When we caught wind that Steve Corn’s record label, BFM Jazz, had three releases that were nominated for five Grammys this year, we had to get the story of this jazz record label that has somehow not only survived into the digital age but flourished in the pop age, and the Berklee alumnus behind it.
Corn started out at Cornell University as a pre-med student. Then, however, he discovered songwriting and his passion for music. He took a break and spent six months working in a Connecticut recording studio before deciding to go to Berklee to become a recording engineer. When he got to Berklee, he realized that the studio life was not for him. He loved studying music and wanted to compose, so he chose to get a degree in film scoring.
Building a Business in L.A.
After graduating from Berklee, Corn packed up his belongings and drove to Los Angeles. He started working in various music licensing and television/film music production companies and managed to land scoring and music gigs, working on animation and documentary projects.
As a struggling musician, he needed every penny that his music could earn, so Corn started following the flow of revenue. “If you understand how revenue flows from the creator to the user, you have 90 percent of what you need to know to succeed in the music biz. That’s assuming that the music is great, which is always the starting point,” he says.
Corn then started working for bigger music supervisors and eventually found himself as the head of music at Live Entertainment (which would later become Lionsgate). It was there that he learned about negotiation and the contractual process, something that he realized he really enjoyed.
In 1999, he became executive vice president of a website called licensemusic.com, a pioneering music licensing site, which is commonplace now but was far ahead of its time then. Next, in 2001 he started Corn Music Services, specializing in unique types of new media licensing that were coming up because of the blossoming of the internet: email cards, interactive streaming, online karaoke, and ringtone licensing.
BFM Digital/BFM Jazz
In 2004, Corn started a digital distribution company called Big Fish Media with longtime colleague Steven Weber. By the time they sold to the Orchard in 2014, they had over 650 content providers with over 325,000 tracks in their catalogue. Along the way, they started BFM Jazz, a jazz label dedicated to releasing only the very highest quality jazz music. BFM Jazz doesn't put out a lot of releases per year, but everything they do release is great: last year, each of their three releases was nominated for a Grammy.
Corn now works as a digital music business consultant through his company, Viewpoint Consulting Services, and remains the CEO of BFM Jazz. He also teaches several digital music courses at the Los Angeles College of Music. “In my History of Digital Music class, I’m teaching what I lived through, including the rise and fall of Napster and many other music services," he says. "That period was intense but also very exciting. The learning curve was always vertical.”
Advice for Young Alumni
Corn’s training as a film composer was a core aspect of his success in the music business. He learned that a film composer must really try to get into the head of the director or producer (i.e., the “buyer”). “You need to subjugate your ego and serve a mutually beneficial end goal. It’s not just about what you want or what the director wants: it’s what the project needs. This can be applied to any creative or business transaction.”
Corn adds, “It’s always been important to focus on quality music. Now, with production tools so advanced, anything less than a nine out of 10 is just not going to be acceptable. I would also advise people that you can’t just be the lone artist and leave the business side to other people. No one is going to protect the artist but the artist.”