John Sykes's Commencement Address at Berklee
May 13, 2000
When I was a kid growing up in Schenectady, New York, there was one thing that drove my life – music. The first major purchase I made with my own money was not a baseball glove. It was a Bradford transistor radio. And at night, when you could get a good AM signal for miles, I would sit under my covers and listen to everything from Martha Reeves to Roy Orbison on stations like WLS in Chicago, CKLW in Detroit and WRKO right here in Boston. Somehow God punished my addiction to music by making me… a drummer. I guess you could say he also punished everyone who lived in my house. So I became addicted to the drums… Ludwig drums to be specific. Most of my friends knew the names of the lead vocalists in every band. Forget Mick Jagger, my heroes were Charlie Watts, Cozy Powell, Ginger Baker, and Aynsley Dunbar. I knew the exact kit every one of them played. I still remember "the smell" of a new Ludwig drum catalog.
I can also remember the day when word hit the street that Bruce Gowdy, the best drummer in Schenectady, would be heading off to Berklee. Not to San Francisco, but to Boston, the Berklee with the double "e." This was a very big deal. The only other person ever to make it out of Schenectady was Pat Riley. I, too, wanted to go to Berklee, but I knew I wasn't good enough. Well, a life goal finally achieved today, thanks to you!
So what can I possibly say that will be of interest to this graduating class of 2000, the best of the best, the alma mater of Bruce Gowdy... not to mention Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby, or Donald Fagen, to name a few.
Well, I know what I'm not going to say. I'm not going to tell you that you are going to be the next Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby or Don Fagen. I wouldn't want you to aspire to that. You shouldn't want to. They've already achieved greatness. Now it's your turn… on your terms.
Whether you leave here today to become a professional musician, or whether you are pursuing the business side of the industry, or whether you are going to be a music educator, your biggest challenge is to move beyond the current gold standard. Simply put… to challenge conventional wisdom.
Most people, when they leave college, are confused about what they want to do and where they want to go. I was too. All I wanted to do when I graduated was to figure out a way to combine music and television in a meaningful way. There was only one problem, there weren't any jobs like that in 1977.
You see, when I was growing up, the two biggest voices in youth culture were rock 'n' roll and television. So I saw every reason in the world why the two should be somehow combined. But when I graduated every job offer I got was to join the mailroom of a big television network and learn "the ropes." The way "it's done" -- their way. I said, "no way." I ended up taking a job in the music industry so I could learn more about the business, all the while looking for a way to follow my dream.
Then, about two years out of school, I saw my opportunity. Everyone said I was nuts when I quit a perfectly good job in the record business to start a cable music channel. But it meant everything to me. I was so excited, I even forgot to ask how much I was going to get paid. (Don't make that mistake.) And I wasn't the only one. Other people believed in the same dream — five to be exact. So in late 1980, the six of us joined forces to see how far we could take this idea of putting music on television.
The big network broadcasters said nobody would watch music on television. They wanted no part of us. The advertisers said there wasn't enough money to go around. The established record companies — not A&M, of course — wouldn't even return our phone calls. Who needs TV, we were told, when we've got radio? The rock critics said nobody's going to watch an artist play music. And they all said – who could possibly need more than three TV channels?
Well, one year later we went against conventional wisdom and launched our cable music service. We called it MTV. Today it is carried in 300 million households around the world and is the most watched network on the planet.
Most of you grew up with cable TV, but in 1980 it was virtually non-existent. My generation grew up with only three television channels that dictated how we lived our lives, and we wanted more. Back then there were hundreds of magazines and radio stations catering to every possible specific taste. But with television we had to sit there on Sunday nights watching circus acts and opera singers while waiting for the Beatles to play one song on the Ed Sullivan Show.
So, with the introduction of cable TV, we set out to create a network that would be the exact opposite of broadcast TV. Our notion of television was that it should not be linear, it should not be about story lines with a beginning, middle and end. It should be about mood and emotion. MTV, ESPN, CNN…they were introduced as 24-hour environments, programmed to specific tastes of viewers. MTV was about young people and creating a 24 hour-a-day place on television that was important to them. Today, when people say, "I feel like watching MTV," you know exactly what they mean.
Creating that network environment was our intention. And then it became our mission, driving the birth and development of other MTV Networks brands like VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite and TV Land. It's funny, I again confronted conventional wisdom just six years ago when we set out to reposition VH1 as a music brand for the post-college audience. Conventional wisdom said that people over 25 didn't care about music. "Music is a teenage thing. Once they leave college, kids grow up get jobs, and stop buying music."
We saw that as strange, since adults account for over 60% of all music sales. Conventional wisdom forgot that the generation that invented rock 'n' roll music grew up, and took its love and passion for music with it, and never let go. VH1 now reaches more than 70 million homes and just last year was named AdWeek's "Breakout Brand" of 1999. We proved that there is life after Britney Spears.
Now, I know I make it sound easy. I guess that's the benefit of speaking in hindsight. But in reality, our group took a lot of risks and we made a lot of mistakes. And in the end, we had luck and timing on our side. But we had a passion and an original idea, and we never lost sight of our goals. We kept challenging ourselves, we kept challenging tradition, we kept creating TV that followed the tastes of our audience, not the status quo. And while this all sounds so rebellious, aggressively following your vision can end up being quite profitable. Today, the MTV Networks group is more profitable than ABC, CBS, NBC, the WB, Fox and UPN — combined. Not like I'm counting. I'm just making a point. But it's not just true of MTV networks. In the 60s, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss founded an upstart label called A&M records that went up against the big corporate giants like Columbia and MGM. They sold the little boutique label just a few years ago for $300 million dollars.
So here's what I learned from conventional wisdom: Conventional wisdom said we didn't need more than three television channels. Conventional wisdom said nobody would watch music on television. Conventional wisdom is the enemy to any creative business.
And while I thought I was such a rebel 20 years ago, I'm now part of the establishment. Cable TV is now part of conventional wisdom. Let's look at the media environment today. You guys grew up with 36 channels, so it's no wonder that you're the ones that drove the creation of the Internet. My generation was happy with 50 channels - that was our revolution. My initial response to the Internet was, "Who has the time or desire to wade through all that information?" Well, just ask any six-year-old and you'll get your answer. My five-year-old son Jack runs circles around me on our computer. My greatest fear has come true. My God, I've become my parents!
But, that's the beauty of our culture, especially the arts… it is always changing. It thrives on fresh ideas, on innovation. And that's what you've spent not just the last four years, but the last 21 years preparing for. Every great idea ever created flew in the face of conventional wisdom (except of course, the 8-track and that TV show about singing cops). Originality is about new ideas. The one thing that will never change is that just when you think you know it all — it will change. Just when the world thought there was nothing better than the Sony Discman, they invented this: the Rio player. No moving parts, no skipping, and it weighs less than a pair of headphones. Soon you won't even need the box. It will all be coming from satellites right into your headphones. Or your phone…or your watch.
Nothing drives this theory more than music. Entire genres of music have been created against "what history dictates." In the late 70s, record companies weren't exactly lining up to sign The Police. Why would they? Sting's voice was raspy — he couldn't sing. What about hip-hop in the late 80's? It was a passing fad -- not. And let's never forget the best lesson of them all…that five labels passed on The Beatles before EMI gave them a record deal.
Like all invention, music is about risk. Sure there were thousands of great artists that have preceded you. So, how do you top them? Study the greats. Then take it to the next level. Keith Richards was obsessed with Chuck Berry. And the great hip-hop artists have all sampled George Clinton's music. But they didn't just copy it… They reinvented it and made it their own. Take the shot. If it doesn't work, you can always make a decent living in a cover band.
I can find only one example in which conventional wisdom has been challenged for the worse. In fact, it's downright devastating.
Conventional wisdom has always said that, as parents, we want to give our kids more than we had. Historically, as a nation, we have defined this to the point of being a cliché.
We all had music education. I did, our parents did. Look where it took you! Turns out we were all very, very lucky, because it's not that way anymore. Over the last 20 years we've been systematically eliminating our country's public school education programs. What's even more confusing to me is that we've done this at a time when research has shown a direct connection between music education and a child's ability to learn academic subjects like math and science. At a time when we've grown the Dow over 1000 percent, America's test scores have dropped to the bottom of all industrialized nations.
Listen to these facts:
Kids who are involved in music programs score more than 100 points higher on the SATs than students who are not involved.
Children involved with active music participation demonstrate significant improvements in their spatial abilities, which is important for success in math and science.
Children involved in music programs have improved reading abilities, higher self-esteem and are less likely to be involved with gangs and drugs.
Only 25% of our nation's eighth graders are able to participate in instrumental music programs.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being Principal for a Day at PS-58 in Brooklyn. I happened to walk in to a 4th grade music class and see the most beautiful sight. Every kid had an instrument! And I couldn't believe my ears. Then I looked a little closer. The instruments were held together with gaffer's tape. The teacher informed me that she had no money in the budget for music and that the program was closing down at the end of the year.
In the car on the way home I remember feeling this tremendous sense of guilt. Here I was, returning to my fancy job that I love, in the industry that I love, and here were these kids that I thought were getting the same education that I had — but who were being set up to lose.
That day I made an executive decision. VH1 was going to adopt PS-58. And we did. Only we couldn't stand helping only one school, so we soon adopted the whole New York City Public School System. And it wasn't long before we said, to hell with it, let's adopt the entire country. And VH1 Save the Music was born.
VH1 Save the Music is my network's way of helping to improve the quality of education in our public schools. We've partnered with all sorts of organizations, like The National Association for Music Education, the National School Boards Association, The Recording Industry Association of America, and NAMM, to set up local programs to collect used instruments and donate them to the kids that need them most. Then, whatever we don't collect, we purchase with money raised nationally by our foundation.
By the end of this year we will put $10 million worth of music instruments in school music programs in 40 cities, directly affecting over 200,000 kids. That's a nice beginning. But hopefully we can use our power as a television network to raise awareness about the need to put music education back in our schools.
And though it makes me feel good, I want to be very clear on something. It's not about some rich corporation "giving back." It's about accountability. It's about responsibility.
And after all, these children are our future customers, our future employees and our future neighbors.
If these real life experiences I've shared with you this morning provide you with even a grain of inspiration to follow your own dreams, then I'll feel like I've done my job. I'm living proof that a little creativity and a decent amount of self-confidence can go a long way in achieving your dreams. Add a lot more creativity and a lot more talent, and your could be Patti Austin or Herb Alpert.
One last bit of advice. You are entering a high risk business. Fortunately, you are doing so at a fascinating time in history. This is a time of transition similar to the one that I experienced with the birth of cable, only so much bigger, and so much more exciting. Today's technology will change the way you make music, the way your music gets distributed, the way your music is consumed and it will even change the way you get paid.
So when you leave here today, armed with arguably the best music degree in the world, the first word you will probably hear is "no." Don't worry, because that is where your journey begins, and that's when the fun begins. Because through all of the ups and downs, the victories and the mistakes, there is nothing more gratifying than defying conventional wisdom and achieving success on your terms.
Ask Quincy, ask Branford, ask Elton, ask Madonna, ask Herb or ask Patti… they listened politely to the establishment, then they did it their own way.
It's your turn now. Take the step.
Think. Observe. Ask. Experiment. Dare. Pursue. Aggravate. Surprise. Shock. Amaze. Astonish. Succeed. And, above all, do it on your own terms.
I highly recommend it.
John Sykes is the CEO of VH1 Networks.