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Michael Murray, executive director of the Toronto Musicians’ Association, is using his business skills to work for artists’ rights. ‘Wages and earnings for artists and musicians are worse than ever.’ (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)
Michael Murray, executive director of the Toronto Musicians’ Association, is using his business skills to work for artists’ rights. ‘Wages and earnings for artists and musicians are worse than ever.’ (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

Arts and media

MBA specialization puts the business in show business Add to ...

A dozen years ago, Michael Murray found himself at a crossroads. An electronic and R&B musician, he had a litany of frustrations: with the ailing music industry, with music’s technological limitations, with the Canadian establishment’s focus on rock and folk.

Mr. Murray was enrolled in a master program in music technology in Montreal, and was considering its value to his future. He really wanted to study something, he thought, that “would be the key to either enter the music business or be more successful as a musician in it.” Then he heard about the arts and media administration MBA at York University’s Schulich School of Business. It was the only business program he applied to, and as it happened, he got in.

These days, he’s the executive director of the Toronto Musicians' Association, working both to modernize the union and also to fight for better compensation for its 3,000 members. Managing in non-profit organizations for nearly a decade steeled him for the job, he says, but starting out with an MBA, “I felt like I had the knowledge of someone who had been around for 10 or 15 years.”

The creative life can be a precarious one, especially in the Internet-scourged entertainment sector. So it helps when creative industries have steady hands to guide artists and manage the changes they face. Formal business education, as distant from the creative arts as it may seem, can certainly assist on that front. In the United States, schools such as New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles are obvious leaders for entertainment-focused MBAs and combined degrees. But there are arts-specific MBAs right here in Canada, including at Schulich and through HEC Montréal.

HEC’s master of management in international arts management is a one-year intensive program shared with other business schools in Dallas and Milan, Italy. Schulich offers a mix of programs, including a standard MBA, a combination MBA/master of fine arts or MBA/master of arts, and several diplomas.

“I’m the last person to suggest that everyone should have an MBA,” says Joyce Zemans, director of Schulich’s arts and media MBA program, which accepts 12 to 15 students a year.

“But I will say that as a tool for working in production, or management, or in the industry, it is critically important to understand the sector and also to have [an understanding of] financial management, accounting, human resources, strategic analysis.”

York launched the program in 1969 as one of the first of its kind, blending marketing, management, legal and finance courses with lectures and seminars from leading arts managers and policy makers. In recent years, its coursework has shifted with the media landscape, with classes including managing in the new broadcast world and business solutions for digital media. Recent lecturers and guest speakers have included Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties with Rogers Communications, and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chair Jean-Pierre Blais.

Musicians are more than familiar with handling money, but Mr. Murray credits his MBA with grounding him in the worlds of human resources, accounting and economics. For those, “you absolutely need the structure and the experts right beside you.”

Mr. Murray, who became executive director of the UrbanArts Community Arts Council as he finished his MBA then served as a popular-and-world-music officer with the Ontario Arts Council, now spends his days at the Toronto Musicians’ Association fighting for members’ rights.

“Wages and earnings for artists and musicians are worse than ever, and I realized that arts unions are the only player in the sector without conflicts to change this reality,” Mr. Murray says. “I did not want to see the next, more diverse, generation of artists start to get gigs that were not as well paid as their predecessors, or [discover] the gigs weren’t there at all.”

Managing uncertainty has become a constant across entertainment industries. “There’s so much happening with digital changing our landscape,” says Christina Kubacki, director of acquisitions for film distributor Entertainment One in Canada and a 2010 graduate of Schulich’s arts and media MBA. “Consumption habits are so different than they were even 10 years ago. The ability to react to change and to take that bigger-picture view of things – that’s the most important skill in an industry that is changing monthly.”

Ms. Kubacki started her graduate education in a film studies program, but after hearing of the arts and media MBA – and meeting Ms. Zemans – switched to a combined degree program. “I had a really clear vision of, wherever I landed, using my film degree and my business degree.”

She landed at eOne, where she rose through the ranks of the acquisition team, which has secured Canadian rights to films such as The Hunger Games series and Canadian productions including the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue. Her graduate studies, she says, helped guide her to the director position. “A lot of the strategy courses I took were understanding the bigger picture of eOne and how our division and my role fits into that.”

The record industry has gone through even more shifts in the past two decades, as consumers shifted from physical music to downloads to streaming services. Rob Bolton graduated from Schulich in 1999 – the last year the music industry truly soared – and now heads up digital marketing for Warner Music Canada and helps the label navigate the rough digital tides.

“If you’ve got an idea, how do you build your case, and how do you present it with as much credibility and reliable facts as you can?” he asks. “We can all pretend we have a crystal ball and can predict the future of the music industry, but no one can do that. But the ability to predict some segments of the future using data and trending – that’s core MBA stuff right there.”

Grad schools can’t predict the future either, but, Ms. Zemans says they can at least adapt. “Every course that we teach is responding immediately,” she says. “Digital disruption is absolutely at the centre.”

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