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New York • Even before Darren Howard entered the NFL, the defensive end had dreams of being in the music business. He was a DJ in high school and by the time he was in college, he'd created a "rag-tag" recording studio in the basement of his residence.
"It's always been something I loved," said Howard. "I knew one day that I would transform to that."
So after Howard retired in 2009, the former New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles player jumped into making records. He started his own label, Empyre, and signed a pop and R&B singer that he's confident about.
But Howard admits he hasn't yet had what he'd call success, calling the music industry "fickle."
"The music business is funny. Some artists go 10, 15 years of making records before they ever recoup and make any money," said Howard. "The label can be the same, because they're depending on the artist. Hopefully it won't take that long."
This week, the National Football League offered an assist to current and former players like Howard who are trying to find their footing in a business that can be just as unforgiving as football. Its player engagement division paired with New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, part of the Tisch School of the Arts, for the "Business of Music Boot Camp." The camp had key music figures from mogul Davis to record company executives and managers offering their insights in intimate sessions with the players. Each player was then paired with a mentor, who will continue to coach him in the months to come.
"The music game, it's not just finding the talent. It's what you do with that talent that ultimately determines your level of success," said Jeffrey Rabhan, the institute's department chair and a mentor in the program.
Given that sports can be considered entertainment itself, it's not surprising that some athletes migrate into the field. Magic Johnson may be among the biggest success stories, with his theaters and other ventures. Shaquille O'Neal was a recording artist and actually had a platinum album. Chris Webber, Metta World Peace and others have also tried their hand in the music business, and Roy Jones Jr. had a record label Body Head (whose financial troubles, according to a recent Sports Illustrated article, may be part of the reason the forty-something boxer is still in the ring).
While Rabhan noted there have been a smattering of athletes who have made it in the music industry, "unfortunately, the stories of those who have not had successes are a longer list, so we're trying to change that."
About 70 players applied to be a part of the four-day program, and 20 were accepted. Among those who took part in the camp were former Oakland Raider Justin Fargis, New York Giants player Marvin Austin, St. Louis Rams player Brandon Lloyd, and Torry Holt, who played for the Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president for player engagement, said the league created the program after player surveys showed a strong interest in the entertainment field, particularly music. The NFL already does a broadcasting boot camp to ready players for media careers, and a Hollywood boot camp is planned for April at Universal Studios, and will include such talent as Oscar-nominated director John Singleton.
Vincent said there was also a real concern that players have jumped into the industry but then floundered because they don't have the expertise.
"It doesn't matter how much money you have or you think you have. Money does not equal success," said Vincent, who retired as a Washington Redskin in 2006. "It's proper planning, it's educating yourself in the subject matter, having the right people with you, the right guidance, and not making an emotional decision, which often times that's what happens.
"I can't emphasize it enough: The least educated is the most exploited, and people prey on that particular audience."
Jayson Jackson, who has managed Lauryn Hill, Santigold and others, said athletes often come up to him and talk about their plans in the music business. Just as often, he hears from them a year or so later, and they've bottomed out.
"They have resources, and resources are amazing, but they can also be a dangerous thing when you are moving into an area that you don't know much about," said Jackson, who spoke to the athletes as well.
During Tuesday afternoon's session, the players gathered into a professional music studio and learned the nuts and bolts about making a record, from the basics of Pro Tools, the computer recording software, to which microphones are best for capturing sound. Players moved in closer as Nick Sansano, head of production studies at the institute, showed them the difference between a microphone that costs $3,000, and one that's $95.
"If that's of good quality, that's where you should spend your money," said Sansano as he held up one of the more expensive mics.
Later, Ryan Leslie, a singer/producer whose hits include Cassie's "Me & U," told of his rise in the industry, how to make money off of YouTube, and life as an independent artist.
"Would you do it if you were only making $45,000 a year?" he asked. "If you really want to make music your career (you would)."
Keary Colbert, who last season played for the Kansas City Chiefs, is like Howard. He had what he calls a "deep passion for music growing up," and is working with an act. Colbert met rapper Pol-B in 2007 after he gave the player his CD, and said Pol-B has already worked with key producers and artists.
For Colbert, this week has been an opportunity to learn more so he can grow in the business.
"I'm not going to be able to leave here tomorrow and go from 0 to 60 and be at the Grammys tomorrow, but there's a lot of things that definitely will help from a ground level," he said.
Howard also has realistic expectations.
"Hopefully it works out. I'm not looking to knock nothing out the park, I'm not trying to be Puffy or even Ryan Leslie," he said with a smile. "I just want to make good music, make some money, add something to the community and provide some jobs, and that would be something I would be happy doing."