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Ari Herstand of ‘Ari’s Take Academy’: “Needless to say, none of this was the plan”

As an industry, we should be prioritizing inclusion and diversity at the executive level. One of the reasons there are so few black executives is because companies hire from within. How do you get into the company? One way is through people you know (and when the majority of the company is made up of […]

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As an industry, we should be prioritizing inclusion and diversity at the executive level. One of the reasons there are so few black executives is because companies hire from within. How do you get into the company? One way is through people you know (and when the majority of the company is made up of white men, their “who I know and can refer for the job” swath will be quite homogenous. But moreso, it starts at the ground level — with internships. Unpaid internships — which have become a staple of the entertainment industry — are how most future executives break in and where they start. Who can afford unpaid internships? People who come from means. People who have families who can support them for the time they are working for no money. It’s no secret that in our country the wealth disparity between white and black populations is tremendous. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” does a great job of laying out why this is. So, naturally, most of the people who could afford to work a 5 month, full-time, unpaid internship in LA or NYC (two wildly expensive cities) will be white people who come from wealth. Unpaid internships at giant corporations should be illegal. An unpaid internship at a recording studio on the brink of collapse or with an artist or indie manager scraping by, that’s fine. At a billion dollar record label or movie studio? Absolutely not.


As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ari Herstand.

Described by Forbes as “the poster child of DIY music,” LA based Ari Herstand is an entrepreneur, musician, best-selling author, educator, advocate and authority on how to succeed as an independent musician. He has collaborated with acts like Cake, Thirty Seconds to Mars and Ben Folds, and his music has appeared in TV shows, commercials and films. His book How To Make It in the New Music Business is a #1 best-seller in three categories on Amazon and taught by over 300 universities across the country. Recently, Ari co-founded the UnCancelled Music Festival, which Rolling Stone called “the most recent — and one of the larger — of the online music events that have sparked up since COVID-19 put a temporary hold on the live music industry,” as well as advocacy group Independent Music Professionals United (IMPU), where Ari helped write and pass the amendment to get the music industry an exemption under the “gig worker” law AB5. At the helm of his blog Ari’s Take, Ari empowers musicians through the Ari’s Take Academy online music business school and the New Music Business podcast.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in a lower-middle class Jewish family in Wisconsin. Well, the first 6 years of my life we moved from Milwaukee to small town Iowa where my younger brother was born, to San Diego — where I learned to swim — back to Milwaukee and settled in the suburb of Shorewood where I attended elementary school. We had my grandfather’s upright piano in the house and I wrote two songs on it before I really remember other memories. I begged my mom for piano lessons and took lessons for a couple years where I learned the fundamentals, but kept writing on my own. I sang in the Temple choir and became obsessed with the local high school musicals. So much so that I made a lifetime goal of starring in one some day. I split my time between swim club practice, piano, biking to Walgreens for Caramellos, Hebrew school and then trumpet.

The Summer before high school my friend Danny pulled out an acoustic guitar at a party and all the girls swooned. My girlfriend especially. Which is when I realized that trumpet and drums weren’t going to help me in the girls department and I needed to learn guitar. I kept extremely busy my high school years — doing all the plays and musicals, taking as many music classes that my schedule would allow — including playing trumpet in the city-wide Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra and a local Mariachi group (all Mexican elders save for the two teenage white trumpet players they recruited from our high school) on the weekends — and playing in a ska/funk/rock band (where we would regularly cover Dave Matthews Band, Tracy Chapman and Reel Big Fish in the same set). We had an identity crisis.

I became obsessed with the local New Orleans style brass bands (Madison oddly had two) and funk band (we had one good one) and attended every concert of theirs that age restrictions would allow — I remember a couple Credit Union opening parking lot bashes. I dove into the jam world and anytime a jam band came to town to play an all ages show I’d be there. In addition to the folk world. Every time Bruce Cockburn came to town I was at his show — I was by far the youngest person in the room by about 3 decades.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I initially went to the University of Minnesota as a classical trumpet and music education major. I thought I wanted to be a band director. But the first few weeks of college, I began writing endless amounts of songs. In the practice rooms where I was supposed to be practicing my trumpet etudes I was writing songs. I played my first solo gig as a singer/songwriter at a coffee shop on campus. I promoted it with flyers I put up around my dorm and the music building (I learned this trick promoting my high school band’s battle of the bands shows). The sensation I got playing my original music for the coffee shop made me realize that this is what I needed to do for my life.

While visiting my cousins in New Orleans, I found myself in a Barnes and Noble and bought All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald Passman. I read it in a week and found my calling.

I sat my parents down and told them I was dropping out of school to become a rock star. My dad cried. This was their worst nightmare. We compromised by finding a music industry school in St. Paul where I studied music business, jazz trumpet and songwriting. I got in and out in 3 semesters and never looked back.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

For years, my entire life was devoted to my singer/songwriter career. And 100% of my money came from those efforts. I spent the majority of my life on the road touring. But then, a couple years after moving to Los Angeles, I realized I should probably take some time off from the road and get to know my new city (two years after having moved there). I had no idea how to make money in LA and a friend recommended commercial acting. They gave me a list of the top 25 commercial acting agents in LA and I mailed out headshots. The next day I got a call from an agent who ran the film/tv department. We had a meeting and hit it off and she became my agent. (In the meeting I remember saying “Ok, I’m happy if you want to rep me for film/TV that sounds fun, but I’m a musician and am just looking for a way to make some cash while I’m off the road. Will the commercial department rep me too?” She assured me that most actors start with a commercial agent and it takes awhile for them to ‘graduate’ to a film/tv agent, but yes, they would rep me commercially). I started booking jobs. Lots of jobs. Tons of weird commercials (there’s still a CPR training video that gets shown of me dressed in full Saturday Night Fever disco attire at a ballgame leading the crowd in “Stayin Alive” — so people can remember the tempo to issue CPR). I got co-starring roles on big shows like Mad Men, 2 Broke Girls, Transparent and Sam & Cat — where Ariana Grande complimented me on my hair backstage (never followed up on that one…).

And the same time, while I was off the road, I started my music business advice blog Ari’s Take — because I had been getting so many questions from musicians all over the country on how I was running my music career without a manager or label (how did I book tours myself, how did I chart on iTunes, how did I get songs placed on TV, etc). I didn’t start the blog initially as a money making venture — it was just a way to help the music community at large. It took off. And turned into writing gigs at Digital Music News, Music Connection Magazine, American Songwriter, and countless other blogs. And then turned into a book deal. That book, How To Make It In the New Music Business is being taught by over 300 universities and is #1 on Amazon in 3 categories.

People came to me asking for more hands on guidance, so I launched Ari’s Take Academy. We now have over 2,500 students and I have a full staff of people I manage and can put “CEO” in my email signature.

Needless to say, none of this was the plan. But, by a combination of providing value, filling a void, and focusing on helping people — not on making money — I built a successful business, released a best-selling book and have helped tens of thousands of musicians along their music career journey. Sometimes the detour becomes the main road. I’m grateful and fortunate that I am deeply passionate about all of my current pursuits.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, I had become pretty popular in the Twin Cities music scene. Namely around the University of Minnesota campus. I didn’t have a manager or a record label or a publicist (or really anyone else on my team) except for an amazing street team who helped me promote my shows by putting up posters and handing out flyers all over town. My goal was to always get more people to my shows. I promoted them everywhere and anywhere. I played promo shows at dorm dining halls, record shops, sorority dinners, fraternity date nights, charity concerts on the campus mall, and was out every night of the week at music venues around town meeting people and handing out flyers. My shows had swelled to the point where I was playing to around 600 people for most of my headlining shows around town. What I didn’t realize was there was a growing group of haters out there who never actually attended a show but thought (by my posters and the word on the street) that they knew who my fans were. One of the haters happened to be the music writer for the University of Minnesota newspaper — which had a circulation of 80,000. He wrote 3 hate pieces on me in one semester. The first headline: “Herstand: Hersucks” where he spent a full page’s worth of ink blasting who he though my fanbase was and the final headline was when I made the cover of the joke edition of the paper: “Surgeons’ Attempt to Reattach Local Musician’s Balls, Fails.” Hilarious.

I spent so much energy worrying about what the haters thought and how I needed to convince them that I was ‘cool’ and that I really wasn’t who they thought I was, that I turned my back on my fans. I altered how I thought about songwriting and performing. And how I promoted shows and ran my career. By worrying about what the haters thought, I lost my true supporters. I learned there will always be haters, but to ignore them — and most importantly embrace my supporters first and foremost. This early experience helped me later on when haters poured in from all corners of the internet — not just in my local community.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My new album Like Home is a body of work that I’m extremely proud of. I got out of an 11 year relationship and this record is the post-breakup exploration of finding myself — with all the stumbles and bruises. I recorded this album during quarantine with my producer who lives just 15 minutes down the road, but we recorded 95% of it from our respective studios via Zoom and the wonders of modern technology. You’ll hear it’s mostly an organic sounding indie folk record — which was an interesting challenge to do when we couldn’t be in the same room with other musicians. Every record I’d worked on up to this point, all the musicians were in the same room and we recorded most of it live.

I’m also very excited about Ari’s Take Academy — which is the music business school I started a couple years ago. We have instructors who are experts in the field teaching topics in the music industry — like Sync Licensing (taught by a hip hop artist who’s had over 1,000 sync placements of his own music), Livestreaming for Musicians (taught by the #1 Musician on Periscope and Twitch), streaming and Instagram Growth taught by an artist who got over 150 million streams and 500,000 monthly Spotify listeners without playlists, and we’re about to launch a course on Artist Management taught by a manager with superstar clients. ATA currently has over 2,500 students and we’ll be launching 5 more courses this year.

I’m also working on an immersive theatrical experience around my funk/soul band Brassroots District which will take place in a fantastical world of 1973. We were set to premiere this experience at the Satellite (RIP) last June, but will be launching this as a drive-in experience this Summer in LA.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I believe it’s important to have representation in every aspect of the entertainment industry — not just on screen in film and TV. We don’t talk about the behind-the-scenes executives as often as we should — but of the Billboard Power 100 2020 list there are only 3 POC in the top 50 and only one black person. This is a problem. When hip hop is the dominant musical genre of pop culture these days and this black music genre is controlled by old white men, the public is getting a skewed version of the culture that is responsible for the music that is dominating the cultural trends in Western society. When black music is filtered through a white person’s lens, it inherently will be diffused and diminished. Not to mention that if we had more women in positions of power across the industry, there would be fewer instances of workplace sexual harassment. What the #metoo movement highlighted was just how rampant misogyny and sexual harassment from men in power is. When it’s a ‘boys club’ people look the other way and perpetuate a culture of misconduct.

As an industry, we should be prioritizing inclusion and diversity at the executive level. One of the reasons there are so few black executives is because companies hire from within. How do you get into the company? One way is through people you know (and when the majority of the company is made up of white men, their “who I know and can refer for the job” swath will be quite homogenous. But moreso, it starts at the ground level — with internships. Unpaid internships — which have become a staple of the entertainment industry — are how most future executives break in and where they start. Who can afford unpaid internships? People who come from means. People who have families who can support them for the time they are working for no money. It’s no secret that in our country the wealth disparity between white and black populations is tremendous. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” does a great job of laying out why this is. So, naturally, most of the people who could afford to work a 5 month, full-time, unpaid internship in LA or NYC (two wildly expensive cities) will be white people who come from wealth. Unpaid internships at giant corporations should be illegal. An unpaid internship at a recording studio on the brink of collapse or with an artist or indie manager scraping by, that’s fine. At a billion dollar record label or movie studio? Absolutely not.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Do not allow anyone to define success for you. For so long I was doing things because I thought that’s the way it is or how I’m supposed to do it or that I need to achieve certain metrics to make the powers that be satisfied. Vanity metrics don’t matter. What truly matters is, at the end of the day, are you happy. That’s how I define success. Not by Instagram numbers or points on the board or dollars in the bank account. It’s never ‘enough’ and it’s an endless pursuit of shit that doesn’t matter.
  2. Write more songs. Get great first. Then work the business. Not the other way around. My first album had 12 songs on it. Why? Because those were the only 12 songs I had written. One of them was possibly worthy of the album, the others weren’t. The reason my records didn’t achieve the heights I was hoping they would early on is because the music wasn’t great. The best business smarts and skills in the world won’t help promote a shitty product (music). As Andy Grammer told me when he was a guest on my podcast, “Write 10 songs, you’ll think 7 are great. Write 100 songs, you’ll think 3 are great.”
  3. Say yes to everything at first. Then, when you have a thriving career, say no to everything that doesn’t get you excited. The way I got to play “The World’s Largest Music Festival” Summerfest in Milwaukee (a dream of mine growing up) was I happened to be walking by a bar/venue in Minneapolis walking home from the bus when a musician I knew ran out and said “Ari, this guy needs a trumpet player for tonight, can you do it?” I could have said “no, I don’t know his music” or “I have plans” or whatever, but I said yes. On that gig was a sax player who booked a stage at Summerfest. He and I hit it off and he ended up bringing me in to play Summerfest and help him book a stage. Two years later, I was the sole booker of an official stage at the festival and played the stage every day (it’s an 11 day festival) where I gained thousands of fans and made over ten thousand dollars in merch). And how I was able to sell out the venues I performed around Wisconsin and Chicago. But now that my time is extremely valuable and I have an active career, I say no to nearly everything unless I’m excited about it or it makes great sense for my career pursuits.
  4. There is no right or wrong way to create a music career This goes along with ‘no one can define success for you.’ I was taught in school (and in books) that I had to get signed to a record label to be successful. My record deal didn’t come when I was ready to start my music career. So I had two choices: 1) I could sit around and wait for the deal to arrive in my lap (my music business education never told us HOW to get a deal only WHAT a deal was and how to negotiate one once we got it — same with Donald Passman’s book which is one of the biggest detriments to any aspiring musician who picks it up — myself included). Or 2) figure out how to make a music career happen on my own. I chose the latter. There isn’t one way to ‘make it’ in music anymore. There are 100 ways. Find the path that makes the most sense for YOU. No one can tell you how you should structure your career because no one knows what your true interests and desires are.
  5. Fear and creativity are two sides of the same coin. For so long I was afraid of what people would say or if anyone would care about my music. That fear disabled my creative process. You have to push through the fear to get to the truth. You don’t want to avoid fear because you will then avoid creativity. If you allow yourself to be fearful, vulnerable and open, you will create some great art. If you become crippled with fear and work to remove fear, you will also remove your creativity as well and become numb.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Make sure you carve out creative days and business days. I recommend a 50/50 time split: business/art. Don’t spend all your time on the business because you’ll lose track of why you’re in this industry in the first place (and your art will suffer). But also don’t spend all your time on the art (the fun stuff) and no time on the business because you’ll never be able to turn it into a real career.

If you’re nearing burnout, find a favorite record or book or movie or painting (or in better times, live concert or art museum) and engulf yourself in it. Let it recharge your passion and inspiration. Take some time to go on Inspiration Quests — hikes, trips, walks, anything. You can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to work to fill that cup up once in a while, actively.

Representation is extremely important in the visible areas of our industry as well so everyone in society can see themselves represented on screen. When the population only sees black and Arab men on screen as villians people get an ingrained view that all black and Arab men are evil — which perpetuates inequities in our justice system with juries, prosecutors and judges. Not to mention police officers. And when Trans people for so long only see themselves represented on screen as the punchlines to jokes or getting murdered, it signals to them that they aren’t welcomed in our society.

This needs to change so we can have an inclusive, healthy, welcoming and just society.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s redefine value and worth. Our society places too much value on money and wealth. A person’s worth should not be defined by how much money they have. I wish our society could completely change the definition of value and worth. And move away from a monetary system completely. There are brilliant artists who think they’re worthless because they are poor. Never forget that Vincent Van Gogh never saw much recognition (let alone money) until after his death. If we defined his worth based on how much money he made, Van Gogh would be considered a complete failure. And Beethoven was only able to have the career he had because a few wealthy noblemen supported him through patronage. If we defined his worth though how much sheet music he sold during his lifetime, he’d be considered a complete failure.

Is someone who inherits wealth more worthy than someone who works 60 hours a week at a nonprofit for minimum wage? Or an artist who changes someone’s outlook on life, but scrapes by financially?

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people — friends and family — have helped me along the way. I couldn’t even begin to list all of them. But I’d like to give a shoutout to my first landlord in LA, Jeff, who showed mercy when I had a couple slow months and was unable to pay rent. He allowed me to delay payment until I got back on my feet. The only reason I was able to stay in LA is because he showed me that mercy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s an offering not a demand”

Whenever I get concerned about releasing music or worry whether anyone will like it or care, I think of this quote. As an artist, I present offerings. How people react or respond is out of my control. But as long as I put forth honest work, I will at least be proud of it — regardless of the reaction.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Derek Sivers. He’s been a mentor through his writings and teachings (and he wrote the foreword to my book!). I’ve only had a couple conversations with him on the phone, but they’ve been tremendously impactful. He’s one of my favorite thinkers out there.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ariherstand

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ariherstand

Twitter quotes: https://twitter.com/aristake

website: https://ariherstand.com/

business: https://aristake.com/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you!


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