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.
Maya usually starts her day by waking up between 5:00-6:00am. She massages her face, runs, dances, and stretches (while listening to Laraaji of course!). She also makes sure to clean her room and tries not to touch her phone until she’s ready to start answering emails at 9:00am, unless there’s a pressing project or an international call.
This quiet time in the morning is crucial to Maya’s mental health which in turn means a more balanced version of herself and more productive work flow.
Maya sees a lot of space to grow at In Real Life. “I’d like to keep creative directing and potentially build that space out even more within the company, for other artists not signed to IRL,” she described.
“It's a beautiful experience working amongst extremely creative and intelligent women, especially when indie labels are pretty white male dominant. I think we all just want to keep focusing on putting our efforts into supporting the artists already on the roster, while looking at new artists that toe the line of being experimental and having global appeal.”
And to give us a sneak peak on what’s coming next, Maya revealed that Luna Li, Meth Math, Nathan Bajar, Liv.e, and dreamcastmoe have projects on the horizon.
Maya’s attitude of adaptability and always trying new things is contagious. When we commented on this attitude of exploration, she connected the dots for us to when she was a kid.
“I will definitely try almost anything once...since I was young. I’ve had an affinity for experimenting. I think that being uncomfortable sharpens my ability to adapt pretty easily,” she said.
Being fearless in the pursuit of trying something new comes naturally which is the common thread for many of Maya’s other experiences including her job as an assistant audio engineer at Blast Off Productions.
“Basically, I’m a huge Drake stan and found out he recorded some of ‘Take Care’ there - so I applied through a friend,” she started. “I got the job as an assistant audio engineer and actually didn’t even know how to open up Logic. I really thought I could figure out how to wire a whole session in one day… I was wrong,” she said laughing.
“The other intern was so skilled. He tried to teach me so I wouldn’t get fired, but they quickly realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing…” she went on. “I got fired shortly after!” While this is one example of a time Maya explored something new to feed her curiosity, she has countless other examples including stepping into the space of directing and producing music videos.
Maya’s advice for current college students and music industry hopefuls is as follows:
“If there’s someone you admire working somewhere you want to work, but they feel unattainable, do your research. Figure out what you’d like out of the conversation and reach out. Most people are open to a thirty minute conversation. If you can’t get to them on the first try, find people in similar circles and try to speak with them first. The world is so small, you’ll get to that person eventually and they could end up being a pivotal part of your career now or later on.”
Adding on, Maya said that she believes unpaid internships are fundamentally unethical. However, she adds “...if there’s an unpaid internship that you’re interested in working full time at eventually and you can financially make it work, do it.” she urged.
Maya views herself as a cheerleader for her artists holistically as human beings, not just creators, and spoke on navigating the past year.
“During the last year I’ve been hyper cognizant of the fact that you never know what’s going on in someone's life fully - so if an artist needs to take time, that’s more than understandable to me. But as soon as they’re ready to create, my job is to match or top their excitement, keep the momentum flowing and follow through by figuring out the best ways to get things to the finish line,” she responded.
With a promising road in front of her, Maya has her sights set on helping to shift the music industry to a more balanced place, especially in roles that traditionally lack diversity.
“I would love to see more women rightfully taking their titles as producers and engineers - that space is still insanely male dominated.” As Maya continues to step into positions that call for bringing others on board, she can’t help but notice the gaps.
“While producing/directing videos I’m always looking to hire women DP’s and sadly they are hard to find even in a place like LA. There’s a lot of progress with women in tech but I would love to see companies like Abelton or Arri creating more initiatives to make those spaces seem more accessible to women.”
For the big picture, Maya wishes to keep moving forward in music and the world at large. She sees a future with “less algorithmic playlists and more universal healthcare including mental health for everyone.”