Note: This is the second story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.
By Aryn Strickland
While the rise of Spotify and other music streaming services has been a boon for major artists like Taylor Swift or Drake, this new economic model has arguably made it harder for independent and emerging artists to make a living by selling their music. The alternative, says singer-songwriter Nat Jay (Minor’04) is to diversify.
Jay has won national awards for her lyrical pop-folk songs and shared the stage with top Canadian artists like Juno-winner Dan Mangan. But instead of signing with a record label, Jay followed a less traditional path to musical success. She has built a thriving career by licensing the rights to her songs for use in TV and movie productions.
Her songs have been heard on popular shows and movies across North America, including Heartland on the CBC and Awkward on MTV. And while she performs mostly in local festivals— like Vancouver’s Folk Fest and Spirit of the Sea Fest— she has amassed a following that stretches a lot further because of the exposure from these placements.
“My sync placements made me realize it was actually possible to have a career and generate an income in the music industry,” Jay says. “It has given me an international fan base that I could never have built otherwise,” she says.
But it was while working on the other side of television production that Jay learned about music licensing.
“I didn’t know [licensing] was a thing until it happened. I had just done my first demo, I had a bunch of burned CDs Sharpied with my name on it. I was in between jobs and I was doing some extra work on the show called The L word and I made a friend who was like, ‘I know the assistant director to a show called Men in Trees on ABC, I am going to pass your demo on to her,’” she explains. To Jay’s surprise, she received a message soon after from the show’s supervisor in L.A. asking to use one of the tracks during a big end-of-episode scene.
WATCH: Nat Jay performs her song "What I'm made of"
Following the experience, Jay connected with music supervisors at other networks to make sure they knew about her music. She also began offering seminars on the process to other musicians. It’s all part of her holistic approach to the business of music, which has since expanded to include writing grants to support her work and helping other musicians to do the same. As with sync licensing, she knew very little about grant writing going in but has turned this into another major source of income.
“Grants are an awesome source of income that we have in Canada that they don’t have in every country. It’s been the difference between doing and not doing [music] a lot of the time.”
Depending on the funder, the application process can require a marketing plan, a budget and a career history. Often the process scares off artists, Jay says. Jay has made a point of learning the ins-and-outs to the point where now she gets hired to write grants for friends in the industry like the band The Fugitives.
According to Jay, upcoming artists need to learn to diversify their means of income. “It’s naïve to think that you can just write music, play and people will come to your show and buy your music,” she says. “I think these days artists have to be entrepreneurs… I think that they need to learn about the different streams of income.”