Alum Ramon Alvarez-Smikle on Leadership in the Business of Music
For Ramon Alvarez-Smikle '13 developing an artist's outlook was never in question; it was in the fabric of his family's way of life. The son of world-renowned artists Candida Alvarez and Columbia College Chicago Photography Professor Dawoud Bey, Alvarez-Smikle remembers early childhood memories of road trips up the east coast in which his parents would play music. "The selection," he recalls, "would range from Sade to the Beatles to Toni Braxton to Tito Puente. It gave me an early appreciation for different types of music, melodies, and rhythm." His love of music only intensified after his family moved to Chicago and Alvarez-Smikle began learning the art of making beats via computer from his cousin, Jason Smikle.
"At a certain point," Alvarez-Smikle says, "I knew that being a professional musician wasn't for me—but I knew that I still loved music and wanted to be a part of the industry in whatever way I could." The realization came as Smikle was considering colleges. Columbia College Chicago was always going to be in the running—Smikle's father had been a Professor at Columbia since the family had moved to Chicago. But for Alvarez-Smikle, the fact that Columbia was one of the first schools to offer a Music Business Degree Program paired with the fact that he felt an affinity for the campus, faculty, and his fellow students made the choice easy.
Upon beginning his studies, Alvarez-Smikle was steeped not only in a meaningful learning environment but also in professional development opportunities that allowed him critical insights into his chosen industry. "GRAMMY U [the college arm for The GRAMMYs] for me was one of the most impactful of my college experiences. The opportunity to Intern at The Recording Academy starting my sophomore year really allowed me an opportunity to put into practice much of my learnings at Columbia on a daily basis. I met some incredible working music Industry professionals and artists, was able to build out lasting relationships that helped me get my foot in the door within the industry." The experience also sparked a fundamental personal shift for Alvarez-Smikle: "It taught me the real value of opportunity meets preparedness."
By the time he graduated, Alvarez-Smikle not only had experience with GRAMMY U but also as an intern for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and as a college representative for Harvest Records of Universal Music Group. "I felt that since I stayed in Chicago for college – it was the right time to take the leap to either Los Angeles or New York, just based on where most of the opportunity was within the music industry at the time," Alvarez-Smikle says.
Los Angeles won out, where Alvarez-Smikle hustled hard to get his foot in the door in a full-time salaried position in a competitive business. His first position with Shazam allowed him to grow in the world of digital marketing and begin "interfacing with digital marketing teams across the music industry every day, helping create campaigns within the Shazam ecosystem."
As his career developed, Alvarez-Smikle found an excellent fit in digital marketing at Interscope Records. It proved to be the opportunity he needed to take flight: he began as a Digital Product Manager in 2016 and was recently named Interscope's new Senior Vice President, Head of Urban Digital Marketing. "It was a role that was/always is evolving in real-time, and I'm thankful that I was able to bring my background and love of music, culture, and technology to a role that allowed me the creativity and opportunity to work with some of the most incredible artists and teams in the world," Alvarez-Smikle says.
To other Columbia students who are eager to follow in his footsteps, Alvarez-Smikle has some advice: "Soak up as much real-world experience as you can, before graduating. So much of this industry comes down to emotional intelligence and understanding how to move in situations. That learning sometimes can only come from real-world experience." And most importantly: "Be ready. Put your best foot forward. First impressions matter. Be a person of high character always. Work hard." These are axioms Alvarez-Smikle has embraced and embodied, axioms that have taken him to the stratosphere in leadership in the music business.