Obies Pursue Careers in All Corners of Music Industry

As spring flowers bloom across campus and this year’s seniors look toward graduation, many plan to follow a classic Oberlin path: pursuing a career in the music industry. 

When Riley Calcagno, OC ’20, graduated in the midst of the first wave of COVID-19, he knew he wanted to continue making music — both through his stringband The Onlies and his duo with Vivian Leva — but the pandemic made the logistics unclear.

“It was kind of a shock, as I think for everyone who graduated in that year,” Calcagno said. “These days, things are getting back to normal and I’m … kind of chugging away and just finding moments to play music when I can and little opportunities to connect with people and find new collaborations and a community of music making.” 

After releasing an album in March 2021 and moving to Durham, NC, Calcagno has been spending much of his time playing concerts, as other sources of revenue for new musicians are often not as fruitful. 

“It’s just wild how many streams you have to have to make any money, especially if a record label is getting the first cut,” Calcagno said. “So, getting out there and playing shows has been so good. [Before,] it was trying to figure out any other avenue to be creative and also get paid for it. The other ways to make money were teaching, so I did that, and we did some song commissions, which is really fun.”

As College fourth-year and musician Sofia Zarzuela gets ready to graduate in June, she also plans to make concerts and touring a large part of her income. 

“I’m trying to book my own DIY tour for October … by talking to everyone I know who goes to a college [and] getting booked through colleges because they pay you much better than other venues,” Zarzuela explained. “I just played a show with Kenyon and they paid us $700.” 

Ultimately, Zarzuela hopes to sign a record deal with a smaller, independent label. In the immediate future, though, she is considering trying to get a booking agent to help plan future tours. 

“I think I’m around the place with Spotify streams where one would get a booking agent,” Zarzuela said. “I would do this thing last year where I would get drunk and I would make TikToks in the bathroom of Harkness [House] … One of them kind of blew up, and then it led to one of my songs getting put on the Spotify algorithm — I wound up getting 10,000 more monthly listeners from it, which is really cool.” 

Others leave Oberlin with a love of music but no clear plan to work in the industry. When Dan Zucker, OC ’81, graduated from Oberlin, he didn’t envision himself pursuing a job related to music at all. His time at Oberlin informed his interest in music, and he ultimately found his way to RCA Records, a label within Sony Music Entertainment, where he now works as the executive vice president of business and legal affairs. 

“I didn’t know I wanted to be in the music industry,” Zucker said. “I knew I loved music — grew up surrounded by it, obviously went to a college where it’s infused in everything that happens on campus — but I wasn’t thinking that that would be a career.”

Zucker feels that his time at Oberlin prepared him well to work in the music industry. For example, if one of RCA’s artists is planning to release a song that sounds very similar to an existing song, the label might need to approach the artist of the original song to get their permission to use a bit of the composition in the new recording.

“I can evaluate whether we need to clear something or not because I went to Oberlin and I have some understanding of music theory,” Zucker explained. “It’s not always obvious, and the artist or the producer who put it in might not even know that other song. … We have a sample team, and when it’s close, they’ll come to me. And I literally pull up Garage Band, work out the cords and stuff, and say, ‘Oh, this is different’ or, ‘Oh, no, it’s not different, I think we need to clear it.’ … Sometimes I feel like, oh my gosh, am I showing off?” 

Zucker encourages any young Obies interested in being musicians to use the tools available to them.

“The industry is changing,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s changed a lot. And mostly for the benefit of young artists. The good news is that, unlike when I started, artists can release music on their own and make it available. Before iTunes came along, major record companies like Sony, Universal [Music Group], and Warner [Music Group] effectively controlled the distribution channels. And that’s just not the case anymore. You can go to an aggregator … and make your music available. You put it up, and you get paid for it for whatever it streams. Small pennies at first, but you get paid for it.”

Even though the prospect of a career in music can be intimidating, Calcagno hopes that new Obie musicians don’t lose sight of why they’re pursuing music in the first place.

“I think it’s easy to get kind of caught up with the business side of it, and I think that it’s been more gratifying just to make music and see what happens,” he said. “Just [by] following your creative vision and trusting that if you [create] what you like to listen to and make connections with people that you admire, … you’ll find some making music mode that feels right and is original.”