So I Have the Degree—Now What?

James Sullivan
March 20, 2008
Marlon Saunders
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Faculty member Marlon Saunders had a bit of unusual career guidance for a recital hall full of students: Try to set aside ten bucks a week for a security deposit on a post-graduation apartment.

That may seem like trivial (and exceptionally modest) advice, as the part-time professor, fresh off his Oscar night appearance with Kristin Chenoweth, readily admitted. But a professional singer, as he said during his early March clinic, needs to be methodical about entering the business.

Of the 900 or so students in the college's Voice Department, maybe two will achieve overnight fame "and live happily ever after," the singer explained to his eager audience. Everyone else should concentrate on developing what he called "streams of income"—earning a living through a broad combination of session work, commercial and industrial voice tracking, stage auditions, demo recording, songwriting, and any other opportunities that may present themselves.

Saunders certainly spoke from experience. The veteran of Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra and frontman for the New York-based group Jazzhole has recorded more than 100 commercial jingles and performed with Billy Joel, Ron Carter, Stevie Wonder, and scores of others.

Professional singers need to listen to all kinds of music, he said, and the incredible pace of technology has made doing so easier than ever. Specializing in one genre—r&b, for instance—probably isn't going to pay the bills.

Case in point: When associates of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor approached Saunders about a touring gig with the industrial rock band, the singer's initial reaction was skepticism. He didn't know the music. To make matters worse, the offer required that his head be shaved. Saunders, who was growing out his dreadlocks at the time, warily asked about the pay.

Two thousand dollars, he was told, for each day of rehearsal; eight thousand per live date.

"It's shaved right now," he blurted, drawing a big laugh as he reenacted the phone call.

Saunders's highest-profile gig to date was undoubtedly his role in the recent Disney film Enchanted, in which he sang the island-flavored accompaniment in the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz composition "That's How You Know" alongside Amy Adams. That, too, was the result of an unlikely opportunity.

At first, he explained, he wasn't enthusiastic about auditioning for a Disney film. In hindsight, he said, he may have been nervous about being asked to move outside his comfort zone.

At the audition, the casting director struck up a conversation about seafood with Saunders, who, as a Maryland native, knows a thing or two about crab cakes. Within ten minutes—without even singing, as he told his listeners—he had the job.

"It had nothing to do with anything," he said. "But it changed everything."

The radical changes happening in the music business are nothing to fear, he said. "The idea that the industry is going to pot, that all the great music is behind us—I really don't believe that," he said. In fact, he thinks you'd have to go back to the early '60s to find so much musical innovation.

Yes, he agreed, the days when a music publisher would sign a young talent to a six-figure deal based on a single demo are long gone. But the flip side is that the industry has become much less about moving product and much more about the creative branding of the talent.

"I am an entity," Saunders said. Obviously, he added, many of the prerequisites remain the same—a good voice, an ability to hear harmonies, hopefully a nice stage presence.

Some students, he said, have a tendency to get bogged down in the technical aspects of the craft. Getting the general public to recognize scales and modal changes—"that's never gonna happen."

Instead, singers must remember that they make songs for the 15-year-old girl who fell in love with Enchanted. Or "the construction worker stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, who hears a wonderful ballad and thinks of his wife-that's who we write for," Saunders said.