At only 25, Maya Balkaran is a multitalented force working at In Real Life Music as the Founding General Manager and Creative Director of the independent record label. We spoke with Maya to learn about the mosaic of experiences that have contributed to her life thus far, what powers her forward, and her bounty of learning experiences in between.
Growing up in Queens and Westchester, New York, Maya’s music influences included Classic Rock, Disco, Dancehall, Soca, Bhajans, Bollywood tunes, Korean Folk, Classical Symphonies, K-pop, and more. When asked what her childhood sounded like, Maya said,
“...Childhood to me sounds like my cousin and I, 9 years old, trying to fall asleep at 4:00am in a family's house in Queens while ‘Fast Wine’ by Machel Montano blasts. Or my mom strumming ‘Killing me softly’ by Roberta Flack on her guitar and having me sing along to the harmonies. Or my brother listening to 'Oh Yes (Mr. Postman)' by Juelz Santana off his flip phone before we went to Taekwondo.”
With her father from Guyana and mother from South Korea, she remains curious to cultural context and credits her unique ear to being surrounded by people and music of all walks of life.
From a young age, Maya trained as a classical violinist, violist, and pianist at the School for Strings. Her 10+ years of dedication to her crafts left her with tools she utilizes to this day.
“Something I learned as a young performer that pushes me forward today, whether it’s prepping to meet a new artist, directing a video, or pitching artists to x, y, and z , is that if you practice and prepare enough, anxieties can manifest into excitement. Practice and repetition is key to everything,” she said.
Maya noted that attending all day conservatory classes every Saturday taught her how to be an active and engaged listener regardless of how she felt about the pieces being performed. This training undoubtedly contributed to her musical ear today, and because of this extensive background, she has the technical vocabulary and skill to connect with artists on a purely artistic level.
When it came time for college, Maya attended NYU with a major in Media Culture and Communications and a minor in Music Business. She spent the weekends buzzing around the city attending shows and making meaningful connections with up and coming artists and bands. One of her most memorable experiences in college was a class called “Music Incubator” which acted as a label for artists in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music program. The professor later sent her resume to William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME) which ended up becoming her first job out of college.
“WME was informative and my time spent there taught me a lot about the ecosystem of an artists team, including their management, business management, touring agent, label, and press team because you're coordinating with all the above when an artist goes on tour,” she explained.
“It taught me to pay attention to detail. I learned that the hard way by messing up MANY times on ticket counts and getting deal structures wrong! I’m grateful to have learned the ins and outs of booking a tour - I mean, it’s a huge part of where an artist can make their income, so it’s extremely important,” she continued.
Maya pointed out that other assistants at WME was where she took inspiration from. The competitive environment served as a breeding ground for a “no job is too small” attitude while keeping her head down to get the job done, and done well.
“It was little bits of conversation from the peers I met there, like Sam Kirby’s assistant telling me that when something goes wrong, instead of giving up, come back with three solutions.’ That I cherish the most,” she added.
Although agency life was an important chapter of growth and learning, Maya knew that becoming an agent was in no way her end goal. While maintaining her full time job, she began A+R scouting for some older friends who worked at labels as well as playing violin studio sessions with artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, rapper Caleb Giles, Slauson Malone, Quiet Luke, and others at XL recordings.
Around this time, her former boss from her internship at Orienteer asked her if she wanted to meet the founder of In Real Life and ex XL Recordings Head of A+R, Imran Ahmed. Eagerly, Maya said yes and they met at a cafe in New York City.
“[We] spoke about music and realized we had mutual understanding, being that we’re both from immigrant families and our musical tastes aligned. We worked out an arrangement where I’d scout new artists for In Real Life the next week,” Maya explained. “After a couple months of scouting, he ended up signing one of the artists I’d sent over, Nathan Bajar. He then asked if I wanted to help him build In Real Life...I basically left WME that week!”
Maya took a leap of faith by moving to Los Angeles after never having visited before. “It was a big switch up but I have zero regrets,” she concluded.
Present day Maya now wears so many hats, not even a hat rack could hold them all. Working within a small team leaves room for diving into a plethora of aspects of the music business, and Maya often speaks of how her role can take many shapes and forms.
“There’s truly always something that could be done, which can be overwhelming but I feel almost anything is manageable when I schedule realistically and prioritize. I have a notebook where I write out every artist's name on the roster and spend some time just jotting down anything that needs to be done,” she said.