Women of the Waveform | An Interview Featuring Producer Jill Courtney

Jill Courtney is a producer, educator, and writer working for her company, JCreative Multimedia. In this interview, she discusses her professional life and gives great advice to students of the recording industry.

Meet Jill Courtney, Owner of JCreative Multimedia in Nashville, TN.

Jill-Courtney-owner-of-JCreative-Multimedia
Jill Courtney, owner of JCreative Multimedia

It’s refreshing and inspiring to see capable women excel in audio, considering they make up roughly 5% of the industry. Despite the narrow statistic, there are some incredibly talented people who fill the narrow slice, and I managed to get in touch with a few of them to capture a closer look behind the mixing console.

I stumbled across an article published by SoundGirls.org featuring producer and educator Jill Courtney. Realizing Jill works in the same city, I decided to reach out and get her thoughts about career-focused topics in music and audio.

In this interview, Jill gives great career advice to students and shares her perspective on the current state of the recording industry.

Highlights

– Jill Courtney explains the basis of her upcoming book, Audio Chicks, as well as some key points in her research regarding women in the music/entertainment industry.

– She sheds light on her perspective of the industry and outlines some valuable skills and strategies to develop.

– Lastly,  Jill closes with great advice for younger generations interested in the music industry.


Jill, you have an interesting perspective as an audio engineer. What attracted you to this line of work?

My music studies began at the age of 6, and I discovered along the way that I had talent. I started performing and touring as a singer from the age of 8 on. My musical interest and aptitude provided a scholarship to the degrees that I eventually achieved, and one such was in Music Technology. My undergrad degree was in Music Education (St. Olaf College), and my professional degree was in Music Performance (AMDA-NY). I always had technological inclinations and abilities, so after several recording sessions as a singer, I decided that I wanted full control of the production of my own music.

I went into audio for purely selfish reasons. In that process, I teamed up with a partner at NYU, and we started a business and then brought that business to Nashville, where we had more options and a better quality of life.

What are some of the highlights you’ve enjoyed as a teacher?

[Teaching] has provided me with a way to connect with other generations and leave a legacy of knowledge that hopefully helps them on their own respective journeys.”

I could name numerous amazing moments as an educator and as a leader in education. But I think the one thing I can highlight the most is how it has provided me with a way to connect with other generations and leave a legacy of knowledge that hopefully helps them on their own respective journeys. Educating chiseled my craft and filled in some knowledge gaps from my own education. It gave me so much while I was able to also give all I had to my students. It has been a true give and take.

What sort of audio/video projects are you a part of at JCreative Multimedia?

JCreative Multimedia

JCreative Multimedia is my spin-off company from Sharkbait Studios. It is my own company, and I take on audio and video clients, teach voice lessons, build social media and press kit assets, and develop artists.

Most of my current clients are ones who have been with me for years. I love developing young talent, creating projects that help to market artists, and functioning as a go-to for more simple audio recording or mixing projects.

I wanted one company that functioned in a tree-branch of ways, utilizing my skills as needed. I liken myself to a consultant, educator and project manager.

In what ways has the music industry changed since you began your career?

“I think the industry has changed in many ways, both for the positive and the negative.”

At a Glance

From my perspective as a gritty, leadership-based female, the positives are that in this digital age, I am able to forge my own path, gain experience, serve clients, and run my own company without a multi-million dollar studio. There is a place for me, in the grand scheme of it all. I have found several little niches in which I fit. 30 years ago, I would not have had the opportunity to expand my career as broadly and independently. The digital age also gave numerous opportunities to connect artists with a potentially worldwide audience. The middle-men were not necessary.

On the flip side, I have seen the industry become fueled by greed and a quest for the most money possible, often at the expense of artistry or the well being of the artist(s), and led by people who make decisions based upon the bottom line. This means that many artists cannot follow the traditional path to stardom. Talent isn’t the key to success, necessarily.

For females, I see a tragic trend toward seeking females who are nothing more than props or a product, and while many have the talent to back up their perfect packaging, some simply do not. Those standards are much more loose for men in the industry, but to maximize the profits for the labels, even men face the pressure of presenting themselves in a certain way as they launch their careers.

Back in the day, if you were a great musician, you could be a bit rough around the edges physically. Nowadays, it is certainly an exception to see a new artist without airbrushed perfection getting the attention of top music executives.

Breaking Down the Door

Academic programs are now the main gateway to audio fields, and this is both good and bad. It’s good because there is more direct training given to students who aim to enter the field, so they can hit the ground running. For females, it is often the only way into the industry. There aren’t a lot of older male mentors reaching out to help on the job, as was the training of days gone by. However, school is so very costly, that in many cases a student will study, rack up student loans, and graduate into a field that wants you to intern and work for very low wages, and thus, not enable that graduate to pay off their loans as required.

This cycle prevents many students from being able to “pay their dues,” and the ones I see succeeding are often the ones that are able to be supported by their parents as they pay said dues. For the scholarship kids like myself, there isn’t a safety net or person that helps in that impoverishing process. So this means that kids, with talent or no, are driven into another field due to the harsh reality of paying adult-sized bills and loans, or they have to hustle while holding down numerous jobs and acquiring numerous additional skills in order to make ends meet.

I am the latter type. While I have accumulated an immense amount of experience, skills, and degrees, it has been anything but easy on me.

Women only make up 5% of the industry. In your opinion, why do you think there is such an imbalance in the music industry?

This is truly a massive can-of-worms question and one on which I am basing not only my upcoming book, Audio Chicks, but also on which I am researching via my Educational Leadership program through Lipscomb University currently. My preliminary research reveals this pipeline:

A female has the exact same interests and abilities as male counterparts in elementary school.

In middle school, as talk of careers and college and concepts of self-identity begin to emerge, a divergence also emerges for various reasons. This is where the bulk of my research is focused currently. In summary, there is a significant drop off in interest in STEM fields around puberty and young adolescence. The girls reflect more interest in other subjects, even though their abilities don’t necessarily differ significantly.

In high school, different statistics show that girls are often uninterested in STEM subjects, and therefore, their aptitude falls due to lack of motivation and cultivation. The gender gap widens and feeds into college programs accordingly.

College enrollment in STEM subjects (along with audio) reflect a significant gender gap upon entry into programs and an even wider gap by graduation. This means that many are not continuing their pursuit of STEM fields of study. Various reasons are revealed, but this is where females can begin to feel isolated, unsupported, and unwelcome in classes and internships.

Post-college, the corresponding industries of STEM, and even more so audio, see a large drop for many different reasons:

  • financial
  • harassment
  • lack of opportunity
  • loneliness
  • lack of mentorship
  • unequal pay

Some choose to pursue other areas of employment that are more healthy, welcoming, and financially wise in comparison. Most must opt to forge their own path, as employment opportunities aren’t made available.

Additionally, the industry itself is struggling. The people who would be vacating the industry for retirement aren’t, and the ones employed in the industry often don’t make enough money to have a good quality of life. Work/life balance, having a family, owning a house, retirement savings, etc. seems prohibitive if not impossible in the face of crushing loan debt and lack of opportunity.

So here we are, at 5% of the industry.

You told SoundGirls that you teach students to be “twice as good and half as difficult as their competitors”. What qualities make an audio engineer proficient in your eyes?

“If you have too much of an ego that causes you to not fully listen – to the music, to the client, to your boss, to the industry at large – then growth will not occur.”

The ability to listen, be a good hang, and act with integrity is the basis by which everything else can be taught. If that foundation isn’t there, success will be fleeting, if achieved at all, unless you happen to have strong connections. The technical aspects of the jobs can be taught and retaught. I think a proficient engineer is always trying to improve their performance, be it male or female.

For females and minorities, we truly can’t afford to put our feet up on someone else’s console and relax into our positions.

In your interview with SoundGirls, you spoke about the importance of remaining versatile as a professional. What are some good business-oriented skills that audio students can develop?

“Just knowing the business marketplace in and of itself, in its current state is an absolute necessity.”

I have to plug my friend John Pisciotta’s new book for a minute because it’s a great and hot-off-the-press source for the current marketplace. It is called Hacking Music. There are so many amazing resources out there now, but this one is a current and relevant snapshot,

Other skills I have used to succeed/survive:Related image

  • business management
  • finances (bookkeeping, AP, AR)
  • fundraising
  • grant writing
  • human resources
  • lighting
  • logo design
  • music copyright law
  • networking
  • project management
  • sales
  • SEO optimization
  • social media marketing
  • statistics analysis
  • video/camera skills
  • web design

The list can go on and on, really. The sad part about being a “Jill-of-all-trades” is that I can often be swayed into a different line of work because I feel more welcomed (and paid). However, a writer, an artist, an educator, and a producer I will always be.

What advice can you offer to audio students who are currently seeking internships or similar opportunities to gain more experience?

I would advise students to look far in the distance as to what they want their careers to look like, and then work backward from there. Interview people with that job. You’d be surprised at how many people open their lives up if you are willing to treat them to lunch or even a coffee. See if those people know of a great internship that they could recommend. Find something in the direction in which you want to go.

You briefly explained the concept of being a lifelong learner. With the audio industry in mind, what strategies can students use to develop this trait?

Tech advances are constant. I would suggest that audio students and young audio professionals either diversify their skills as I have, or become laser-focused on one aspect of the audio industry, and aim to be the very best in that area.

This might mean quite a few things:

  • learning updated versions of Pro Tools or any future DAWs
  • visiting AES or NAMM conventions to see new tools and the people behind them
  • attending seminars and networking with heavy hitters in the industry
  • fully learning the history of audio and best practices from former generations

Last question. The music industry can be difficult to break into. What advice do you have for younger generations who are considering a career in audio?

“This field isn’t something you just fall into and then float and exist. It takes a very concerted effort to survive and thrive”

I would encourage anyone who is considering this field, no matter the gender, to have a clear plan of action. This field isn’t something you just fall into and then float and exist. It takes a very concerted effort to survive and thrive. If a student isn’t the highly motivated type, this business will ultimately be a bad match. It is simply too cutthroat for it to be a default choice.


The Takeaway

audio-microphone-recording

I’m beyond impressed with Jill Courtney’s Swiss-Army-Knife skillset. It’s great to kick off this series by featuring an experienced recording industry professional who is also a strong leader in education.

The trials of recording industry stardom aren’t based on a “one size fits all” approach. Finding the entryway requires discipline, patience, and a willingness to adapt and take on different roles. Education doesn’t stop after the degree or behind the mixing console. It’s important to remain in a constant state of learning at every turn, which is a practice that all professionals can benefit from. Achieving career longevity in the industry is a complicated pursuit without a defined strategy; however, developing skills outside of audio will help dampen the blow from unexpected career transitions and/or situations when producers/engineers need to fall back on other skills to move forward.

Based on Jill’s brief overview of her research, women take up less of the industry because of different rooted causes beneath the surface. I am by no means an expert in early childhood education or development, but it seems like there’s a definitely a bigger picture to study. In her explanation, she traces points of the academic timeline and briefly describes factors that influence the regression of females studying or interested in STEM careers. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s very eye-opening.

Overall, she left us some fantastic advice and strategies to think about. It’s good to know that she’s using her wealth of knowledge to encourage and empower the next generation.

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