Giving Them the Business

Brett Milano
February 22, 2002
Sky Traughber
Traughber explains loans in a Principles of Business Management class.
Photo by Kim Grant
Photo by Kim Grant

Even for people who think they knew everything about music history, watching Schuyler (Sky) Traughber at work is an eye-opener. His classes on the music business are illustrated with nuggets of information that only a longtime insider could know. It's one thing to educate students about the mysterious process of contract negotiations and label signings. But how many teachers could also reveal that a classic Motown record like the Temptations' "My Girl" got its "hot" sound because the records were cut while the lacquers were literally still hot? Or that a certain 1970s soul superstar nearly trashed her own career by sticking an overly glamorous photo on the cover of a street-sounding album?

Thanks to his background in soul and r&b, Traughber is known to some of his students as "Professor Funk." And that's appropriate to the balancing act he wants to perform as a teacher: He's out to give his students a measure of business savvy, while encouraging them to hold on to their creativity.

"Sometimes I wonder if you can learn too much too early," he noted after a recent class. "It's a time when radio is not going to take chances, and record companies aren't going to sign you unless you're marketable. But I'm always reaching for a way to leave that window of creativity open. I feel like I'm telling them the truth, and that it's time-release knowledge, like vitamin C. It's something they can come back to after five or ten years."

Traughber picked up his own savvy at an early age. When many of us think about the golden days of soul music, we'd think of the late 1960s at a label like Stax, the Memphis stronghold that gave the world Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding. That's where Traughber started building his career as a teenager. He'd already led a soul band and played string bass with a symphony orchestra when Stax gave him a scholarship and put him on the road as a bandleader for the Temprees. The label paid his tuition for Memphis State music classes he attended during pauses in the Temprees' tour.

"I arranged a tune for them, a version of the Stylistics' hit 'People Make the World Go Round.' People started dancing on tables when they heard this tune, and that's when I got what I was doing music for. I saw that reaction to something that I wrote. That's why I could go behind the scenes, because I'd just seen the climax of what I'd wanted to do musically. By then I had learned to be businesslike. I was leading a band at age 16, so I knew all about bad checks."

The money got a lot bigger when he joined CBS Records as a record promoter and product manager in the 1970s. The label was bursting with jazz and r&b superstars. Among those Traughber worked with were Santana, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, the Manhattans, and Teddy Pendergrass. And he traveled first class all the way.

"Those were some of the best times of my life. We had the American Express, and we were the Rolls Royce of record labels. If you did anything shoddy, you were out."

Traughber saw his share of backstage parties, but learned to keep himself away from the temptations, thanks in part to a good role model. "I learned a lot from Herbie Hancock. I noticed that everybody was offering him some kind of substance, and I never saw him accept. At least not in front of me. So I just did what Herbie did."

That was the golden age of music industry excess, and it wasn't until the 1990s, when he briefly left the industry for the Internet, that he saw anything like it again. "I spent three years with MCI and ITT, developing fiber-optic systems. And I swear, when I saw the kind of parties they had at Internet companies, it looked like the music business all over again."

Hancock wasn't the only strong personality that he learned from. As a product manager at Motown he became close to the label's legendary founder, Berry Gordy.

"He was a military guy. Even if you were in the studio all night, he'd still expect you to be at your office at nine the next morning. But he was also a songwriter, so he could relate to the creative side. When I left the label, he made sure I left with money, knowledge and contacts. During the 1980s Traughber ran the Private Eye subsidiary label at MCA, where his boss was Joe Isgro—the legendary mogul whose less savory side was exposed in the book "Hit Men."

"He always treated me like a son; but then I never owed him any money," says Traughber. "If you got on his wrong side you might have to deal with Big Mike, the enforcer. I looked so young in those days, so I was fortunate. I still have all my toes and fingers."

In nine years at Berklee, Traughber has seen some changes in students' attitudes. "I first started teaching here during the grunge era, so maybe 80 percent of the students were purely idealistic. Now it's maybe 30, which is saying a lot because it's still a music school. People come in a little more business-hungry these days." And he's found that popular music also works in cycles. "To me the 1970s sound a lot like the 1990s. Some of the cuts even sound the same, with people like Staind and Mary J. Blige. Thanks to rap and hip-hop, the street mentality has re-emerged in the industry, and you still need that to be successful. Everybody talks about the Internet, but records are still something that you go out and buy."