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Mastering the music business

Stanford grad student uses computer science and business to advance music career

In Computer Science 147: Introduction to Human-Computer Interaction Design at Stanford University, students are learning principles on user-centered design, software tools, and prototyping. Twenty-three year-old Audrey Proulx is in the process of designing a music sharing app with her classmates. Later in the week, she'll study search engine marketing and web analytics in her customer acquisition class.

For Proulx, a second year joint computer science and MBA graduate student, these classes offer the perfect foundation to help her build her version of a startup: her singing career.

"At first glance, you'd think, 'How is that related at all to music?'" Proulx admitted, but went on to explain, "I need to figure out how to strategically acquire customers. A lot of (musicians) get discovered, but I can't just hope that happens."

Proulx -- who, on stage, is known simply as Audrey -- describes her musical style as "Taylor Swift meets Frozen."

The Atherton native holds a bachelors degree in computer science from Stanford University, also the alma mater of her parents. She credits her love of music to the violin in Antonio Vivaldi's "Spring Concerto" from "The Four Seasons," which she first heard at age 2. In the years that followed, she took violin, piano and singing lessons. Proulx can now play the entirety of the famed composition.

"I didn't feel a need to major in music because I already did music all my life," she said.

Recognizing the music industry's immensely competitive nature, Proulx sought to set herself apart by pursuing her interest in computer science and entrepreneurship.

"With any startup, you need to learn how to differentiate yourself," she noted. "What I have that I think other musicians don't is my Stanford background. I thought, 'How can I learn the necessary skills to approach my singing career as a business rather than just being the artist?'"

Proulx released her first EP, "Colors," this July, with producers Juan Covarrubias and Chris Seefried. The latter producer has also collaborated with big-name artists including Counting Crows, Lana Del Rey and Fitz and the Tantrums.

The cover of the five-track album reflects its title, bearing a bright close-up shot of Proulx blowing rainbow sequins into the wind. The image was chosen after conducting market research with Proulx's main demographic: 13- to 17-year-old girls.

"In addition to branding myself in term of logo design photos, (I am) thinking of what kind of message I want to portray with my brand," Proulx said.

The artist conducted focus groups with young girls to learn what graphics and images appealed to them, but also to learn where they were finding their music and how appealing they found her website. In addition to being her own research and development team, Proulx also manages her social media presence and does some editing on her music videos.

"I've bartered some of my own skills to decrease post-production costs," she said.

Writing every day is paramount, she added. Proulx stores hundreds of her original songs in her laptop and has categorized them into three folders: good songs, great songs and amazing songs.

"I keep pushing myself to get better and better," she said.

One day, Proulx said, she hopes to achieve her dream of playing Madison Square Garden. According to Mark Applebaum, an associate professor of music composition and theory at Stanford and Proulx's mentor, the young artist has already achieved one of his main markers of success: developing as a composer.

"As a teacher, it's not often the case that you can see -- so palpably -- progress right in front of your eyes," Applebaum said.

Applebaum first met Proulx in his pop music appreciation course, "Rock, Sex, and Rebellion." He described her as one of his most "attentive and bright" students who was "endlessly fascinated with music".

"In a Dream" is Applebaum's favorite song off "Colors."

"It has a very moody, melancholic ambiance," he said. "To me, the emotional landscape of that song is rich and complex."

Applebaum added that Proulx's original work alerted him to the existence of many Stanford students with an interest in pop songwriting, a discovery that led him to create a songwriters' workshop.

In addition to songwriting and computer science, another one of Proulx's main passions is Disney. She has been known to dress up as Elsa from "Frozen" for Halloween and has made a trademark out of covering the film's "Let It Go" at all of her shows.

"I wanted to be a Disney princess when I was little girl, and I'm one of the few who still want to be a Disney princess today," she admitted.

This love of Disney was one of the forces that brought her closer to her band's pianist and a CS 147 classmate, Albert Tomasso, who used to work at Disneyland.

According to Tomasso, he and Proulx immediately clicked.

"She's always encouraged me to really give everything I've got on the piano in the sense of not holding back," he said. "She's wanted all of us on stage to showcase what we've got."

He added that although the band's biggest challenges are the time constraints associated with being full-time students, he and his fellow bandmates always have fun performing and collaborating with Proulx.

"Her mom makes home-pressed apple cider; I've gone on epic bike rides with her dad," he said.

Proulx, for her part, attributes her success to her parents -- who have supported her and instilled in her a strong work ethic -- and to her brother, Ian.

"My family motto is, 'If you're not ahead, you're behind,'" she noted.

Recently, Proulx has been meeting with record executives in Los Angeles. Her short-term goal is to open for a band on a major tour.

Asked if she had any advice for other hopefuls in the music industry, she said, "Turn your passion into a career and don't let anyone tell you its just a hobby. You don't just become Taylor Swift overnight."

"Colors" is available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Music. Audrey can be found online at audreyismusic.com and @audreyismusic. Proulx will also perform live at Redwood City's Club Fox on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 9 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door.

Muna Sadek is an editorial intern at Palo Alto Weekly.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Janice
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 18, 2015 at 12:47 pm

What a fantastic article and cool entrepreneurial approach to a music career. I just downloaded Audrey's "Colors" album and love all of the songs! Her website audreyismusic.com is really beautiful as well. Stanford business, computer science, and music--wow.


Like this comment
Posted by A classmate
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:20 pm

The only hitch: entrepreneurism generally involves starting from nothing. Her father is extremely wealthy and has bankrolled this entire "startup" idea. Not saying it isn't cool for her, but she's had opportunities that most people don't.


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