Keeping up with a full-time job plus a side hustle is a balancing act. Lily Ray makes it work by being equally passionate about both. Leaving her life as a drummer in the Bay Area, Lily moved to New York to build two successful careers—as a digital marketer by day, and a DJ by night.
Do you remember when you first arrived in New York?
I originally moved here to go to NYU. I had wanted to come here my whole life, because my parents are from here. My mom is from Queens and my dad is from Brooklyn. My family still lives here, except for my dad and brother. My mom just moved back East after 35 years in California. My parents moved to the Bay Area back when the tech industry was just starting there. That’s where I was raised. I call my dad the “original tech guy.” He was an engineer at Sun Microsystems, which created computers, software and programming languages; he was actually on the team that created Java. My mom was a technical writer for IBM. The Bay Area was the place to be at that time.
What was it like growing up there?
It was wonderful. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. It’s one of the most idyllic places in the world. I grew up in Marin County, which is just north of San Francisco. My childhood involved a lot of time at the beach and in nature. Then, as I got older, I started playing music and that led me to spend more time in San Francisco.
What did you play?
I’ve played the drums since I was six. I started up with bongos and African drums. When I was ten, I got my first rock drum set.
How did you get started?
My mom was really into music. In Marin County, there are a lot of washed-out hippies from the psychedelic days, so there is a really strong music scene. Actually, my mom knew Dave Getz, who was the drummer in Janis Joplin's band. She was like, "Lily, I want you to take lessons with my friend Dave." I was 12 so I didn't really get the significance of it, but I started taking lessons with him. Eventually I looked up Janis Joplin and was like, “Okay, this guy's a big deal.” [Laughs] There are a lot of bands that have made Marin County their retirement home, in a way.
What did you study at NYU?
I studied politics simply because I enjoyed it. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, career-wise, so I felt it was a good catch-all degree to have. I also studied Spanish as a minor, because I loved speaking Spanish. I had travelled around South America a lot and studied abroad in Buenos Aires. One day I was sitting in Central Park, listening to this amazing musician Federico Aubele, and I decided that I had to go to wherever this music was coming from. That’s what led me to find the NYU program in Buenos Aires. It was amazing there; the music scene is incredible.
You’re so passionate about music! Why did you choose study politics versus music?
The decision to go to NYU was hard. At the time, I was in two bands in the Bay Area that were doing quite well. Right before I went to NYU, I played [music festival] SXSW with one of my bands, Elephone, plus a bunch of other festivals. I was actually signed to two different labels for two different bands. It was awesome! But I was also very academic, so I had to choose. I could either spend age 18 through 21 really focusing on music and continuing to push the momentum we had going, or do the “right” thing and go to school. I chose NYU because I ultimately thought it would be better for my future. When I made that decision, I broke up with both bands, more or less.
That's a huge decision to make at a young age. What was that like?
It was really hard. To this day, I wonder if I made the right choice. I mean, I have an amazing life, but then there's part of me that's like, “What would have happened if I really put all my energy into that?” One of the bands was just me and another girl, Sierra. She initially moved out to New York shortly after me so we could try to make it work. We spent about a month really pursuing the band, writing new songs—within a month, we had several gigs and a residency offered to us in Brooklyn. It was about to take off, but then she said, "You know what, I hate living here." She went back to the West Coast.
I spent the first two years of college trying to get into the music scene here. I played in a few bands and met some really cool people, but it was never even remotely close to what I had in the Bay Area. After a while, I just kind of stopped playing drums. Then, about four years ago, I obtained some turntables that a friend was selling. I started to teach myself, and I’ve now been DJing. It's much easier to DJ than play drums in New York. You just carry your headphones and couple of USB sticks around, as opposed to a full drum kit.
How did you get into your day job as Director of SEO?
I actually fell into digital marketing halfway through college. It was 2010, right around the time SEO [search engine optimization] was really becoming a thing. I loved it instantly. It was so natural to me because I grew up on computers. My brother is a fantastic web developer; he’s been building websites since he was a kid. A lot of SEO played into what I learned from my brother—he was able to coach me, career-wise, as I learned the skills. After a couple entry-level jobs and internships, I got a job at Flying Point Digital, which was eventually acquired by Women’s Marketing. I’ve been here for almost six years.
How would you explain SEO to somebody who doesn’t understand it at all?
SEO is the process of changing a client's website so that they can appear higher in the search results when you type in a certain keyword. For example, if you have a clothing company that sells mainly black t-shirts for men, then it’s really important that, when someone is looking for a black t-shirt on Google, your company shows up high in the organic results.
So not in the paid ads at the top?
Exactly. SEO focuses exclusively on organic results. It has nothing to do with spending money to be listed as a paid advertisement. It's all about affecting the websites to play into the algorithms that Google uses, to determine which is the best content on the Internet for certain keywords. Every client that we get has a handful of keywords that are important to them. There are a million different ways to describe products and we can actually determine what the best keywords are. We use tools that can tell us how many times people search for certain terms and in specific locations.
It’s so much more complex than I realized. What is it about SEO that you love?
We have a really wonderful, dynamic group of people here. On my team, we have artists, musicians, entrepreneurs—just really interesting, cool people that are brilliant at what they do. Every day is extremely rewarding because you always have to be learning and gaining new skills. The industry is constantly changing. Our team grows and adapts together; it’s very collaborative.
It sounds like a lot of people on your team, including yourself, have passions outside of work, too?
Yes. Having something outside work is so important to me. I’m most effective and successful when different aspects of my life are happening simultaneously. If I was just working and that was it, I would feel totally useless. I want to be spending my free time doing something creative, and music has always been my creative outlet.
That being said, DJing has been a little bit challenging because it usually means you have crazy hours. Sometimes I have gigs at four o'clock in the morning. Occasionally it will be 6am, or 11am—parties that have been going all night and that is the slot I’m given to play. For a while, I had a residency at a wonderful bar downtown called Keybar on Thursday nights. It was great because it was just once a month, but sometimes I would be expected to play until 2am or 3am. I couldn’t function the next day. I had to scale way back at some point. I’m much more focused on my career right now. I’m starting to get the itch again, though, so I have been booking more gigs.
What sort of stuff do you like to play?
House music is what I mainly play. Although lately it’s been more of a disco-house hybrid. I actually did my first wedding this year, which was pretty exciting. That was my first time playing more contemporary, mainstream stuff.
You can’t really play house music at a wedding!
Exactly. I’m not really into Top 40, but I love the ‘70s and ‘80s, so that stuff was really fun to play. But there will always be someone who asks you to play Rihanna. [Laughs]
How do you feel about balancing your passion for music and your career moving forward?
I don't have one single ambition. I certainly love SEO, but I’m very aware that my career is contingent on SEO being something that persists over time. You’re going against major search engines who don’t want it to be a thing.
Because they make money from paid ads, and they are trying to have all of the knowledge for themselves. You'll notice now on Google, if you search for certain things like the weather or currency calculators, the information just appears right there at the top of Google. They barely give any credit to the companies from whom they obtain this data. We’re kind of battling against Google all the time. They want to take all of the content on the Internet and make it their own. It’s a very real threat. They make money from people staying on Google and clicking the paid ads.
The good news from my industry is that around 90 percent of searchers scroll down and click on the organic results, because they trust that more.
I never trust the sponsored links. Do you think that SEO will win out?
I don't know. Every year our opinion changes. You can wake up one day and Google has decided to change their algorithm in a really significant way, which means a strategy that’s worked for years is now off limits. Anybody that's been doing SEO for many years has had significant days in the history of their jobs when everything has changed. This could potentially hurt clients, so it’s our job to know the rules the second they change, and then adapt.
So, in terms of my future in SEO, I suppose it’s always uncertain. But any job in technology is. I don't know what my job will be 10 or 20 years from now. I think I'll always play music, though. I’ve been thinking more and more about producing my own music, so I’m looking forward to that.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
It’s corny, but I would say: Stay true to yourself. Do not sacrifice core components of your personality in order to succeed. Acknowledge what drives you, and what you are passionate about. You’ll never fail if you focus on those things.
What does New York mean to you?
It's my reality. It's my world. I'm married to a tattoo artist in Brooklyn—we have a home here, a business, a stepson, a dog, extended family. New York is my universe, and I think it's also the center of the universe in general. [Laughs]