Jack Rutledge, Amazon Music

Have you ever wanted to ask someone questions about their career path? “How I Did It” asks them for you.

From the Fall 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Learn how Jack Rutledge, BMus’03, MBA’09, a Blair School of Music undergraduate, turned his talent for music and business to become head of catalog and selection for Amazon Music.

Jack Rutledge
Jack Rutledge (Photo credit: Adair Freeman Rutledge)

Q. What do you do?

My team manages Amazon’s digital supply chain, acquiring audio music files and metadata from record labels, and then presenting those products to customers in ways that make it easy for them to find the music they want to listen to and to discover new music. We have a catalog of more than 35 million tracks, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can maintain a high level of quality for our customers across a huge catalog. I also help design the technology platform that enables us to grow our business quickly and have the flexibility to keep up in an industry faced with rapid change and innovation.

Q. What was your first job?

I had lots of first jobs. On the weekends and evenings during high school, I worked at a small hippie grocery store and fruit stand in North Seattle. It was a neighborhood store where we knew all of our customers by name and most customers carried a tab with the store. I spent a lot of rainy Sundays rotating apples, stocking craft beer and refilling the bulk granola containers.

The store had a tiny footprint, so we were always talking with our customers to make sure we carried the products they wanted, in hopes that they wouldn’t get in their cars and drive to one of the larger grocery stores in town.

My first job out of Blair was playing saxophone with a 15-piece salsa band that played nightclubs throughout the Southeast. In 2005, I took my first 9 to 5 job managing the IMAX theater and planetarium at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Q. What’s your educational background? Do you use your degree from Blair in your position?

I finished my undergraduate work in 2003 with a bachelor in musical arts/saxophone performance (with high honors in ethnomusicology) from Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Today, I use the knowledge of music, music theory and history I learned at Blair to help design better ways for our customers to discover and explore the Amazon music catalog. From the small task of being able to correctly classify a work as baroque instead of classical to understanding how musicians write, record and perform music, each of these things help me in my daily work.

I graduated from Owen in 2009 with a focus on general management. Not having worked in the business world prior to graduate school, at Owen I wanted to expose myself to as broad a business curriculum as possible. The closest thing to a math class I’d had since high school was music theory, where you learn to count to 12 and then start over again. So I spent as much time as I could exposing myself to new ideas and ways of thinking in classes like Corporate Finance, Business Forecasting, Innovation and Marketing Models. I was also fortunate enough to spend some of my time at Owen with Professor Tim DuBois, developing a better understating of the music business and how technology is influencing that industry. [Note: Tim DuBois, a successful songwriter, music industry executive and major record label head, also taught music business at Owen.]

Q. What drew you to Vanderbilt for your MBA?
After being in Washington, D.C., for almost three years, I was ready to get back to Nashville. I was drawn to and energized by Owen’s small (but mighty) student body and direct access to professors. Also, I had grown up around Nashville and had always regarded the city as a place of opportunity and entrepreneurship, which was a huge attraction. I already knew how special the Vanderbilt community was from my time at Blair and knew that Owen would provide similarly excellent community and opportunities.

Q. How long have you been in your current position?

About eight months. I’ve been with Amazon’s music group since the summer of 2011, initially as a product manager looking after the launches of our Cloud Player recommendations, artist stores, AutoRip and Prime Music services.

Q. How did you get into product management?

I started my work and learning in the music industry as a product manager with Joe Kustelski (BS’93, MBA’08) at Echomusic during my summer internship in 2008, where I was first exposed to the discipline of product management. After graduating Owen, I founded a small business in Nashville called BigData Marketing with a classmate, Rachel Barnhard Whitney (MBA’09). Among my many responsibilities as an entrepreneur, I worked as our product manager. I then moved over to Nashville’s Rockhouse Partners/Etix before finally landing back in Seattle with Amazon. So I really developed my product management chops through a number of startups in the Nashville music and technology space.

Q. What was—or has been—your greatest thrill or accomplishment?

As a product manager, it’s always satisfying to launch a new product to your customers. The launch that’s a highlight for me was our AutoRip service. Now, when you order a CD or vinyl record that has our AutoRip feature, we stick the physical product in the mail to you and for no extra charge, we send the digital version of that album straight to your mobile phone or tablet, saving you the hassle of hours spent on your computer ripping old CDs so you can listen to them on your phone or iPod. Better yet, at launch we added any of your past purchases—all the way back to 1997 when Amazon began selling music—to your Cloud Player locker. Several days after we launched AutoRip, I got a note from a family friend who had bought hundreds of opera CDs from Amazon over the years, but then lost them all in a house fire. We had put all of this music back in his Cloud Player and restored a part of his collection that he had been without for years. I’d spent countless hours over the previous year working with colleagues from around the world trying to launch AutoRip, so getting his note after working so hard was a huge validation and accomplishment.

Q. If you could give other alumni and current students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Listen. So much of our time and effort learning about communication is spent on how to better speak, write, present, post, sell and convince.We often spend so much time on these things that we neglect the other part of communication. Writer Susan Cain said it best: “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”