fit in with trends and match what’s hot on Spotify playlists. Stay true to you. ‘Burn Mona Lisa’ was born when I stopped trying to fit a certain sound and wrote how I felt. It’s a song that’s true to me, my own sound, and my experiences. I feel much more fulfilled writing for myself. Trying to duplicate the next “hot” sound will stunt your growth as a songwriter.
While most days I’d rather be sitting at home with my dogs, you have to get out there. It’s not your manager or your publicist’s job to bring every opportunity to you. You need to network, go out, and chat with people. Most of this industry is about who you know, so go and get to know people!
No one can want it for you more than you do.