Celebrating Women's History Month with Tonya Butler

Berklee's music business chair talks about the importance of authenticity, the evolution of the media industry, and being a role model.

March 9, 2023
Tonya Butler

Tonya Butler

Image by Kelly Davidson

As a child, Tonya Butler told people she wanted to be an actress, a lawyer, a teacher, and a politician. Not only has she succeeded in doing all those things, but she says there's still a lot more she wants to do. In 2020, Butler became the first woman and person of color to chair Berklee's Music Business/Management Department. The accomplished educator and attorney has more than 14 years of expertise as an entertainment attorney and record label executive, as well as 17 years of undergraduate and graduate-level teaching experience. 

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we caught up with Butler, who's been blazing trails for most of her career.

Your résumé speaks for itself—professor, attorney, motivational speaker, and author. You have been described as hardworking, fierce, and a trailblazer, and anyone who knows you knows that you are always working. What motivates you?

It can be difficult to find your passion. We ask young people to identify their passion, but it's not always easy to find a line of work that allows you to align with your passion, so for me that's Berklee, it really is. I've been teaching now going on 18 years, prior to that about 14 years in the law, and it wasn't until I got to Berklee that I felt as if I found the type of work that aligned directly with my passion, which is working with, guiding, advising, and helping to cultivate the careers of musicians. That's what I love to do, and it doesn't matter how busy I get or how stressed I may get. I always keep my eye on that prize of helping someone to live their dream, which allows me to live my dream.

You made history in 2020 when you became the first woman and person of color to chair the Music Business/Management Department. It is a major accomplishment, but is there a lot of pressure being the first?

There’s not a lot of pressure when you’ve always been the first or when you've always been the only. After a while, I hate to say you get used to it. You don't feel as if there's any additional pressure or burden because you've been in the role before, maybe not in that specific job or area, but you've been the first and before. It's not the first time and probably won't be the last time. I’ve been the only one before so with that said, no pressure whatsoever because I know that I really believe in my authentic self. I like to say to people, "I love being me," and it took a long time to get to a point where I could say, "I love me some me." I don't feel any strain or any pressure to be anyone other than me, so that's why when people see me they see pretty much the same me all the time. 

From music streaming services to the prevalence of social media, the music industry continues to change and evolve. Musicians can now record at a minimal cost thanks to home recording software. Are there challenges to teaching students in this fast-growing industry?

Absolutely. Every day is a challenge when you're teaching students, who are creatives at heart, how to think of themselves as a business, and now more than ever before because they can record their music on their own and they can distribute their music on their own. Unfortunately, they don't recognize that there are a whole bunch of other things that go along with that that they also have to do on their own. No longer do the days exist where you could just sign with a major record company and then they would get you a manager and a lawyer and a publicist, and they would do all those things for you; those days don't exist anymore. Even if you did sign with the label, they are expecting you to have to do and continue to do many of those things yourself, and I don't know if that mentality has quite caught up with our students yet. There's just as much creativity in business as there is in art, which is also very often overlooked by our students. They think, "Oh, if I'm doing the business end I'm not creative." No, you have to be creative to be in business...take what you learned in your art and apply those same skills to your business. Just as committed as you are to the creativity of your art, you should be that way in your business.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the rise in the music industry, with composition apps, mastering platforms, song identification tools, and highly personalized playlists. Is AI changing the way music is created and listened to?

Yes! And it will continue to change, and after AI there’ll be something else, and there'll be something after that. One of the things that I always speak to my faculty and my students about is that change is scary, technological changes in particular...they are very hard to predict because it’s very hard to determine what the outcome will be. I got into the music business around the same time that Napster was created so I had the opportunity—and I'm so grateful for it—to work in the industry for those last few years of its heyday. But then another thing that I'm also grateful for is I also had the opportunity to work in the business during those first few years of its decline, and I got to see how fearful people were of this thing called the internet and file sharing and downloading. I got to witness it firsthand, and I also got to see how many of us in the industry either wanted to ignore it or tried to control it. I feel the same way about AI...if we cannot be afraid of it, we need to educate ourselves about it and figure out how we can use it to our advantage, not how we can keep students from using it. And unfortunately, because I'm a little old school, I do believe there also has to be some element of monitoring. But it is already here and they're already using it, and we better catch up to them so that we can figure out ways to best serve them and help them through this new world of technology. That's our job, to help them and guide them through it, but we can't do that if we're afraid. 

Whether or not you want to be, you are a role model to young women who look at you and all that you have accomplished. Did you ever think that you would have achieved all that you have, and what is your message to young girls/women?

I want young women and women of color to say, "I can do that." I want to be living proof that with faith and perseverance, the unlikely, the unexpected, and even the unprecedented are possible. I didn’t know how my life would unfold and what it would look like in the end. I didn't have a clue. As a matter of fact, I am still on a journey. I'm not finished and I still have no idea what it's going to look like in the end. What I do know, though, is that it's going to be fantastic, number one, and it's going to be more fantastic than I could even currently imagine. 

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