The Improbable Career of John Snyder
On March 18, 2021 | 0 Comments | Uncategorized |

In 2007 I was hired by UNC Alumni Review to write a piece on John Snyder, a longtime music producer who was Chair of the School of Music Industry at Loyola University in New Orleans.  The review offered good money and an expense-paid trip to NOLA.  Hell, yes, I’ll do that.  I had not thought about it in years until last week.  Unable to find the piece online, I dug up the old WORD file, pasted below.  My writing has developed and changed since this piece, and the assignment was a journalistic commission with expectations, but there’s a lot in this piece that I like.  And the questions Snyder raises about the internet are ones we’re still grappling with today.  I love remembering that Ornette Coleman was his primary influence.

 

The Creative Life is the Greatest Life:

The Improbable Career of John Snyder

 

In 1966 when John Snyder was a senior in high school in Charlotte, his father declared, “You are NOT going to music school. Not with my money.”

 

Young Snyder asked, “Why not?”

 

“Because you can’t make a living at it,” his father said.

 

Snyder was bewildered. Ever since they were small kids, he and his two brothers and sister had been awakened by their father at six o’clock in the morning and made to practice music. His father, who was a barber and union organizer, played organ.

 

Snyder asked his father, “Why didn’t you tell me that before you woke me up every morning of my life to practice music?”

 

“That’s just a hobby. That’s not real work,” his father replied.

 

John Snyder has worked for the past thirty-five years to bridge the divide that his father saw between music and “real work.” He dedicated his career and his eventual legal skills (UNC law, 1972) to helping musicians become successful professionals. As a music producer in New York for thirty years he worked side-by-side with icons of the American music industry: business leaders such as Creed Taylor, John Hammond, and Ahmet Ertegun and artists like Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Etta James, and Paul Desmond. Snyder helped sell millions of records and he won several Grammy Awards.

 

Today, at Loyola University in New Orleans, Snyder is founding Chair of the ground-breaking new Department of Music and Entertainment Arts, which traverses almost every discipline at Loyola, including business, law, fine arts, natural sciences, and humanities. He is passing along wisdom gained from his life in the arts. He wants to teach as many kids as possible that a legitimate career in the creative arts is available. Snyder makes no false promises, though, and he is the first one to admit that a career in the arts won’t be easy. It requires painstaking perseverance and flexibility. But he believes the dedication brings unimaginable rewards to the individual and it helps make the world a better place.

 

***

In late February 2008 I visited Snyder, age sixty today, at Loyola. I was early for our appointment and immediately I recognized a unique atmosphere in his office. Four students were there working with Snyder and his assistant. There was a loose, engaged banter between the six of them. Everyone seemed to be performing a different task. The students asked Snyder questions about a grant proposal and an upcoming symposium; he asked them questions about a new course and a new computer program. This could have been a scene from the shop of a master craftsman – say, a shoe maker, a tailor, or a printer, – in some pre-War, downtown America shop, with apprentices learning the trade by doing it, not by hearing someone lecture at the head of a classroom.

 

Loyola senior Alexandra Grant said to me later, “John’s office is always chaotic because his door is never closed and students are always in there telling him about a new CD they just heard, or asking him for advice. He makes himself available at all times and never shuts anyone out. He trusts students and we all trust him in return and he is incredibly inspiring. I’ve had opportunities I never dreamed I would have.”

 

As Snyder and I walked across Loyola’s campus to have lunch we randomly crossed paths with three more students who enthusiastically greeted him. He called their names and had brief conversations with all three. Snyder’s rapport with students forty years younger is natural, not learned from experience. He has been working in academics for less than five years.

 

Later I talked to senior Shannon Baffoni, who transferred to Loyola after being dissatisfied with the Music Management program at Boston’s acclaimed conservatory, Berklee College of Music. “The teachers at Berklee didn’t know how to teach business and the students didn’t know how to socialize…but everyone was a great musician,” said Baffoni. “The thing John does is combine everything. Music is not just about instruments and recordings, it’s about TV, radio, advertising, reviews, business, and legal issues. John makes you believe that for every great idea there are ten more great things to do, as long as you put your mind to it. Also, he always keeps his cool even if plans fail and things get crazy. He starts thinking about the next step. He teaches us that when things fail it is a new opportunity. Working with him has been the best experience I’ve had at Loyola.”

 

Snyder casually oozes ambitious ideas. Since arriving at Loyola in 2004 his impact has reached across campus. When he heard that the Physics Department was struggling to attract new students he proposed a course called “The Physics of Music” and now every semester the course has a waiting list. In the Philosophy Department he proposed “The Ethics of Art and Music” and it is one of the most popular courses at Loyola. The same is true with his new course in the English Department, “Writing about Music and the Arts.”

 

Snyder is also taking a special interest in expanding Loyola’s role in helping New Orleans recover from Katrina, by helping buttress the musical core of the city. Within three weeks of the hurricane he had engineered a program to make thirty of Loyola’s courses available on the internet so displaced students wouldn’t fall too far behind.

 

Says Loyola’s Associate Provost Brenda E. Joyner, “John has a vision and has been diligent in working to turn that vision into reality. He has been a terrific example of an academic entrepreneur. His outreach has had an energizing effect throughout the university.”

 

One of Snyder’s biggest accomplishments occurred last year when, against enormous odds, he convinced the influential Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to forego offers from the Ivy League and move their important educational wing from Los Angeles to relatively little-known Loyola. “I liken it to missionary work,” says Snyder. “The Institute came to a city that people are abandoning. It shows the Institute cares. New Orleans needs the Monk Institute more than the rich Ivy Leagues and they just needed to hear that argument. It fits with the spirit of the music with Loyola’s commitment to community service.”

 

Snyder has ambitious goals to continue to grow the new Department of Music and Entertainment Arts at Loyola and to bring the educational products and services to the public using the internet and the public access channels on television. He sees the creative life as having an opportunity to transform the culture. He believes it is a moral issue.

 

“If you perceive the day as a new day then it WILL BE a new day,” says Snyder. “The artist has a certain freedom of imagination. I want to extend that way of thinking to other areas, to blend them with law, business, science, and every other discipline. Business entrepreneurs are creative. Good teachers are creative. Anybody who is any good at almost anything is creative. And everyone is a consumer of creativity, too. It’s always been that way. But the university is usually a group of silos that co-exist but are largely independent. My idea is to hurl the university into the future and link all these creative people together with the community. It is pan-disciplined.

 

“Today,” he continues in a casually confident tone, without zeal, “there are new opportunities to do this. The advent of the internet has radically increased access to education, the arts and humanities. How are we as a community going to deal with that reality? The old models are dead. The internet has made everything free. How are the universities and businesses and artists going to come to grips with that? I believe that ultimately it will be a tremendous benefit. But you have to work hard and be wide open to new possibilities. It is not about the easy commodity anymore, and by commodity I mean a commercial good as well as a university course. To hype a need that may not exist and then try to fill it…that’s the old world. The new world has an opportunity to be a more thoughtful, more comprehensive world, a more detailed, considerate, respectful, and more engaged world. The challenge is to make people care about education and creative values and the creative life in general and be willing to share them. If we put all of our courses and programs – reading lists, lectures, presentations, workshops, concerts – on public access television for free, and make them available on the internet for free, then a kid may stumble upon something and decide to become involved in theater or music or filmmaking instead of joining a gang. If that kid has to pay exhorbitant tuition fees, or even file a bunch of forms to be eligible for tuition breaks, and then relocate to a campus, then it won’t happen. That’s the old model.”

 

This kind of thinking, of course, has serious detractors. Snyder and I went to lunch at the Loyola faculty club and we were randomly seated at a table with several of his Loyola colleagues. Snyder continued talking about his vision for access to the arts and interdisciplinary studies at Loyola. His conversational style is warm and amiable, but the content of what he says is threatening to traditional educators. The faculty members at our lunch table were clearly uneasy with his comments.

 

A professor in another department asked, “If what you say is true, that everything should be available for free on the internet, then where does that leave us? How do we own our work? How will we get paid for our work?”

 

Snyder responded: “We have to find new ways to deliver knowledge and make it available to the public and pay for it. It is going to be harder and harder to justify and sustain the old model. College tuition is crippling kids who come out of college with all this debt. It decreases their options. We have to find new ways to package, sell, and deliver education. There are some areas, for example medicine and applied sciences, that won’t change much. But for the arts and humanities, we run the risk of extinction if we don’t grasp the new technologies and new ways of providing access. I think this is an opportunity, not a problem.”

 

***

 

Snyder stands about six feet tall and is lean and wiry, indicative of a careful diet and the 20-mile bike rides that he takes several days a week. He has long, grey hair that hangs down past his shoulders and there is something natural or unaffected – unconditioned perhaps – about his presence that belies his sixty years. Listening to Snyder talk about his life and work, I realized that there is no tension between his passion and his vocation. In my job I’ve been lucky enough to interview more than two hundred artists, most of them jazz musicians, and I’ve learned that their work is inextricable from their way of life. They don’t clock in and out. Their work is a calling. A connection like this is often beautiful, but the beauty never comes easily or predictably or without wounds. Snyder’s story bears this out.

 

Snyder went to UNC-Greensboro with the help of a scholarship in 1966. “It was the early days of UNC-G admitting males and I think that was one reason I got that scholarship,” he says. He was largely bored, but one summer he took a criminology course to fill a requirement. Sparks flew. “In the course I spent a lot of time down at the courthouse in Greensboro and I realized that I’d had the wrong idea about justice,” says Snyder. “I’d considered justice a sacrament but I realized quickly that it wasn’t. It wasn’t practiced that way. I saw it as abusive and traumatic. So I wrote a paper arguing for changing the justice system to reflect true justice. I didn’t know if I had any idea what I was talking about. But the teacher called me out one day. She said, ‘Mr. Snyder, I want to see you after class.’ I thought she was failing me. But she gave me an A+ on the paper and she encouraged me to go to law school.”

 

The next day Snyder drove to Chapel Hill and found his way into the office of Morris Gelblum, then Associate Dean in UNC’s School of Law. He saw a copy of the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine on Gelblum’s desk and it just so happened that Snyder had read an article about the Philadelphia Orchestra in that same issue a few days before. “I asked Morris if he’d read that article,” says Snyder, “and he said, ‘Yes, I know all those member of the Orchestra’ and I couldn’t believe it. Morris was from Philadelphia and was a music fanatic. I begged him to tell me about the Orchestra and the musicians he knew. Morris then convinced me to go to law school there. He told me, ‘We need more people with diverse interests like you.’ I said, ‘You mean, you need more weirdos,’ and he said, ‘Yes, we need more weirdos.’”

 

Snyder struggled through law school, his mind still occupied by music. During his third year in 1973 he consulted the Martindale-Hubble directory of lawyers and he wrote letters to many entertainment lawyers in New York City. He also wrote a letter to the legendary record producer, Creed Taylor, who had produced some of Snyder’s favorite records – by Stan Getz, Kenny Burrell, Phil Woods, and Wes Montgomery – on the Verve, Impulse, and A&M labels. Taylor responded with a letter inviting Snyder to contact him if he ever visited New York. Snyder went to New York to interview with several entertainment law firms and he set up a meeting with Taylor, too.

 

“I went to see Creed on the 27th floor of Number One Rockefeller Plaza,” remembers Snyder, “and it was awesome. The waiting room was all black – black shag carpets, black furniture, black walls and ceiling. It was incredible. There weren’t any doors either. It was wide open. Creed had beautiful stereo equipment in his office and he had silk, padded walls. His table was marble and it sat on a pedestal. It was stunning. I thought offices were square and had square desks with lamps. I didn’t know you could work in a place like that.”

 

Taylor offered Snyder a job on the spot. “Here was a guy fresh out of law school who also had a very sophisticated understanding of music,” says Taylor today. “Artists are often very impractical and it is unique to find someone who can fit the subjective side of the artist into a business practice. John is very good at working with both sides.”

 

Snyder started by helping with legal issues related to Taylor’s publishing business, but soon he began helping in other areas of the business; manufacturing of records, distribution, licensing, marketing, and artistic production. “I learned every aspect of the business at the very highest level while I was still I my mid-20’s,” says Snyder.

 

But Snyder also learned that the music business is fickle. Taylor sold his company to Motown and Snyder was out of a job. Another legendary producer, John Hammond, got Snyder a job at Columbia and then at A&M, where Snyder became close friends with Herb Alpert and Ornette Coleman.

 

“Ornette changed my life,” says Snyder of the pioneering saxophonist. “I became an acolyte of Ornette’s. His way of thinking and living deeply influenced me and still does today. He was a visionary and a humanitarian. He’d pick up a drunk on the street and give him a place to stay.” Snyder became Coleman’s manager and with the help of Herb Alpert he set up a company (that he still runs today), Artist’s House, named after Coleman’s old apartment where musicians used to come and go freely. Snyder began managing other musicians such as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and Paul Desmond.

 

Snyder was flying high until, again, the fickleness of the industry put him out of work again in 1983. “Things in the music industry happen dramatically based on one event,” says Snyder. “One success or one failure can make or break you instantly.” By this time his wife, who he had married in law school, had moved back to Pineville, N.C. with their kids. Snyder was broke and the utilities in his New York apartment were turned off. He used extension cords to connect with electric outlets in the hallway of his building through his door. Once, Chet Baker, a notorious heroin addict, showed up at Snyder’s apartment looking for seven dollars so he could get his next fix. Baker took one look at Snyder, and said, “Damn, man, what happened to you? You look worse than me.”

 

Snyder moved back to Pineville to be with his family. “My parents were all over me, my in-laws were all over me, my friends were all over me, and they weren’t wrong to be that way,” says Snyder. “I was the big loser in the family, despite what I’d done in New York. I was thirty five years old and at a dead end. My wife was teaching school and I played Mr. Mom.”

 

But he was aching to get back into the music business. His New York credentials meant nothing in the legal world of North Carolina in 1983. “So I called John Hammond,” says Snyder. “He was gracious and he made me feel good just talking to him. He gave me hope. I borrowed money from my ex-sister-in-law – my wife and my parents wouldn’t give me any money and I don’t blame them – and I went back to New York. John Hammond hooked me up with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. He found Ahmet in the dentist’s office, patched through by Ahmet’s secretary, and he insisted that Ahmet hire me. Ahmet gave me $75,000 to produce three records. He told me, ‘If you can make money on those records, you can stay.’”

 

Snyder stayed with Atlantic until 1987 when he decided to go out on his on, through his company Artist’s House. RCA, Polygram, and Telarc hired him as a freelance producer to make records. He produced a record for Etta James that sold 250,000 copies and won a Grammy Award.

 

Snyder’s business thrived until 2001 when the internet began changing the entire industry. It was his cue to leave New York and start over again. He had thoughts about leaving a legacy by teaching kids how to succeed in the music industry. When the job directing Loyola’s Music Industry Studies program opened up in 2003, some of Snyder’s business associates in Lafayette, LA, where he had been regularly visiting to record albums for ten years, put his name in the hat. “I wasn’t interested in moving to New Orleans because I knew that it was a dangerous place geographically,” says Snyder, “but I went through the interview process and I had a great time. They called me and offered me the job and I took it.” He began in 2004.

 

“I am excited about the future,” says Snyder. “We have a chance here at Loyola to combine the worlds of music, art, theater, technology, natural science, business, and law and to have a curriculum which corresponds to the dynamic interaction between those fields. No university has ever tried to do that.

 

“My mission is to spread the word that the creative life is the greatest life. It is full of rewards but it is also full of suffering. I understand that. But by dedicating yourself to these kinds of values the payoff down the road, for the individual and the whole culture, is tremendous. The payoff is peace and beauty and a better understanding of each other that can only be achieved by thinking and working creatively together. The old model of working independently and in isolation is dead. The future is about connection.

 

“Getting people to care is half the battle. We have to take our creative fields and find a way to put creative products into a new context so that people will care.   The new context will add value so people will buy it and the creators can be compensated. Look at bottled water. That’s exactly what happened. Some smart marketer changed the context of water and now billions of dollars are being paid to buy something that for all of history has been free. We have to do the same thing with cultural creativity. If we can do that, then our human communities will benefit.”

 

It occurs to me while Snyder is talking that the unified world he envisions is akin to the literary one envisioned by 19th century writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy and Whitman. They saw the “multitudes” of human life and passionately sought to render them in a manner that would influence people to see common humanity, not separations and categories and disconnections that led to conflicts.

 

“Yes,” says Snyder, “That’s it. It is not about me. It is about the kids and the future and what kind of world are we going to live in. It is a moral mandate…but I think it is also damn good business.”

 

 

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