Alumni Spotlight: Michael Karsh '04

By Lauren Goulston '94
It was a risk, he knew, and a life-changing one at that: quitting his day job at a New York music publishing and talent management company, buying a van, and hitting the road with his college bandmates to pursue a dream that had been gestating since his childhood. Recently, I spoke with Michael Karsh '04, a member of the band Lawrence, during their 65-show tour alongside the Jonas Brothers. I learned about Karsh's decades-long musical journey that traces back to his days as a JTD student.
Can you tell us about your introduction to JTD?

I was born in Pasadena, and when I was eight, I moved to West LA, which is when I started at JTD. This was a major turning point in terms of starting a whole new life with a new community, new friends, a new school, and new everything. JTD felt like a place that was welcoming and encouraged me to pursue emerging ideas and interests. I was struck by the vast opportunities the community afforded – I have to assume that is part of the special sauce that makes JTD so great. I was fortunate to immediately meet my best friends who are still my best friends today, Alex Silverman ‘04 and Ian Kieffer ‘04. Right off the bat, I loved my grade–I felt happy and quickly acclimated–it was a really important launching pad for me.

What has your journey with music looked like?

I started playing the clarinet through a JTD program early on and then took up drums in the fifth grade. Playing instruments was always something that I really enjoyed, but I didn't think it was my calling or a potential vocation. At Brown, I played in several bands, including what would become Lawrence, but also studied music history, theory, ethnomusicology, and things like that. I was unintentionally building the foundation for a creative path. When it came time for me to graduate, I got a day job at a music publishing and management company in New York City but went back to Providence almost every weekend to play college parties–we played all the time, and I was having a lot more fun with that than anything else. Once all eight band members had graduated and moved to New York, we started to talk about “going pro.” Within two years, we got a record deal with Warner Brothers. Ten years later, we're still doing it.

What is surprising about being part of a band professionally?

The music itself only takes up about 5% of my day. We really are a small business, and if you want to make it in the music industry, you can't hack it these days by just being a good musician. You need to be well-rounded in terms of navigating the uncertainties of a very fickle and constantly evolving industry. At the beginning, when we started to consider it a full-time job, we took it upon ourselves to learn about every aspect of the business and try to create systems for doing everything ourselves. We've met so many fantastic musicians who we will never be as technically skilled as, but because we had this entrepreneurial mentality, we've been able to grow and nurture a real touring operation. The music has to be second nature. That's the craft. That's the thing that we all have spent our whole lives doing. The real work is the sweat equity we have put into running a small business. We view growing the business as just as fulfilling as stepping on stage and playing music. One of our biggest learnings in entertainment has been that no one cares more about your project than you, and no one's going to do a better job than you if you are willing to put in the work. We made it a point to do that at every step.

How did JTD shape the person you are today?

JTD was such a place of opportunity that you could invest yourself in any direction that you felt was most fulfilling to you. It’s extraordinary for an elementary school to have those kinds of resources, and it always felt like the staff and the community were behind you. For me, I always loved music, and they had music programs, so I started playing the clarinet. I loved our music classes and watching Music for Lunch Bunch – but I wasn't a performer; I was terrified of actually doing it back then!

What was your favorite JTD tradition?

I loved the sixth-grade school play–ours was "That's Entertainment." It was a collage of different Broadway shows, and I played Harvey Johnson in the “Bye Bye Birdie” segment. Getting together as a class to work on something creative was incredibly fun– there were so many talented people in our grade, and it was inspiring to see them really shine in a new way. If you asked me back then, or even now, like, "Do you want to put on a play?" I would say, "No." But JTD did a good job of gently nudging people in new directions. There was an ethos where if you wanted to try something, the school would facilitate the opportunity to explore that desire further.

The tour you're on is getting a lot of coverage in the media. Can you share any tea?

I don’t really have any tea, but what I learned on this tour is that the culture of celebrity, especially in the pop world, is an extraordinary force of nature that interacts with art and creativity in a unique way. There seems to be somewhat of a trade-off between creativity and a P&L statement which gives me a lot of pride in the way that our band has navigated that dichotomy because first and foremost, we're not doing this to make money. We want to build something sustainable. I fully believe that there's never going to be a point in which we sell out for something because it's just a payday or goes against our values or has the potential to create some fissure in the band dynamic. When you get to the scale that the Jonas Brothers are, you're supporting hundreds of people on your payroll. It's so big, and you have to take those things into consideration. We're getting a peek at how their business is run, and it's very impressive. It’s made us think critically about our moral compass and why we're doing this in the first place. We are learning a lot about what needs to happen in the future in order for us to maintain what we have and to keep growing and make sure that it's sustainable and enjoyable for everyone.

What character traits have gotten you to the point you're at?

I have an innate sense of curiosity which has helped drive me to take the plunge into a very uncertain, unique lifestyle. I would like to think I am a good collaborator – this has been fine-tuned throughout the years of being in a band and realizing the value of coexisting and working with other people. I don’t need to be the loudest voice in the room, and I am always willing to do what needs to be done to see someone else’s vision through. For instance, writing songs is not really my skill set, but if I sit with someone who has an idea for a song, I know how to help them bring that to fruition. The other thing I'll say is that I have a really good sense of people and who to trust. When I met my bandmates I had a feeling that there was something happening there and I wanted to do whatever I could to be a part of it.

What's been your biggest professional challenge to date?

Letting go of this idea of having my life be extremely well planned out. I think deep down, I am a very anal, anxious person that needs everything to be “just so”. When I quit my job and joined the band, there was a moment where I was like, "Hey, what's our schedule?" Which was met with: "I don't know, dude. Just clear all of next year, and we'll see what happens." It took me a long time to get to the point where I could be comfortable with that lifestyle and not knowing precisely what was ahead of me, whether that meant what the opportunities were going to be or where I was going to sleep that night.

Anything else you want to share?

I still think of him as Mr. Michaud but Ray Michaud, at so many points, set such a powerful example for me and everyone in our class. I remember one day he asked me what my interests were. The consummate little brother in me meant I immediately started talking about my older brother and his interests. He pushed me, "No, I asked you, what do YOU want to do?" He was never patronizing and treated all of us as young adults. That gave me a lot of confidence to believe in myself and to go out and try to figure out who I was.

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Located In Los Angeles, CA, John Thomas Dye is an independent school for grades K-6. Students benefit from a challenging academic program, fine arts, competitive athletics, and a wide selection of extracurricular activities.