Music & Entrepreneurship

Singer-songwriter Nat Jay on music licensing, grant-writing, and getting her first big break on The L-Word

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

Nat Jay performing live at the Rickshaw Theatre

Nat Jay performing live at the Rickshaw Theatre

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.”

Follow Nat Jay on Twitter and Instagram.

Pianist Lucas Wong on finding new ways to inspire audiences and students

Note: This is the first story in a new series that profiles UBC School of Music alumni who have followed interesting and innovative paths to career success.

By Andrew Hung

Lucas Wong - 4.jpg

It is difficult to give Lucas Wong (BMus’04) a specific label or title.

The UBC School of Music alumnus is a concert pianist and recording artist, but his career goals extend far beyond performance. He is also a university professor, a collaborator in a computer software project for piano students, a textbook writer, and the founder of the lecture-recital series, Mostly Debussy.

“I always enjoyed talking about music as much as I enjoy playing music,” Wong says. “As pianists, we have to look for new ways to engage the audience in our programs. One of the ways is by interacting with the audience and introducing pieces to them.”

 Mostly Debussy was featured at the Roy Barnett Recital Hall in September, a concert in which Wong performed Debussy’s Pagodes from Estampes, as well as several selections from his collection of Préludes and Etudes. As part of the concert he also explained how the pieces work and what makes them so compelling.

The lecture-recital series is currently in its fourth year, and has featured the works of Debussy and Stravinsky, as well as Chopin and the French Romantic composer Emmanuel Chabrier.

Next year, the final year of Mostly Debussy, will be an important one. It is the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s passing, and to commemorate the event, Wong has commissioned three composers to each write a work for the series.  One of the objectives of these compositions is to reflect Debussy’s late work, the Cello Sonata. 

Just a year before starting Mostly Debussy, Wong began collaborating with computer science students and professors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to create a software that will make piano reductions — that is, simplified arrangements or transcriptions of an original score or composition — more accessible for performers, educators, or anyone who simply enjoys music.

“It will be cool if one day, if someone pulls out the iPad, and says, ‘I feel like playing the second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony on the piano,” Wong says. “‘And maybe my technique isn’t too great, so give me a very simple version.’ And if that can be done in five seconds, that would change a lot of how people can appreciate music.”

Wong expects that the final product will be the first software of its kind on the market. In the meantime, the project poses interesting challenges.

“It’s more complicated than we actually expected.  Even the word ‘harmony’ opens up so many different things that one still tries to accomplish.  What is the harmony?  Or what are the possibilities?  Computers don’t usually like the word ‘possibilities.’” 



LISTEN: Lucas Wong performs Debussy and Chabrier

In the same year that the software project began, Wong also began work on a textbook for keyboard harmony students, although he didn’t realize it at first.  As one of the first faculty members in the Soochow University School of Music’s performance program, he had the opportunity to create a course from scratch, which was eventually named “Advanced Musicianship and Improvisation Skills for Keyboard.”  Wong began writing the course outline and syllabus, originally without the intention of creating a textbook.  But as the worksheets he wrote for his students grew in number, he realized that he had a textbook in the making.

“I’ve revised the format of the book many times, internally.  I’m on the fourth or fifth edition, without publishing it.  Hopefully, someday we’ll have it done,” he laughs.

Wong was once a student reading textbooks, not writing them. He was a very busy student. He played chamber music, collaborated with singers, and played for UBC Opera’s rehearsals.  In his first year, Wong also played cello in the UBC Symphony.

He recalls the instructors who made an impact on him as a student at the UBC School of Music – Bob Pritchard, Rena Sharon, and Bruce Pullan.

With 2018 shaping up to be a big year, Wong appreciates the insights he picked up in his piano lessons and Piano Pedagogy courses at UBC, lessons about efficient practicing that has also translated to other areas of his career.

“When you have less and less time, you’ll find out that the only way to do it right is to do it efficiently. You have to always be very well with time management.” 

He pauses for a second.

“But most musicians are naturally very good with time management — onstage with rhythm!”