INK Article: It’s a Long Way to the Top

Melaku Assegued sits alone in a library at Columbia University. He’s studying for finals. His cell phone rings. He picks up the phone. It’s an artists and repertoire executive from EMI Music. She says she wants to work with him on songwriting projects at EMI Music.

Four years ago, Kirby alum Assegued was about to graduate high school and go to college. “I got into my dream school, which was Columbia,” says Assegued. “I wasn’t sure at all about my plans for the future. I knew I loved music, but I didn’t believe that making it in the industry was possible. So I decided to go to a non-music school to explore other career options.”

Assegued had spent high school playing in “multiple bands and rap groups” and writing, recording, and mixing songs in a studio he had built in his parents’ basement. “I actually proposed the audio engineering class and subsequent recording studio with a friend of mine,” says Assegued.

After graduation, Assegued moved to New York City and started classes at Columbia. “I decided to study sociology after taking an intro class my first semester that I absolutely loved,” he says. “And my sophomore year, the School implemented a business minor in conjunction with the business school, so I tacked that on as well.”

However, music did not fade from Assegued’s mind.

“The goal at the time was to be an artist. What I would do at the time is buy instrumentals off the internet and write melodies and lyrics to them, and then record them with my studio set-up in my dorm room.

“I wanted a record deal, but had no idea how the industry works, and I was basically half-assing my passion, which is no way to do it. I remember calling home and being really disappointed in myself, saying that my life didn’t feel complete and that I wasn’t doing music enough. I was super sporadic and unfocused, only putting out like one song every couple of months.”

Assegued persisted, and halfway through his sophomore year, something changed. “I landed an internship at Jive Records, Sony Music in the A&R department and worked for the A&R to Britney Spears, Hot Chelle Rae, and other artists.

“I got somewhat of an insider look at what goes on at labels, and learned how hard it is to get signed these days. I still had that drive to be an artist, but I wasn’t putting the work in. My internship ended when sophomore year did, in early May. In mid-May I turned 20 and the day after I went on Birthright.” Birthright Israel is a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free 10-day heritage to Israel for Jewish young adults.

“I consider that day the turning point. [I felt] a lot of emotions at once; leaving my teen years, and connecting with a part of me that I had never connected to before. I think partway through the trip to Israel, probably the day the Western Wall, I realized in a bigger way how insignificant we all are, and connected we all are, and that each of us has one life to live and should do what we love.

“I already had an internship lined up doing PR in San Francisco for the ten weeks after birthright.”

Assegued knew he didn’t want a desk job but he took the internship.

“During that internship, I worked on one song for a ridiculous amount of time, maybe a month, tweaking and tweaking it and believing that it was going to be the best song I ever wrote. I finally finished it, had it mastered, and put it out to Facebook. Most of my college friends were surprised to see that I did music because I had been slacking so much in the past two years.”

The song went over well, but “nothing really came of it, industry-wise,” says Assegued.  “However, it did change my perspective. I realized my own talent. Every night after work I would stay up for hours learning how to tweak my vocals and mix the record, and write better lyrics.”

Inspired, Assegued wrote relentlessly.

“Over the next few months I wrote four more songs that I was happy with. The last was a duet I wrote for me and a friend of mine. That last song, I thought, was pretty dope, and I decided to put four of the songs on iTunes and Spotify and see what happened. I had heard from a family friend who interned at Universal that a lot of A&R executives search for talent through Tunecore, so I used them as my distribution service.”

“The whole thing cost $20 , and I made $34…so really $14.” He laughs.

“I started to question the feasibility of becoming an artist after that, and also began to question why I wanted to be an artist so bad. I had heard stories about artists starting as songwriters: Jessie J, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Ne-Yo, The Dream, etc. So I decided the week before the finals of my junior year that I would put in some effort networking as a songwriter.”

Assegued credits social media networking site Twitter with some of his early success. “I had never used [it] before, and I decided to log on and see what happened, and suddenly I could see all these huge music industry people, what they were talking about, who they were talking to.”

He then began his search for a songwriting manager.

“I found a few, and emailed some of them, saying who I was and attaching those four songs, and within a couple days of sending out emails, I got a call from a manager whose client has credits with Tyrese and Jacob Lattimore. The manager said he loved my work and was interested in managing me. I freaked out, started calling everyone I knew, thinking I had made it. It was an amazing day. I really felt like it was all possible for the first time in that moment.”

Unfortunately, the manager’s offer had problems, and Assegued decided not to sign with him. “However, he told me he was networking with a young upcoming producer in the UK [David Connor] and sent me some of his tracks. The tracks were very well developed, and I had an easy time working with them.”

“Soon after I saw an opportunity to write a dance pop song for an advertisement from an A&R I follow on Twitter, and thought I could write a great record to one of Connor’s beats. So I emailed him and asked if I could use it. It was about 5pm at that time, and the song was due at 9am the next morning. I wrote the song in maybe an hour, then convinced a girl friend of mine to sing on the song, since it needed to be a female pop song. I mixed and mastered the song late into the night. I probably finished it around 3:00am.

“We didn’t get the advertising placement, but David [Connor] absolutely loved the song, and he decided he wanted to work with me on his other projects. That was another kickoff point. In the last three months we have had potential placements from a wide variety of artists, including Flo Rida, Chris Brown, and The Wanted.

“A couple weeks ago David flew into New York to discuss signing with new labels and to network in person with his contacts in America. He visited EMI, Sony, and some upcoming smaller sub-labels. We had plans to visit each other, but he ended up being too busy. When he got back to the UK, though, he texted me, saying, ‘We’ve got a potential with Chris Brown, and I told an A&R at EMI about you.”

The A&R called Assegued within five minutes, said she was very impressed, and offered him a position working on songwriting projects at EMI and elsewhere, including Disney.

“This summer I will be working primarily with David and the A&R over at EMI on various songwriting projects,” says Assegued.

“I’m not going to really be satisfied until I reach the pinnacle of this passion, so until then it’s work, work, work. Even if I fail miserably, I’ll be smiling all the way down, because I’m doing what I love. I may be a hopeless optimist, but I truly believe if you believe in yourself when you’re young, the world opens up for you. I guess that’s the advice I would want to give anybody looking at the stepping stones ahead.”

Article “It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock n’ Roll” by Devin Reilly published in INK Volume 8, Issue 8 on June 8, 2012.