This quote encapsulated Weixiong Wang at his most animated, a forceful opinion from one of the more unconventional success stories to emerge from the Juilliard School in recent years. As the 27-year old CEO of Skillman Music, a now three-year old recording studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mr. Wang is the subject of this edition of You Should Be Following, a series that chronicles unconventional, forward-thinking careers from conservatory trained musicians.
Skillman Music’s success has been meteoric—their clientele has ranged from the classical-piano megastar Lang Lang to the rapper Logic, whose 2017 album, Everybody, hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Wang’s rise from young clarinet prodigy to star recording engineer and business owner is a remarkable case study, showing the heights of success that are possible when hard work and grit intersect with luck and a privileged leg up.
Yes, Weixiong Wang was quite literally shouting at me on the phone about getting out of the practice room. This shouting wasn’t addressed directly to me, of course, but to students navigating conservatory training in an uncertain time for the arts.
“Practicing 12 hours a day won’t help as much as it used to,” Wang pleaded, only somewhat less forcefully. “Unless you can win the first prize of the Chopin Competition, even if you’re one of the best, you need more than just talent. You have to socialize, make connections, find people. People are willing to help you in amazing ways, but you’ll never meet them in the practice room.”
While this sentiment – network more, practice less! – is often dismissed by students when it comes from music school administrators, Wang has clear authority to dictate the ingredients of success—since he’s created it himself in spades.
Raised by a single mother in China, the boy known to his friends as Wei immigrated to the United States and settled in Queens at age 13, attending Juilliard Pre-College for clarinet. “We made it to America through our connections,” Wang recalls, “but in terms of money, my mom and I never had much growing up. We kind of had to find other ways to make money: for instance, when I was 16, my mom and I would buy cartoon portraits and posters of famous people like Bob Marley, frame them, and resell them. So I think being a businessman has always been a bit in my blood.”
While Wei the clarinetist was wowing his peers by winning music competitions, Wei the record engineer was just getting started. Wang’s passion for recording came in the form of creating MIDI files in Cakewalk, one of the first audio programs on the market. (“There was no Logic Pro back then,” he joked.) “I would be making these beats, and a friend of mine in China inspired me over Instant Messenger to record my own stuff! I think I bought a keyboard and microphone for less than $100, total, just to mess around.”
Asked how he honed his craft, Wang described a self-taught education: “I basically just learned online. Back then, YouTube just started and wasn’t helpful yet, so I was always in all kinds of forums. I learned little by little I learned how to sample small recordings from my own voice. Really crappy, totally amateur stuff. Then, getting into college, that’s where things really shifted.”
Wang’s entrepreneurial streak would continue through his Bachelor’s Degree at Juilliard, where Wang would import boxes of phone cases from Shenzhen, China, and resell them to his classmates at a reasonable markup. His real start in entrepreneurism, however, would come when a friend in need asked him for a desperate favor.
As a work-study student in Juilliard’s recording department, Wang noticed that the studio was constantly booked, and that his friends complained that they could never get a spot to record their audition tapes for summer festivals or for other schools. “One day, one of my really good friends had a last-minute tape audition he had to submit,” Wang recalls. “He was desperate, and there was no way he could do it himself: iPhones weren’t really good enough yet.
“I told him that I didn’t know if I’m even doing this right, but he insisted, so I set up my equipment and we did a recording session,” Wang continued. “Long story short, everyone started to ask me to do their recordings as well… and I just started to run a business.”
Indeed, word spread quickly. (Full disclosure: the author of this article used Wang’s services in 2016.) Through a tidal wave of recommendations, in the final year of his Bachelor’s Degree, Wang’s yearly income was higher than that of than many NYC accountants, between recording for student clients at conservatories around New York and also editing audio from recordings done in his native China and sent across the globe for his exacting ear.
Many might salivate at the thought of generating that much income at such a young age, but it was generated through sacrificing any semblance of free time.
“There would be months that I wasn’t really sleeping,” Wang recalls. “In November, when a lot of students needed recordings to submit for summer festivals and school auditions, I would be at school every day from 9am until the school closed at midnight. You see, I would use my equipment to do recording sessions inside classrooms at Juilliard, which you can reserve, but not until after 6pm. So I would do my classes and studying and practicing during the day, and at 6pm, that’s when I would start to hustle and do all of these recording sessions. Living in Queens at the time, so you can imagine how long it took to get home.”
In addition to the money, Wang learned crucial lessons. “I built so much knowledge doing this, honestly because I was using shitty equipment in these shitty sounding places, with people knocking on the door. All sorts of problems would come up. But I did learn two things: First, I learned how to bring the minimum equipment required to get the best sound. Second, I also learned time management, which helped me do really quick turnarounds on the audio.”
Readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers may peg this time in Wang’s life as his “10,000 Hours” for mastery. Wang doesn’t go quite that far, but does have one boast to make: “Today, Skillman Music is able to guarantee a maximum of 24 hours of turnaround time for a recording done in our space, unless it’s a full record or something like that. No other studio can do that—and it’s because of all those late nights I spent at Juilliard.”
In the business world, Wang’s initial success blueprint is textbook. Just as the minds behind Warby Parker used a need for stylish, affordable eyewear to build an empire, Wang used music students’ need for high-quality recordings to become the go-to studio for New York’s conservatory musicians—artists who often go on to be much larger success stories, and need services
Though he laughed off many portions of his education, Wang effusively credits his time at Juilliard for his success. “Because of my classical background, I have a different perspective that people appreciate,” he explains. “Many audio engineers are quite technically skilled, but they don’t have professional training in music to guide it. For instance, engineers are traditionally trained to get the clearest picture of the sound, but I know not to capture a clarinetist’s air leaking or clacking of the fingers, and can make edits accordingly.
“Those are small details, but in audio it makes all the difference.”
In many ways, Wang’s story is a lesson in hacking your own conservatory education. In our interview, he was frank in his apathy towards traditional conservatory classes, such as music theory and orchestra, but he found a way to use the resources of the school to his advantage in scaling his 10,000 hour mountain. Wang used classrooms after hours as his initial “recording studio.” He used the student body – his colleagues – to build his clientele. He even used his assigned locker to store all of his equipment.
Indeed, there is something to be said for taking institutional structures that may not fit your particular goals and bending them to your will. Though Wang has maintained a position as principal clarinet of the Albany Symphony, he confesses that the position, for which he performs about seven concerts a year, showed him that he is uninterested in holding a traditional orchestra job. “It’s a great career, and I still enjoy playing with musicians,” he said. “But my true passion is in the recording industry.”
As with many success stories, there have been outsized privileges that have given Mr. Wang’s journey and career possible—he characterized his own life as “lucky” many times throughout our conversation. Principally, his godparents, who invest in New York real estate, purchased the land and own the building upon which Wang subsequently constructed his Brooklyn studio, fast-tracking the “brick-and-mortar” portion of his career.
But by the same token, it would be reductive to wave off Wang’s success as a mere product of privilege without acknowledging his unmatched work ethic. In addition to grueling hours spent running the business as a student, Wang was on the ground with the contractors as Skillman’s physical location was being built, ensuring that specifications were built to his liking. “Once, I showed up to a Juilliard Orchestra concert with paint on my arms,” he recalls. “I was keeping everything a secret back then, so I joked that I was painting the walls of my apartment.”
Mr. Wang hopes to channel this work ethic into a larger scope for his business beyond studio recordings. “We’re very focused right now on building out live-streaming. We’ve partnered with The Violin Channel and just renewed a contract with Young Concert Artists to live-stream their concerts for the second year. A lot of venues find it impossible to live stream their concerts at a high quality, so it’s important to me to make it more affordable—I will always love classical music, and it deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.”
This ethos of universal access and affordability drives Mr. Wang in everything he does. Time will tell whether or not he succeeds, but personally, I wouldn’t bet against it.
John Hong, a trained clarinetist warmly reviewed as a “deft solo player” by the Chicago Tribune and praised for performing “with aplomb” by The New York Times, is a lifelong devotee of amplifying the narratives behind classical music, whether in print or through performance. Hong has performed for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival and the American Ballet Theatre, and appears in both audio and video during the fourth season of the Emmy-winning TV show Mozart in the Jungle. He conceived and co-writes the weekly National Sawdust Log newsletter, and holds a Master of Music diploma from The Juilliard School.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.