Former metal vocalist joins Emerson LA faculty

In a Q&A, Jon Clayden discusses the music industry

by Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • September 17, 2014

Jon Clayden
Courtesy of Jon Clayden
Jon Clayden
Courtesy of Jon Clayden

Five months ago, Jon Clayden, the former lead vocalist of the metal band Pitchshifter, joined the faculty at Emerson Los Angeles as the director of post-graduate and professional studies. With experience as a professional musician, music manager, career adviser, teacher, and lecturer, he gave the Berkeley Beacon his views on the entertainment and performance industry.


Berkeley Beacon: How did Pitchshifter get started?


Jon Clayden: Goodness gracious, that was a hundred million years ago! I was 18. My brother Mark was the bass player and I was the lead vocalist and we scraped together and put out an EP. We managed to get signed to Earache Records, which is a very aptly named record company, and the money started coming in, and offers started coming in, and we very quickly went from playing to 100 people to a point in our career where we were playing for 2,000 people a night. It was one of those things I couldn’t really say “no” to.


BB: How did you go about understanding multiple aspects of the industry?


JC: I would sit in the big tour bus that had the band’s name on it where the tour manager would get paid $1,000 a week. This is back when Nirvana was making records and people were buying records and there was a lot of money in the music industry, mind you. I’d say, “How much do I pay you?” and he’d say “$1,000 a week,” and I’d say, “I’m just going to shadow you for a couple of weeks to see what it is that you do.” I would shadow him and say, “You know what? I could do that.” Eventually I took over all the roles because I realized we were losing a great whack of the profit to pay people a lot, that in a sense, you could do yourself. That got me all the way up to starting my own record label.


BB: What in particular caused you to change careers?


JC: When we came off the road, I finished my graduate degree at Middlesex University in London and took a job in artist management, which was a dreadful mistake because I was terrible at it. Plus all of the things I took for granted when I was an artist, like complaining that there’s one brown M&M in my bowl of blue M&Ms, and demanding sushi in the desert—it was all the things that artists were asking me for now [as a manager]. It drove me completely bonkers. Then there was a position at a local college in regards to career advisement for the entertainment industry and I thought, well, I could do that.


BB: What is your role at ELA?


JC: Undergraduates come here [to LA] from Boston, and they’re in a position where we can reach out to local individuals and local business and help them develop programming to meet their needs. That could be night and weekend classes for adults, international summer residency programs, etc.


BB: In retrospect, how do you feel about the numerous professional transitions you have gone through? Did you ever imagine you would end up in higher education?


JC: I had a fairly bumpy transition, to be honest with you. My advice would be to stick with it, though. The axiom is that everybody has five different careers in a lifetime, and you have to look at the positive aspects of each one and enjoy it. As I transitioned into higher education, I realized that for me it’s just as creative as live performance and songwriting. It’s just creative in a different way. If you can maintain your level of enthusiasm and creativity you can apply it to different things, to different problems.


 BB: What are your thoughts on colleges like Emerson that specialize students in certain aspects of the entertainment industry?


JC: I have a lot of friends from high school who were maybe amazing performing musicians in that period but now, post-crash, don’t have the education to be able to transition into other careers. I always say to people it’s a pretty big gamble to throw all your eggs into that one bucket of “I am going to make it at this one thing.” My money manager said it’s always good to diversify one’s portfolio. That’s why I wanted to understand how different aspects of the industry work.


BB: What insight from your past are you able to pass along to those you are advising at the LA campus?


JC: I come from a socialist democracy, the United Kingdom, where education is very cheap and everybody gets to do it. Because of that, there isn’t always necessarily an end goal. People pick bizarre topics and there isn’t always that goal of, “hey, I have to be an adult and make a living from what it is that I do.” I think by marrying my higher education experience, and my commercial and industry experience, I am able to contextualize students’ educations into a career-based focus. We’re that link for those that may be career switching, or looking to augment their skill set for traditional and nontraditional employment. I’m able to speak quite fluently about that stuff because I did it. I was basically self-employed for twenty years.


BB: How successful do you think Emerson is at preparing students for the entertainment industry?


JC: I think it’s a very creative college because it is trying to keep with that liberal arts quadrivium and trivium-based aspect of generating good citizens of the world. But it is rooted, especially at the LA campus, from what I’ve seen so far, in grounding that dream in some reality. I think that will continue to grow as alumni groups are able to share their experiences and as there’s more synergy between the communities of Boston and Los Angeles and their alumni.


BB: After seeing the entertainment industry from both the inside and outside, what do you feel there is to be gained from an education like what Emerson provides?


JC:  Although it pains me to say it, my mom was right. Your education is important. I read a lot of data online and the undisputed value of just a bachelor’s degree alone continues to rise, it doesn’t go anywhere. I always advise it’s super important to get one’s education—and that’s not because I’m trying to toe the company line. I’m living proof that it works.