In the Loop
Student Stories : Feb 21, 2023

Gators who go beyond Grammy wins: UF Music Business & Entrepreneurship degree offers new model for music education

A new Music Business & Entrepreneurship program at the UF School of Music offers a new path for artists who choose the degree-seeking route into the music industry.

By Jessi Smith

Three artist-entrepreneurs enter the Zoom meeting. Each occupies a distinct stage in his respective career, and each brings to the table his own specialized skills and cultural background. 

Assistant professor José Valentino Ruiz (DMin, PhD) is a multi-instrument, cross-genre producer and composer, an Emmy and multi-Grammy award-winning recording artist, founder and CEO, and coordinator of the emergent Music Business & Entrepreneurship (MBE) program in the UF School of Music.   

Ruiz is joined in the Zoom by his teaching assistants, Derris Lee and Chris Shelton, to discuss this trailblazing approach to commercial music education at the University of Florida College of the Arts. 

Lee is a double-Gator-in-progress (BA, ‘22), who is currently pursuing his Master of Music in Percussion Studies. You may recognize him from his student spotlight in UF News following his DownBeat Student Music Award for Outstanding Performances as Best Jazz Soloist at the College Undergraduate Level last year. Lee also operates his own business producing percussion and drum tracks for international clientele, which he says has been a powerful conduit to working with musicians spanning 30 countries to date. 

Shelton, a guitarist and First Place American Prize (2019-2020) winning composer who completed his BM and MM degrees in Music Composition and Theoretical Studies at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory, took an approximately 20-year detour from being a student before he came to UF in 2019 as a PhD candidate in Music Composition. In the interim, Shelton taught music software classes at Berklee and launched his own businesses in English language education and marketing in Brazil.  

In the last year alone, this entrepreneurial trio blazed a stunning award sweep in multiple fields including music, arts entrepreneurship, education, business, and social impact that includes multiple Latin Grammy wins (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), Global Genius Awards ®; Global Music Awards; the Anthem Award (International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences); Inc. Magazine’s Best in Business and Power Partner awards; Gold and Platinum AVA Digital Awards (Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals); the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts (AIVA) Davey Award, Fast Company’s Most Innovative Company in Video, and other prestigious honors in the music industry and beyond. 

At the same time, Ruiz and his TAs are working side-by-side in the UF School of Music to pioneer a new program and model praxis that challenges tradition and redefines what music education in higher ed could look like — and not just in the future. They’re already doing it, now, right here in Gainesville.   

Professor and student establish equitable footing in ‘SMAJ’ pedagogy 

Ruiz, who came to the UF College of the Arts in 2019 during the university’s Faculty 500 hiring wave, set to work immediately to develop the Music Business & Entrepreneurship curricula and degree. 

The Bachelor of Science in Music Business & Entrepreneurship is set to launch in Fall 2024.  

Having Shelton as his first teaching assistant in 2019, Ruiz says, was like “landing a gold mine” thanks to Shelton’s real-world experience in music tech, business management, and teaching.  

“Chris comes in as more than a doctoral student because he has an incredible track record working alongside the industry’s best as an executive, producer, and music technologist. He brings that foundation to our program,” Ruiz says. 

Ruiz describes Lee — who landed in his classroom as an undergrad in 2019, having started out in the UF School of Architecture but switched majors early on to pursue music — as a student who “quickly rose to the occasion” of developing an entrepreneurial eye and professional mindset that aligns with the MBE program mission. 

“I noticed that the way Derris and I interacted was very typical of professor and student, which is a scholarship approach. And then it became mentorship, and then apprenticeship — where I'm treating him as a professional … He kept developing to a level to where I realized, ‘you know what? I call on Derris for his professional services musically and executively.’ That’s joint ventureship.” 

This pedagogical approach, which Ruiz calls “SMAJ” for “scholarship, mentorship, apprenticeship, and joint ventureship” unfolded as a blueprint for the MBE program more broadly. 

“We make it a point to invite students that are ready — who show a level of commitment and seriousness toward their personal development — so that they can join in venture with our professional works outside [of UF], which constitute as research and creative activity.  

In doing so, we're able to address both our needs and desires as trailblazing scholars in the field, while also addressing our passion for cultivating the next generation of creative professionals,” Ruiz says. 

MBE scholars create a community-first, COVID-era business model for artists  

Ruiz, Shelton, and Lee all landed at UF in their various roles as faculty, PhD candidate, and undergrad in 2019. Shortly thereafter, the reality-shifting appearance of COVID-19 upended everything that once felt familiar about the ways humanity learns, conducts business, relates and collaborates — even how we create.  

Once it was apparent the pandemic intended to linger, Ruiz and his SMAJ team set to work developing a research-grounded model to help artists navigate the indefinite ‘new normal.’ 

“The UF School of Music, as well as our partners in the Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship (CAME), have been on the forefront of research and in proposing solutions for how to navigate arts entrepreneurship within the COVID era,” Ruiz says.  

Ruiz, Lee, and Shelton co-authored the scholarly article, Entrepreneurial Responses to the COVID Era: A Qualitative Study of Five Professional Music Entrepreneurs, which published in the Journal of Arts Entrepreneurship Education in 2021. To date, the team has presented this research at 26 universities across the United States. Moreover, the outcomes of this study led to the SMAJ team and other UF students to present follow-up research at international conferences including Society of Arts Entrepreneurship Education conferences, the International Society for Music Education, and the Association for Popular Music Education. 

The multiple case study examines musicians who experienced career growth, rather than negative impact, during the pandemic. It outlines a three-pillar "COVID Response Model” for entrepreneurial resilience in arts professions. The pillars are tenacity, empathy, and predictive modeling.   

“We implement those pillars in the way we produce all our work. We also talk about the different music business models across a 25 or 30-year span, and how people are doing business differently. By doing this, we’re trying to bridge the gap between what music ed is offering students and what the music industry is doing ... so that aspiring students and arts entrepreneurs are better prepared for when they start their businesses,” Lee says. 

“Whether you're a student just trying to come out with a single, or you're an experienced nonprofit organization that got hit with the COVID era — we provided what is basically a rubric for getting your company from survivability to sustainability, to scalability and leverage,” Ruiz adds.  

Ruiz also notes: “What is amazingly affirming, especially among my colleagues within the business world and in arts entrepreneurship, is that the arts are what businesses that survived during the COVID era turned to — and I'm talking globally. Businesses incorporated the arts because art is humanity expressed, and at that moment, companies needed to stop treating people like a transaction and start treating them as human beings."

Much like SMAJ, Ruiz says lessons learned while developing the COVID Response Model became foundational elements of the MBE program. The model underscores the tangible, entrepreneurial value in preparing students to conduct business with an impact-driven focus, an ear for translatability, and a heart that leads with empathy and service to its community. 

“In talking to the people that we interviewed for the study, we noticed that the stardom of their company wasn’t the thing they maximized [during the pandemic]. Instead, they said, ‘well, everything was leveled because of COVID, so let's go back to word of mouth. Let’s go back to knocking on doors,’” Ruiz says. 

In this aspect, the MBE program takes cues from work currently underway in Gainesville, such as initiatives developed by SPARC352, which is facilitated by local community members in partnership with UF’s Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship and the Center for Arts in Medicine. Last summer, Shelton teamed up with SPARC to teach music entrepreneurship and production workshops for Gainesville area teens and young adults in SPARC’s inaugural paid summer apprenticeship program. 

“Oftentimes, businesses become this big, gargantuan castle, and local residents don’t even have access to that castle. That’s very common in higher education, too. It’s why we teach our students, as informed by the COVID Response Model, that it’s important to engage your clientele at a local level, and then build it at a state, and then regional, and then national and international level. This is a way to determine: what is healthy for the moral framework for your business? Do you really need to maintain a business at an international level in order to validate the work that you do as a creative professional? 

“Even though we have generated these awards and international acclaim — things that are meaningful for us because they’re peer reviewed, and it's great for the university and helps push our respective missions forward — the awards are not the goal. The real goal is impact,” Ruiz says. 

Curricula designed for students to seize professional opportunities early on 

Courses are cross-listed in the MBE curricular sequence. This results in a fascinating cross-section of diversity in the classroom, where undergrads share learning space with postgraduate students and doctoral candidates. Students whose primary areas of study are rooted elsewhere — engineering, business, law, and communications, for instance — are also trickling into the program and cross-pollinating knowledge. 

Shelton, a 20-year veteran of the music education field as well as the music industry outside the confines of higher ed, notes that the MBE program does not solely aim to prepare students to invent and carve out new career opportunities (although, yes, it does that, too).  

Shelton places value on opening students’ eyes to the readily available occupational pathways that stem from an arts education, so that they can transition into professional roles more easily after graduation — or even during their pursuit of a degree. 

“I think a lot of people, especially across the fine arts, have this experience where you’re about to graduate and you think, ‘oh God, what am I going to do?’ And that’s because so many schools aren’t straightforward about what you can do. Even while working at Berklee, I had friends who were coming back to me years after we graduated and saying, ‘do you have any suggestions of what I should do now?’” Shelton recalls. 

“It's a matter of that ‘middle step’ between being where you are and knowing where you want to be. A lot of times, that middle step is just foreign, and you can go through the next five, ten years thinking, ‘how the heck do these people get there?’ I believe that’s a gap we can help to bridge.” 

Although Lee cultivated a musical background at an early age, thanks to having musician-educator parents, he never expected to pursue a career in music, and certainly did not envision winning a Grammy before his 25th birthday. But things changed when he entered Ruiz’s Music Business & Entrepreneurship classes at UF. 

“Wherever you have great mentors such as Dr. Ruiz, and you can work with amazing musicians like Chris Shelton, you see that the opportunities are limitless. ‘Possibility’ is the word here,” Lee says.  

“Being a student in the School of Music is just one of the roles that I fulfill ...  I’m also building my company; I’m building my networks. All those things that people usually think about after they graduate — I'm going ahead and taking care of that now,” Lee says. 

"As a TA in the MBE program, I want our students to have this mentality: that being a student is just a role. Your focus is having a career. Your focus is cultivating an identity that is going to help serve a need within entrepreneurial and missiological aims. While you're in school, you're developing that foundation. ... You’re building multiple things at one time, and you’re creating value,” Lee says. 

Scooping up Grammys, Global Genius medals, and DownBeat Music Awards, in Lee’s eyes, is just another piece of the puzzle; another role that UF’s MBE program affords a unique opportunity for him to fill. 

“We've talked about impact and inspiration. We've talked about community development and translatability. The last piece of what is happening here is publicity. And when you have students of the UF College of the Arts winning these international and national awards — what that does, is it builds reputation,” Lee continues. 

“When parents send their kids to this program, that's more tuition dollars for the university. Now, they're investing financially within the reputation that I and other students have built through our talent and with the cultivation of skills — like business negotiations and establishing an enterprise — which are skills we’re developing within the MBE program.” 

Following in the footsteps of a self-made legend: A music program for an artist like Tom Petty 

This spring, the University of Florida will confer an honorary posthumous Doctorate of Music degree to Tom Petty, world renowned garage/folk-rock singer-songwriter and guitarist, and hometown hero to Gainesville, Florida.  

From his early-career battles with the MCA record label in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the posthumous present day, when Petty’s publisher took on the streaming giant Spotify in a $1.6 billion lawsuit in 2018, and most recently filed a Cease and Desist to a 2022 gubernatorial candidate who violated copyright by playing “I Won’t Back Down” on the campaign trail — Tom Petty’s outspoken advocacy for musicians’ intellectual property rights has powerful and ongoing impact on the music industry. 

Moreover, Tom Petty’s charitable and philanthropic endeavors underscore his commitment to orienting his celebrity platform toward the greater good. Tom Petty was a staunch advocate for the homeless, orphans, and kids in foster care; he was a champion for environmental causes, and a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics.  

Thus, in addition to his numerous Grammy wins and MTV Music Video Awards, Billboard Century Award, Radio Music Awards ‘Legend’ Award, and other top industry honors — Tom Petty has been recognized with some of the highest honors for philanthropy and service to community, including Midnight Mission’s Golden Heart Award (2011), and MusicCares ‘Person of the Year’ at the 2017 Grammy Awards.   

Amid celebrations for the first annual Tom Petty Day last October, when UF announced plans to confer an honorary doctorate, the late rocker’s daughter, Adria Petty, noted:   

“It is so incredible for everyone in the family that UF is honoring our dad in his hometown this way. He loved the Gators and he loved Gainesville. He always talked about wanting a doctorate from UF and he would have been totally blown away by all this. It is an added gift that we can give something back and provide much-needed resources to underserved communities in Gainesville. It is near and dear to our entire Petty family."

Today, Petty’s voice and legacy echo loudly today across the University of Florida and Gainesville — quite literally speaking during Gator Football home games, when the roar of 90,000 Gators singing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down” rings out across The Swamp. 

Despite such compelling displays of regional reverence in Gainesville, and Petty’s colossal stature in the global music industry today, UF College of the Arts dean, Onye Ozuzu, notes that the University of Florida did not have a music program that was made for such an artist back when Petty was a young rock musician getting his start in garages and the local bar scene.  

“When we look at the curriculum from the UF School of Music at the time when Tom Petty was growing up in Gainesville — and along with almost all higher ed music programs across the country, even today — someone who was focused on guitar, and writing and singing folk Americana, didn’t have a program they could attend,” Ozuzu says. 

“Certainly, UF had a beautiful Opera program and wonderful offerings in Western Classical music — but we didn’t have the type of music program that would have helped someone like Tom Petty get to where he was going.” 

Getting to where he was going — that ‘middle step’ that Shelton notes is absent in traditional music programs in higher ed — is the missing piece the MBE program aims to fill. In Tom Petty’s case, the ‘middle step’ meant moving his band to Los Angeles; it meant trial-and-error, and it meant taking it wholly upon himself to raise hell when his first record label was taking unfair advantage.  

“Many of the musicians who are coming into our School of Music are already practicing musicians. They represent and make music from many cultural viewpoints. They’re already making the music. Many of them are inventing new styles of music. What they need is an opportunity to learn from more experienced musicians, to collaborate cross-stylistically, and to understand how the music business works, and how to succeed in it,” Ozuzu says.  

“They need to understand how to market themselves, how to record their music so that it can be played in multiple formats. How do you get it on the radio, or how do you get it streamed? How do you get your music into a video game, on a score on Netflix, into a commercial? What companies offer independent musicians publishing packages, and how do you get access to those? Who do you collaborate with? How to trade skills; how to form small companies and collaboratives…” 

Dean Ozuzu concludes:  

“In that respect, the Music Business & Entrepreneurship program is perfect for a budding musician — one who’s playing a kind of music that’s developing in culture right now. We are offering a degree program that invites students into the kind of environment where they can meet one another, start to create their entrepreneurial profile, and launch from here into their careers.” 

From here. The School of Music at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida: a program where “the next Tom Petty” could find a place to launch. From here. Imagine that.