When the pandemic hit in early 2020, veteran music business headhunter Tom Truitt — a chief partner in the entertainment/media practice of Nashville-based executive search firm Buffkin/Baker — had his own lightbulb moment.
Since 2015, Truitt had been hosting a live event, “Who Knew,” a monthly get-together Truitt dubbed “Ted Talks for the music industry.” Scheduling eight per year, six of them in Nashville, the storytelling-oriented gathering allowed the speakers to open up and reveal their true selves.
When COVID-19 hit, Truitt launched “The Smartest People in the Room,” a one-on-one webinar series featuring hour-long Zoom interviews with some of the leading figures in the music, gaming, sports and entertainment fields, each guest picking the interviewer of their choosing. Over the past year, participants have included the likes of Hipgnosis Songs Fund’s mercurial Merck Mercuriadis, Ahmet Zappa, CMT’s Leslie Fram, Stewart Copeland, John Legend manager Ty Stiklorius and jingle-writer-turned-podcast entrepreneur Jared Gutstadt, among many others, for the twice-weekly chat, logging more than 80 to date. The very first featured Twitch expert Karen Allen about how the music industry could take advantage of the app’s burgeoning popularity with gamers. The conversations even generated worldwide headlines when agency veteran Marc Geiger revealed he didn’t see live music returning at scale until 2022, which sent shockwaves throughout the industry.
“It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever done,” he says about the decision to go virtual with the session. “I had no idea what I was doing at first, but it’s developed into the marketing platform for my day job, which is to connect people.”
Forming communities and networks is vital to Truitt, a Virginia native and lifelong southerner who first launched the Music Industry Forum on LinkedIn in 2002.
“When I first saw LinkedIn, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” explains Truitt, who leans on it heavily in his recruiting efforts. “In its earliest day, I called it Facebook for adults, professionals, business executives. As a headhunter, it was manna from heaven. It’s not the only tool in the toolkit, but it is a very important one. It’s the first place I go for research, and if an applicant isn’t there, I will immediately discount them.”
Truitt merged his previous executive recruitment firm, MusicRowSearch, into Buffkin/Baker in 2016, which did the same thing with longtime industry headhunter Warren Wasp at the same time. Previously in the health care and higher education fields, Buffkin/Baker launched an entertainment/media practice with Truitt as chief partner, adding e-sports, gaming, film, TV, publishing and cable to its portfolio.
Talking about Wasp, Truitt fondly calls him “Batman to my Robin,” adding, “Korn-Ferry and all those other big companies may sniff around this industry, but Warren and I are the only recruiters out there who live and breathe music 24/7.”
Some of their clients include large companies like Live Nation, BMI, GMR and Warner Music Group, among many others, but he’s currently high on SoundCloud. He mostly concentrates on top-level executives, the “rainmakers” in sales, marketing, business development and legal affairs — from VPs to C-suite (CEO, CFO, CMO, CRO, COO), salaries ranging from mid-six to seven figures.
“The good news is, if you want a job in the music industry over the next 12 months, there will be plenty of opportunities because the live sector will come back with a vengeance,” he explains. “The music business, aside from concerts, had a pretty healthy year because of streaming. Touring will return, but it will take a year or so for the entire machine to reawaken to pre-pandemic schedules, obviously. Many people in that area have left the business and will never return.”
Truitt insists, despite the outside noise, that the music industry still attracts its share of the “best and brightest,” but many young people are deterred by having to start at the bottom as an unpaid intern for a year or more.
“The music industry is still a great place to make a living,” says Truitt, although he questions spending the tuition at a four-year-old school like Nashville’s own Belmont University to attain a music business degree. “A high school graduate can get a six-month certificate in sound recording and work on a new Kenny Chesney album. Look at how Jimmy Iovine started, sweeping the floors at the Record Plant. You don’t need a college degree to make it in the music industry.”
As for the shifting job perspectives in the current music industry, Truitt agrees the former label bastion of radio promotion has evolved from radio promotion guys lugging promos for PDs to 22-year-olds getting songs playlisted by computer.
“Radio promotion as a category of employment will continue to die a slow death,” says the veteran headhunter. “But the major labels will continue to be relevant, as will the indies. If you want to play the Top 40 mass-market pop game, the big three are still your best option.
“I’m very bullish on the record industry. Music is something which will continue to be important to a significant majority of the world’s population. It’s a ‘gotta-have,’ not a ‘wanna-have.’ It will never go away.”
Truitt intends to resume his live “Who Knew” sessions in November, but “The Smartest People in the Room” is here to stay as a virtual companion.
“The more you shine the light on other people, the more it reflects back on you,” he says, pointing out how that “push it forward” mentality is more prevalent in the Nashville music community than in either of its coastal rivals in New York and L.A. “I have tried to create a meaningful platform for people to do that and, in return, it has generated a great deal of visibility and business for this company.” Sounds pretty smart.