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Before Coming to NU, Jake Smith Got Signed to RCA, Recorded for the Fray

By Jacob Nelson

Jacob Smith is the rare associate professor at Northwestern who happens to have a double platinum album hanging on his wall.

Before he joined Northwestern’s Radio, Television, and Film department, Smith played music professionally, and successfully. His band, The Mysteries of Life, got signed to RCA in the ‘90s. Smith wrote the songs and performed them alongside his wife, Freda Love, who played drums. But it’s hard to make success last, Smith explained.

“Even if you’re very lucky and you get very successful, it’s very hard to sustain,” Smith said. “The figures are depressing.”

So, in the midst of his musical career, Smith began a doctoral program at Indiana University. His research, informed by his musical career, has focused on the cultural history of media, with an emphasis on sound and performance.

“I ended up going the academic route and being very happy about writing about and teaching about researching the creative industries and all their various forms,” Smith said.

Smith will be teaching a course for Northwestern’s new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment. One piece of advice he knows he will stress is one that he kept in mind while pursuing his musical career: have a backup plan.

“There are multiple ways you can have a career in the arts,” he said. “There’s not just one way to do it.”

Smith also found that he could work in the arts in different ways at the same time. He continues to play music with different bands in Chicago. He played bass in the band Split Single last Monday when they opened for Bob Mould at Millennium Park. And the double platinum album he has? It’s from when he was already in grad school. While working on his doctorate, Smith worked part-time as a studio musician. One of the albums he played bass on turned out to be “How to Save a Life,” the first album by The Fray. It has since sold about a million copies.

“So,” Smith said, “That was neat.”

Up next: Smith discusses the course he’ll be teaching.