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José Valentino: The Entrepreneurial Approach To Jazz And Beyond

José Valentino: The Entrepreneurial Approach To Jazz And Beyond

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Your value is not based on your role. You are already valuable because of who you are.
—José Valentino
May jazz be commercial? Should a musician stick to one career or sustain many passions? What is the best way for musicians to set their rates? How to choose the right opportunities? These questions can raise many debates. José Valentino Ruiz (stage name José Valentino), a Latin Grammy-and Emmy Award-winning producer, composer and performer, answers these questions regularly at the University of Florida as the inaugural professor of music business & entrepreneurship at the School of Music and Co-Chair of business, entrepreneurship, and career planning at the College of The Arts. This interview is focused on the lessons he offers for aspiring jazz entrepreneurs.


Academic Versus Professional Music Mindset

Ruiz says that being a producer, performer, educator, composer and arranger is equally important to him. He had to work strategically to become an expert in many roles. If his client needs certain things achieved, Ruiz always strives to make their dreams come true. He does whatever it takes and finds responsible professionals to engage in supportive roles for accomplishing set goals. This mindset of taking many roles as a professional musician is more typical in the field of entrepreneurship than it has been within the field of music education. 

"I remember, when I was in college, I grew up in an era when professors taught that to become successful in one's career, only one professional expression was to be pursued. Many professors discouraged the idea or possibility of a musician expressing several disciplines simultaneously and professionally. But through the examples of my musical heroes, I understood that it was not only possible but necessary to impact the field."

When he was eight years old, Ruiz started taking flute lessons with Kim McCormick, a professor emeritus of flute at the University of South Florida. She happened to be his neighbor. Although all of her students were in college, she saw potential in Ruiz and accepted him into her studio. From those early years, Ruiz was introduced to the academic lens of musical instruction. At the same time, his father, Valentin Ruiz, who is a Latin Grammy-nominated music producer and bassist, gave Ruiz perspectives beyond the academic mindset. Through his father, Ruiz learned how to improvise, compose, produce, manage a company and employ strategic business and entrepreneurship skills. All of that helped him to become sustainable as a professional musician while addressing a purposeful mission to help others reach their artistic dreams. 

"The beautiful thing about the two teachers I had was the access to their wisdom for cultivating optimal musicianship, leadership and entrepreneurship simultaneously. Within my professorship, I teach students how and why their value is not dependent on the role they express in society. Rather, their role is to be understood as the uninhibited expression of their purpose. Their purpose should be seen as the culminating variables that serve as a compass to express their mission toward a targeted community. Purpose and role are only achieved when the artistic entrepreneur's identity is firmly rooted in life-centered principles." 

Ruiz grew up listening to jazz from different eras and cultures around the world. He says that jazz for him is about freedom of expression and that it is not limited to a particular style or genre. 

"Jazz is a philosophical approach for creating any kind of music. Expressing jazz as a philosophy helps me expand my versatility and gives me an appreciation for how people express their humanity and dreams. Jazz music has always been a response to magnifying the issues of society. I aim to take it one step further by magnifying the issues and then propose a message of faith, hope and love as the answer to our issues, with love being the greatest of these." 

Ruiz considers that the music business has completely changed since the pandemic. He says that musicians cannot express one role anymore as was common practice in the conservatory model. Instead, musicians should be encouraged to express multiple roles. 

"The various roles I express professionally are not only of equal importance but also of authentic importance. The etymology of the word 'authenticity' means 'of undisputed origin,' which pertains to identity. It is not about the quantity of your output per se, it is about the quality of your roles coupled with the authenticity of your efforts. Today's artistic creators are expected to be multi-hyphenates."   

Commerciality and Jazz

Some people distinguish jazz from commercial music. Ruiz considers that whether jazz is commercial or not depends on the artist's entrepreneurial and mission-based aim.

"When we take the word 'commercial,' you have two words. You have 'com,' which means 'together,' and 'merc,' which means 'to exchange, share, or give with compassion.' When you are a merchant, you are providing goods and services in exchange for compensation, but it is vital to ensure that the goods and services help others. Commercial music is not about sales. Commercial music is about the effectuation of creating music that consciously responds to an audience's need that leads to impact, inspiration, translatability and community development."

Ruiz says that artists need to understand their target audience's interests to become commercial in their career approach, in the manner that Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and many other jazz musicians were attuned to their audiences. Ruiz also encourages jazz and entrepreneurship-related degree programs to address the cultivation of artistic identities, purposes and roles among students.

"At the core, entrepreneurship provides extrinsic value while a mission provides intrinsic value. Extrinsic value is the value you provide to your audiences based on what they perceive to be valuable about your artistic products and services. Intrinsic value is the value you provide your audiences based on the relatability of your life and beliefs that are postulated within your artistic products and services. For example, we understand from an entrepreneurial perspective that so many listeners loved Dizzy Gillespie's playing and the way it made them feel, but they loved his missiological impetus for being a cultural unifier as a US ambassador who engaged in migrational exchanges through his leadership with the United Nations Orchestra. I think jazz musicians need to infuse commerciality (as I have defined it) into their creative work while ensuring their respective careers have clear entrepreneurial and mission-based aims."

Rather than measuring commerciality quantitatively (e.g., album sales, number of radio hits and chart placements), Ruiz qualitatively measures impact, inspiration, translatability and community development and considers these factors as success indicators for musicians. He says impact needs to be measured horizontally, not vertically.

"It is a horizontal impact, which is face-to-face, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart. That is why my favorite moment of performing is never what I am doing on stage. It is an opportunity to communicate with the people afterward and even before I get to play. I talk to people all the time. I arrive early to the performance so that I can engage with the horizontal impact. I am going to build my fan base and trust, and I am going to honor the talents of my fans as well because the next show they might help me, and we are building the community."

From that lens, Ruiz says, there should be no need to distinguish whether you are a commercial or non-commercial jazz musician because the greatest musicians of jazz were all commercial in terms of impacting communities.                                        

Golden Rules of Being an Artist

Ruiz says that being an artist entrepreneur requires successfully implementing the following gradational steps: developing an idea, organizing a team to work on the idea, creating the idea as a product and as a service, owning the idea (covering all legal bases), launching the idea, analyzing the impact of the idea and refining the idea. Because of such a long process, he says it is natural and healthy to make mistakes along the way.  

"I believe failing is the mother of success. To make mistakes is to behold a compass in your hand indicating the next paths to travel towards the destination of unequivocal wonder."

When it comes to the analysis of how successful an album or a performance is, Ruiz always strives to get qualitative feedback, not just quantitative responses. It applies to in-person interactions and social media.

"It is essential to interact with your audience. Find out why they love your performance or album. Once you equate their rationale to the aesthetic components of your musicianship, you will develop a better understanding of how to translate your artistic expression into entrepreneurial and mission-based values for your audience."

Throughout the years of his career as an entrepreneur, Ruiz learned many things through trial and error. For this reason, he encourages musicians to find honest mentors who aspire to see them develop, refine and succeed in their entrepreneurial pursuits.

"You want to surround yourself with people who are not only your fans now but who will be your support system in 10-20 years down the road. Surround yourself with those that value who you can become, not just who you are."

Ruiz also stresses the importance of valuing oneself. He says, oftentimes creative professional and aspiring jazz musicians work so hard to develop a product and do that full time to make enough of a career living that their whole life becomes about their job. Oftentimes, people fall into depression later in life when they are not called or get called less. Ruiz thinks that happens because people often value themselves based on their job.

"Your value is not based on your role. You are already valuable because of who you are. Take into consideration what constitutes your non-career satisfactions. Do you want to be gigging all the time for little pay? Do you want to miss out on quality time with your loved ones? I hope your answer is 'no.' So, consider how long-standing artists, as they get older, are more selective about the opportunities they agree to do. Then, emulate them."

Ruiz also suggests that musicians include people whom they love in their projects. He states, "When victories do appear, you do not want to be by yourself when you accept an honor of distinction. It is always better to celebrate victories with others."

Ten considerations for taking any professional opportunity

A lot of times, creative people, especially in the earlier stages of their professional careers, say "yes" to every opportunity and end up being burned out. Ruiz has developed ten factors for gig or professional work consideration that has helped him to have a successful and sustainable professional career. Seven factors are based on what the opportunity includes and three factors are life-based that must be taken into consideration. 

Out of the seven factors that are based on the opportunity itself, Ruiz suggests that four factors need to be significant or satisfactory to at least consider doing the gig. The first factor is the task. It is about the quality of music.

"If somebody calls me for an opportunity, I have to make sure the music is quality and authentic based on my artistic, entrepreneurial and mission-based aims. Sometimes I might receive a call for a high-quality music performance opportunity and yet, I might not be passionate about performing the music. It is not necessarily that I cannot learn the music or that I have anything against the inquirer as a person, but my artistic headspace is not coinciding with the task presented to me. Hence, I take the task into consideration."

The second factor for a gig consideration is the money. Ruiz suggests not to charge by the hour. He charges based on the quality of the work, the return of investment that his work is going to give to the client and where his work ranks among the profession.

The third factor to consider is the hang. Ruiz says it is not about becoming best friends with all the musicians you play with, but it is vital to have meaningful relationships. 

"For me, it is important that I connect with people. Is it going to be a cordial opportunity? Sometimes the opportunity might lack some of the seven factors, but the hang is amazing. The hang compensates for other things that are not happening."

The fourth factor is the portfolio. Here, Ruiz encourages musicians to answer if this opportunity is something needed from the portfolio standpoint. In other words, if the opportunity adds anything meaningful to one's artistic resume.

The fifth factor is the connections. Connections are not merely a list of big names with whom musicians have shared the stage. It is more about being able to call a person later and propose a collaborative idea.

"Think about who you can have conversations with in the future. Call them up and then you can have an idea for collaboration. You might consider taking the opportunity because it will establish a meaningful professional relationship in the future. Connections have the potential to build new pathways within a career. That is how I would define connections."

The sixth factor is learning. Ruiz says that sometimes, he accepts an opportunity because it provides a setting to learn significant things that will be of great benefit for future projects.

"I did not just win the Latin Grammy award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. I had the opportunity to learn how to compose in that style. I did not study contemporary composition formally in college, but I said 'yes' to the gigs where I would learn directly from some of the best in the field. I did not take classes in film composition, but I won an Emmy Award. I took on film-scoring projects for numerous documentaries for no monetary compensation so that I could learn. Learning is one of life's greatest treasures. Your quality of life increases as you learn."

The seventh factor is the service. Ruiz believes that being open to helping others creates uncharted opportunities in the long run because people remember how they were treated. It also helps satisfy an artist's mission. Out of the seven factors mentioned above at least four should be meaningful to consider the opportunity.

Finally, the three external variables that Ruiz suggests considering are time, health and non-career satisfaction. To have longevity in the career, an artist cannot sacrifice any of these.

"If my mental, spiritual or physical health is sacrificed for the gig, I probably will not do the gig. If I do not have time because I have too many commitments, I will not do the gig. To be a successful musician is not only doing what you love within the profession, but it is also the ability to facilitate a quality life outside of your profession. Do not just live to work, but work to live."

Setting the price as an emerging artist

Ruiz says that entrepreneurship is not so much about money as it is about creating value. Value needs to be compensated. To define the compensation of one's value, he suggests doing a multi-level competitor analysis, starting with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of an artist that would be deemed as a local competitor by the audience.

"You might even inquire what their services are as a consumer or as a prospective consumer. That will give you an idea of what they are charging with the local market, as a local competitor."

Then, Ruiz suggests repeating that procedure by finding an artist who would be deemed a state, regional, national and international competitor and analyzing their victories and challenges. After this is done, an artist should analyze the level that they are at and seek out the opportunities available at their level.

"Most of my business tends to be at a national level and regional level. I do carry international acclaim, but I am not managing a business where I am having international clients all the time. Those are special cases. My consistent base happens to be at a national and regional level, not so much locally. I know that to obtain the desired clients and compensation for my work, I have to seek a little bit farther."

After the extensive analysis of competitors is done, Ruiz recommends analyzing one's professional attributes. That process includes writing down one's skills, strengths, competencies, expertise and artistry. He also suggests that people charge for gigs not by the hour, but based on how much they need to cover per month to survive.

"Ask yourself if this gig for three hours for a hundred bucks is something that you need based on the ten factors that you need for the opportunity consideration. Could those hours be successfully invested in building a more meaningful opportunity with a more attentive audience that wants to listen and watch your performance as opposed to eating and talking over it? I encourage both aspiring and professional music entrepreneurs to focus their time and efforts on obtaining well-valued gigs that have a great sound system and perhaps multimedia production capacities to create a highlight reel of the performance that could be repurposed for more high-end opportunities. The priorities and investments you make now will be the determinants for whether you are compensated tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars for your performance. Those are the principles that I would advise anybody. Screen, filter and then make the judgment call for what is appropriate for you."

Ruiz says that he used to charge $150 to produce a song. Now, for one song it could be anywhere from $3000 to $7000. It depends on the client, the quality of the work, the type of work and the return of the investment that the company is aiming to have as a result of the song's impact. If the company (acclaimed artist or band) is going to make $750,000 on a tour, then a producer should not charge $150 per song.               

When it comes to funding projects, a lot of the basis is covered from a performance or production standpoint because Ruiz has arranging, producing, mixing and mastering skills. He also knows marketing and business tactics to obtain funds and opportunities. When a client comes to him with their dream, he presents them with an entire production and business plan for consideration before agreeing to work with them.

Ruiz says that it is important for him to continue growing and learning. He considers himself an excavator that takes out hidden gems within an individual and he never stops finding wonder in other people.

"Be ruined for the ordinary and obsessed with the pursuit of wonder. That is my life motto. I love uncovering the extraordinary wonder embedded within people, and I hope to help people find their wonder and share their light unto the world." 


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