Leaving My Pop Music Ambitions For An Engineering Career Helped Me Find My True Calling As An Artist & Producer

Shima | Image by Katie Boyle

By Shima

My name is Tina Johnson and I make music under the name SHIMA, which means “island” in Japanese. I chose this name because I’ve always loved warm weather and love tropical instruments like marimbas and pan drums. I am half-Japanese, half-American, and was raised in Tokyo, Japan. 

When I was 14, I starred in my middle school’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. What I did not know at the time was that a scout from a huge record label in Japan was in the audience looking for the next big J-pop artist. He contacted my parents after the show to invite me to an audition. The audition went well and I was placed in their artist training program which took young talents, called “eggs”, and put them through intensive training, or “incubation”, until they were ready to “hatch” and start their careers in entertainment. 

Two years into the program, I was placed in a J-pop girl group called “FAKY”. These were the most profound yet traumatic years of my life. While having to deal with the regular stress of being in high school, I spent about 30 hours a week at rehearsals, performing shows, at recording sessions, filming music videos, doing interviews, and more. On top of that, the label controlled almost every facet of our lives including what we wore, what we posted on social media, how we did our hair, and even what we ate. We got our weight and measurements taken every week and were publicly rewarded or shamed depending on the results. One of the members was told to hide the fact that she was bisexual. They told us that we were allowed to have boyfriends, but only if we kept them hidden from the public. In retrospect, they were obviously too controlling, but at the time, I thought we were lucky because we had it easy compared to K-pop or Japanese idol artists. 

Although I grew up in Japan, I went to an American high school which serviced the children of foreign diplomats and business people in Japan. So when I entered my senior year, everyone was talking about college. I began to wonder if I wanted to stay at AVEX or get an education. I eventually decided that if I was going to stay in music, I wanted to do so on my own terms. So I left the label and moved to the US to study Music Business at the University of Miami.

My entire freshman year of college, I was in a perpetual state of culture shock. Two things that really stood out to me were that racism and sexism were much bigger issues than I could have ever imagined. I also discovered campus rape culture. One time, at a party, I had to fend off a boy who kept trying to rape my friend who was passed out. We were in a room full of people and nobody was helping me. I started filming him and threatened to report him, and only then did he leave us alone.

Shima | Image by Katie Boyle

A lot of people say, “Japan is so sexist” but in my opinion, America is no worse – it just takes on a more subtle form. A few months into the Music Business program my freshmen year, I decided that the curriculum was not challenging enough for me and that a Bachelor in Arts was not going to help me to find a job after graduation. So, I decided to switch to a Music Engineering major, which had required classes in calculus, electronics, computer programming, and more. I walked into the Dean’s office at the end of freshman year to get the paperwork to make the switch, and he immediately looked at me and said, “I don’t think you realize how difficult this program is. You have to take really tough math and science classes. You don’t want to do this.” This floored me because I had never met the Dean before – he knew nothing about me. The truth is, the Music Engineering program, which was founded in 1977, has always been over 90% male. This figure is even worse in the real world.

I told the Dean, “No, I’ve made up my mind, I want to switch.” He scoffed and told me to pull up my ALEKS score (a required math placement test) to make sure I qualified to enter the program. While I took a seat and pulled out my laptop to find the score, a male student with glasses and a neat button-down walked into the office and asked if he could switch his major from Music Business to Media Writing and Production. The Dean motioned him to come to his desk and together they pulled up his ALEKS score. “Wow! You got a 74!  Maybe you should consider switching to Music Engineering” the Dean said to him, then looked at me smiling as if I was supposed to find this funny. At that point, I had just pulled up my own score and showed it to the Dean. I also had a 74. I got my paperwork and left.

Switching to Music Engineering was the best decision I ever made. It was stressful, hard, and a lot of the times I was the only girl in my class, but that just made me work even harder to prove that I belonged. I learned how to produce, record, mix and master my own music, to design speakers and microphones, to read schematics, and to write computer code. My favorite classes by far were my C++ programming classes, because somehow it came naturally to me. On top of that, I knew that having good programming skills would make me highly employable, so in my junior year I declared Computer Engineering as my minor.

The summer between my junior and senior year, I got a paid internship at one of the biggest music tech startups in the country, Splice, in their “Audio Science” department which used machine learning to develop organization and recommendation engines for the company’s massive database of sounds. I was the only woman on the team and also the youngest member which was very intimidating at first, but again, that just made me work harder. They ended up noticing my efforts and kept me on as a paid contractor for an entire year after the internship ended. This really boosted my confidence and made me realize that I had a good, stable, career ahead of me.

‘Machine’ cover at by Antunesketch

The summer after graduation, I had a few months before I had to commit to finding a full-time job, so I made a bunch of music and self-released an EP. The process made me fantasize about what it would be like to be a full-time artist and to make music and tour the world. But of course, this is real life, and while my friends and family loved the EP, it didn’t get any attention beyond that. I left music in the corner of my mind as a hobby, a fantasy, a world which seemed tangible as an idealistic teenager, but as a pragmatic adult, was something to dabble with only on the weekends. 

I ended up finding a 9-5 job as a software developer at a wonderful music company called Output. As usual, I was one of the only women at the company, but their culture was very progressive and friendly and they always made me feel included. As far as office jobs go, I had found the best one. 

A few months in, I was really starting to settle into my new job when I got a random Instagram DM from some American guy living in Japan claiming to be Miyachi’s manager. Miyachi is a successful Japanese-American rapper based in New York and Tokyo. The manager, Shaka, told me that he had stumbled upon my EP and was so impressed that he wanted to sign me. I was skeptical at first, but after our phone call, big artists and producers started following me on Instagram including Miyachi, who messaged me just to tell me that Shaka is the only reason why he has a career.

For the next few months at work I could not focus. All I could think about was making music. It came to the point where my code was getting sloppy and I was letting bugs slip into production. Eventually, I had to admit to myself that my heart was no longer in my job. In these moments of frustration I wrote “Machine”. In the song I talk about how going to work made me feel like a robot and the only reason why I was still there was so that I could eat and pay rent.

I sent a demo to Miyachi to see if he wanted to feature in it, and a few weeks later he sent me his verse. I spent months after that re-recording my vocals, tightening the production and mixing it down. Finally, I made a song that was guaranteed to get noticed by more than just my friends and family. I took a leap of faith and decided to quit my job to pursue music full-time. That was back in May. Since then, every day has been a challenge and I’m always worried about money. But for the first time in my life, I’m truly happy because I’m doing exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it. 

Follow Shima on Instagram and Twitter. You can listen to ‘Machine’ on Spotify or in the Youtube video below. ‘Machine’ was written, produced, mixed and mastered by Shima.