In the Spotlight: Alyssa Castiglia

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Day job: A&R Research, Island Records

Song on repeat: Love Yourself by Justin Bieber

Alyssa Castiglia, head of A&R research at Island Records, paved her own path in the industry doing what she still does best: scoping out live music and learning about new artists making an impact. Having been hashtag blessed with math skills and a love for discovering new talent, Castiglia is always on the lookout for artists creating a reaction. She asks herself on a daily basis: For the amount of exposure the artist currently has, is the response good? ProjectNextUp got the chance to sit down with Castiglia to talk about her unique data-driven role at Island, her love for Fall Out Boy, and the power of building your network. 

ProjectNextUp: Tell us how you got to where you are now.

Alyssa Castiglia: I always knew I wanted to work in the music industry and not actually be an entertainer. When I was 12 I started street-teaming. I wanted to be involved in any way that I could. I was working for this pop punk label called Drive-Thru Records. When I was 15 I was going to shows so much that I decided to go for an internship at the local venue. There I did marketing and promotion and helped with some of the booking. I really enjoyed that and ended up going to Northeastern University for their music industry program. I tried to make my whole life about music. I worked for the radio station, I worked for the national music industry club. At Northeastern, students do a co-op (or internship) for six months. Both my internships were at Universal Republic doing A&R. It was a combination of everything I enjoyed. I enjoyed finding new artists. I was specifically doing A&R research — looking for new acts using analytics, trying to see if a cause has an effect. I was always looking into if something is exposed in one way, is the reaction good? I was really close with my supervisors from Republic and they helped me get a job after graduation. I ended up at Island where I am today and I really enjoy it.

PNU: What’s your role at Island right now and how has it grown over the years?

AC: I was really lucky. I got hired as part of Mercury Records, which was an imprint of Island Def Jam. When I got hired, I didn’t have to be an assistant which was very unusual. The label was so small, and they really needed an A&R research person. So that’s where I came in. They liked me and hired me. We experienced amazing growth over the past couple of years. Three months after I started, we became Island. A year or so later, we separated from Def Jam and became our own label. I have been overseeing the A&R research department by myself for three years. I don’t think my role has expanded that much, but that’s just the nature of A&R research. Everyday is different. I’m always looking for new artists — you never know when and where they will come up. I’ve refined my ways of searching and figured out what works and what doesn’t work. But I’m my own department within the department. I still really enjoy it. 

PNU: What do you usually look for in your research?

AC: I’m looking for a reaction. It’s not necessarily who has the most YouTube views, Spotify streams, or who is the biggest on Soundcloud. For the amount of exposure the artist currently has, is the response good? And that can happen on a micro scale or a macro scale. I look for something that sustains and keeps growing — even if it is on a small level.

It’s not necessarily who has the most YouTube views, Spotify streams, or who is the biggest on Soundcloud. For the amount of exposure the artist currently has, is the response good?

PNU: How do you stand out amongst the noise?

AC: Two things. With A&R research, I really try to know about every band that is out there — even if they aren’t reacting. I pride myself on being the girl that when a band gets brought up, I know them. The other thing is I make sure not to make my whole life about music. I make sure to have other interests. I’m really into film, TV, books, and comedy. Mostly entertainment related! 1) I enjoy it. But 2) I’m able to bond with people on a different level other than just music. That’s made all the difference. It leads to different relationships and friendships with people. Traveling has helped with that, too. I’ve been to Barcelona for work and Montreal for fun. I’ve been to Egypt, Ireland, and England. After I studied abroad I had three weeks between semesters, so I changed my flight back and backpacked around Europe by myself. I had an amazing time and I made new friends. 

PNU: That’s so cool! Everyone at some point should travel alone. 

AC: I totally agree. So many people try to distract themselves from their own thoughts and feelings. I think it’s really good for you to get in touch with yourself. You don’t have to be talking all the time. You can just be calm and enjoy what’s happening, instead of worrying about other people. A lot of people our age don’t know how to be independent. I think it’s really important to be responsible for yourself.

PNU: Who is someone you look up to in or out of the industry?

AC:  My co-worker and Vice President, Matt, has been a huge mentor to me. He has the mentality that he always wants to share. Sometimes in life it seems like a race and no one helps each other out — but he’s like, “We can all go together!” He’s been really great in imparting knowledge onto me and giving me advice and helping me navigate things. For a long time as a kid, someone who has made me want to get into this industry, was Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor for The OC, Grey’s Anatomy, and Twilight. I didn’t necessarily love the shows or the movie, but I thought it was amazing that she was one of the first people (as a 26-year-old woman) who completely changed the music supervision game. Up until The OC, no one was putting in popular indie music. That show broke Death Cab for Cutie. They had the best soundtracks. Twilight broke Bon Iver, and Grey’s Anatomy broke The Fray and Snow Patrol. That’s power. That’s pretty emotional — the ability to tie music with visual. That’s the strongest impact you can have on somebody. I’ve really looked up to her.

That’s pretty emotional — the ability to tie music with visual. That’s the strongest impact you can have on somebody.

PNU: What kind of music or artists share similar values to you?

AC: My taste in music has always been slightly left to center pop. I’ve always loved pop music, but I’ve liked it when it’s clothed in a different way. Growing up I was into pop punk — they were pop songs but very angsty. Now I like stuff like Alt-J, Banks, Halsey, and Warpaint. I like dance music and a little bit of hip hop. Anything that has a great song in it but isn’t down the middle pop, I’m into it. The band that I’ve loved the longest has been Fall Out Boy. I started listening to them when I was 12. They were the first alternative CD I ever got. My cousin bought me “Take This To Your Grave.” I was obsessed. That was the album that got me into music. They are from a blue-collar town in Illinois, and I’m from Buffalo, so we’re both from economically-depressed, but creatively-vibrant cities. I related a lot to what they were singing about. I think it’s so amazing to be able to withstand the test of time. They’ve been able to come out with amazing album after amazing album. And they know well enough when they need to take a break. The fact that they’ve been able to make awesome music that is relevant, and still connects with people of all ages, is incredible.

PNU: What was the one moment that you realized discovering new artists was your calling?

AC: When I started my A&R internship, I realized this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t really know what A&R was before then, and I don’t think anyone can really know unless you’re doing it. It’s one of those things that you can’t teach. It’s just an experience and a mentality. But I was already doing it before. I was already on Hype Machine, reading blogs, going to shows five or six times a week. That’s why I started working at the venue. A&R was a combination of all my skills. I’m really good at math, and I’m really good at discovering new music. A&R research is the perfect combination of both. I really like it because not many people do that or have that skill. It helps me stand out and something I really enjoy. Another experience, though, was when I went to my first alternative show. I was 13 when I went to see a band that doesn’t exist anymore called JamisonParker. That was the chalk of the punk-pop emo world for a while. They were poised to be big, but they never made it. When I went to see them, I had learned the words to all the songs. Everyone in the whole venue knew all the lyrics to the songs. That feeling of unity was incredible. I wanted to feel that the whole time.  

PNU: What’s the biggest challenge women in music face?

AC: It can definitely be hard to break into. It can be hard just to get into the door in the first place, which is tough. My advise for anyone — regardless of gender — is that you should not get into the music industry unless you’re sure that you want that to be your life. It’s a hard business. You can say, “Maybe I’ll be a doctor and work your way there.” But I feel like with the music industry, if you don’t decide at a relatively young age that this is 100% what you want to do, your chances get less and less. Even interns these days need to have previous experience. It’s the go getters in high school and college doing whatever they can do. There are paid college rep positions. There are options. I think that you have to make it your life. You need to go on blogs, know who the artists are, go to shows. When I was an intern living in New York City, I didn’t know anybody. But I went to shows all the time and went to networking events. You don’t have to wait until you get a job to start building your network. 

PNU: What’s one challenging project or situation you’ve found yourself in at work?

AC: I’m in charge of interns — that’s challenging. It seems like I just got my first job and I’m already in charge of managing other people. That’s something you can’t be taught — you just have to figure it out. You have to make sure they have enough to do and that they are getting educated. You have to read between the lines and be super communicative. Sometimes interns have to work on time management, so I’ve learned to give them deadlines for when I need assignments to be completed. I wasn’t really that good at being stern or disciplinary, but I’ve gotten to the point now where I think I’ve got it under control.

You don’t have to wait until you get a job to start building your network.

PNU: How can we empower young women aspiring to pursue a career in the music industry? How can we work more as a team than opponents? 

AC: I think having a forum where women can talk to other women is important. Sometimes you need to go out and find that mentor. You need to have a community that brings these people together. Women also need to be honest with each other. You can’t just tell them the nice parts of the job. You need to be realistic and help these women shape realistic goals and create a realistic path to get them. I’ve seen that people, even my age, don’t know what the steps are. They don’t know what you have to do to get to where you want to be. Some people think it’s so easy and that it’s A to B, but really it’s A, B, C, D. You need to network and meet people from other companies. Educate yourself about other companies out there. There are a ton of people who have created startups, inventing new ideas. It’s good to show young women what opportunities are out there and then help them learn how to get there.

PNU: One thing you would have told your 15-year-old self?

AC: Don’t get so bogged down in friendship and boy drama. When you look back on it, most of it doesn’t matter. Don’t let that stuff get in the way of pursuing your dreams. Spend time on what matters.

PNU: What's your purpose in 140 characters or less?

AC: To always be passionate about everything I do and spread that passion.

Connect with Alyssa on Twitter: @AlyssaCastiglia