Not All Musicians Are Entrepreneurs, But Successful And Professional Ones Are

Lemon-bulbGuest post by Julian Weisser (@iamweisser), CCO of Bottol and writer of Ideas then Lemonade.

Most of my days are spent working on the business and communications end of the music and technology industries. Because of my immersion in these areas I tend to read and absorb many ideas, concepts, and philosophies. They are all mainly related to doing business in a global ecosystem based around innovation and constant iteration as a startup. I have found the core concepts to be remarkably transferable to many industries and buyer/seller relationships.

Sometimes musicians ask me for advice on the business end of what they are trying to do. Admittedly, my advice is sometimes not even solicited but I give it anyways. One thing that troubles me is when very talented players tell me that they are not entrepreneurs. They say they are professional musicians. If you want to have success in this intense musical landscape you must be able to think like an entrepreneur or be willing to pay the team of people that can do that kind of thinking and ideation for you.

Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon defined the entrepreneur as “someone who engages in exchanges for profit; specifically, he or she is someone who exercises business judgment in the face of uncertainty.” The emphasis of this definition should be placed on the word “uncertainty.” Few things are less certain than what will become popular in the music industry. There is no formula for success and the pathways to that rare sliver of spotlight are numerous. Forget uncertainty, the music industry is very unpredictable but this actually presents enormous opportunity to those that know how to look at this kind of landscape through the correct lens: that of an entrepreneur.

I try to help musicians train their way of thinking so that they realize the broad scope of their actions and how easy it is to pivot and change direction when needed. When they are starting out, the risk of damage from a failure is nearly zero. This means they should observe how the fan/user reacts while they constantly improve things and are open to new ideas and directions. This is a core component of what makes up a lean startup; a term coined (and trademarked) by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. It’s a development philosophy used by everyone from Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com (where you can buy Lean Startups) to Mark Zuckerberg.

There is no reason for a band with a few hundred FB likes not to continually put out new material and see how the followers react and what gets them talking and sharing with their friends. If you are reading this article and you think you have an established audience you likely do not. Don’t feel bad because very few do. If you intelligently develop and improve based on your observations you will certainly gain fans but better yet you will have an understanding of who they are and why they like you.

Amanda Palmer recently spoke at Rethink Music about the freedom she has with no label and the stronger relationships she can build in the new industry with those that enjoy her music. "I don't like using the term ‘fans’ with my fans,” stated Palmer while discussing her listeners, “it starts to feel patronizing sometimes." Amanda Palmer has developed a large but tight-knit community around her music by being very open to "fans" on her Twitter account and blog. This falls directly in line with a thesis from the Cluetrain Manifesto that “markets are conversations.”

Those that have meaningful conversations with their listeners/fans/customers (take your pick while being mindful of the baggage associated with each) will have created the strongest bond and most emotionally invested stakeholders. This emotional investment creates evangelists, your best way of acquiring new listeners and your true backers. Gone are the days of labels investing money in experiments. If you can develop an organic following through constantly tweaking and communicating with those that care you will find immense support that is not hollow. As of this publication Amanda Palmer has raised $563,607 from 10,271 fans for a new album, art book and tour on Kickstarter. Unlike 10,271 typical investors that would care most about the financial success of the project they were funding, these fans care first and foremost about the experience they will be able to help Amanda Palmer create. Palmer talks to her fans constantly and they trust that she will be able to give them something they will love and value.

“Entrepreneur” is a French word but I assure you it is not a dirty one. If you are a musician interested in making that into your full-time job I suggest you consider yourself an entrepreneur. You are about to embark on the most uncertain and imprecise mission of your life and the bumps and bruises will be the lessons that make the biggest impact on how you proceed forward. Remember that the risks are usually much lower than they initially seem and that a meaningful conversation and constant improvement are key.

Please reach out to me to continue this conversation on Twitter @iamweisser


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  1. It’s kind of amazing to me that people don’t see this inherent business connection. Musicians seem to want the music to sell itself or the disinterested audience to be interested just because it’s their work. Sadly, this will never happen.
    But I also think Musicians have an ultra-unique position to be able to affect peoples moods and thoughts and build a loyal relationship. I talk about that some on my youtube channel.

  2. Hell yeah to the Lean Startup! I just finished re-reading that book, especially the part about having a “minimal viable product” and constantly testing.
    I love doing tests for different merch, a website setting, types of songs, anything to see what works or doesn’t work with my fans. Even down to Facebook posts and tweets.
    And when testing, you’re also engaging your fans and having fun with them. I love that only 10,000 fans have raised that much money for Amanda. 10,000 people in the old world of major labels wasn’t even worth looking at. Definitely inspiring!

  3. Thank you for the comment and insight Joshua,
    I think most creative people wish their art would just sell itself. The lack of motivation to actually pursue business development as a musician/band may stem back to the idea that doing anything “corporate” can jeopardize credibility.
    What is not yet realized by many new artists is that the startup philosophy and culture is basically the opposite of the traditional corporate business models. The parallels between startups and DIY music are not difficult to draw so I think it is only a matter of time until these practices become more widespread in the new music business.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts,

  4. Chris, you bring up a very interesting point about 10k people not being much by old industry standards. Reminds me of Chris Anderson’s the Long Tail; finding a niche and filling it in a very satisfying way for those fans that are looking (and willing to pay) for this style of creative output. With this funding Palmer will undoubtedly be able to put on a more entertaining and unique experience than a major label would have been willing to provide the backing for.
    Thank you for sharing. I would love to hear more about how you apply the Lean Startup principles when testing out new merch and what you have found from these experiments.

  5. Some great points here, Julian. Thanks for writing this! I hope more bands take it to heart and start thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs (and seeing their bands as start-ups). It’s a big shift in perspective, and not all bands can make it. Even after they do, it can be hard to scale the business and build a solid team.
    The majority of startups fail, and bands are no different, but the key takeaway is that success in music is now a meritocracy, where it used to be a big game of chance. Any band has the potential to succeed with hard work, smart strategy, and high-quality product, just like any other business enterprise.

  6. Jason, I love your point about potential and success being based on merit. If a band or startup has potential as well as “the right stuff” (hard workers, intelligent biz dev, and a direction) there is now a very real potential to succeed and without having to become indebted to a major corporation in the process.
    Just like the majority of startups failing, the majority of bands will continue to fail because, to put it quite plainly, they are not very good or are unable to find that slice important of listeners (early adopters) with which they have aligned values.

  7. I work with both unsigned musicians and also entrepreneurs in need of image consulting. The entrepreneurs see it as an investment in their business. The musicians see it as an investment in their music careers. In both cases, it’s a smart business move for any kind of entrepreneur, musicians included. Artists should look at all decisions such as this from an entrepreneurial perspective.

  8. Agree, though I can say that getting to critical mass or finding that key accelerator that rachets your presence and the conversation forward is a bit of a quest. I don’t mind the wilderness…just want signs that I am eventually going to see some people meet me at the edge of it.

  9. This is an excellent article I like how more of you guys are writing about the connection to the lean startup. Thinking like an entrepreneur definitely is the big difference between musi being a career or a hobby. Thanks again for writing this!

  10. Yes Brian, there are many paths through the forest of the music industry. Unlike an actual forest it takes less time to test different routes and see what the response is and you will eventually come into contact with more of the right listeners. Remember, it’s not about getting people to hear your music, it’s about getting the right people to hear it-the ones that will actually find value and continue to keep up with what the artist is working on.

  11. Thank you Angel,
    I think there is a somewhat irrational fear of failure for new artists and this is one of the reasons why so many are hesitant to start thinking like entrepreneurs and developing their creative work from a hobby into a sustainable business. If you want to make it in the music industry but do not treat your art like a business you’ve already failed because at the end of the day you either made money or you didn’t.

  12. Meaningful and sincere conversation with your fans and the other people you do business is crucial.
    “Courageous inventiveness” – I love that. I’m going to use that as a way to define the traits of entrepreneurs.
    Thanks for the comments,

  13. Living with capitalism, but having egalitarian ethics is challenging. I’m practicing anti-marketing, which is a more respectful form of bringing my work to the marketplace. Most marketing techniques focus on success in terms of dollars. Yes, I understand the necessity, but I don’t want to make money at the expense of others. Most marketing is crassly manipulative and disrespectful of individuals.
    Selling produce at a weekly farmer’s market from a stand seems like a respectful way to market something. Nobody climbs the tallest tree and yells, “Look at MEEE!!!!” in the loudest voice possible. No need for reference to celebrities or momentum. Everybody in town knows the marketplace is there once a week. People walk around looking for what they want/need. Since it’s right in front of them, they can judge directly for themselves with nothing else required.
    There are no weekly music markets, but the principles of respect that I find exercised at farmer’s markets can be applied to selling anything. Since those principles are so rarely used, we can call them anti-marketing to set them apart. Makes sense to me.

  14. Interesting thoughts Paul,
    I always twitch a little at the word “marketing” ever since I heard Bill Hicks discuss the topic in one of his standup bits (http://youtu.be/gDW_Hj2K0wo [warning: the video is a bit profane]).
    Marketing and advertising can be very manipulative and I think that now more than ever this is being recognized by the public as they watch shows like Mad Men and read about corporate deception being exposed. Marketing also implies a one-way conversation which is no good. A dialogue with those you are creating for is crucial, as is transparency about your intentions.
    Focusing on success in terms of dollars is fairly short-sighted. A better metric is attraction and retention of fans/users/customers. Read George Howard’s brilliant piece about the new “A&R” on the Tunecore blog (http://blog.tunecore.com/2012/03/the-new-ar.html) for ideas on better metrics to measure success.
    Your comparison to a farmer’s market is very interesting and appreciated. The trouble is that the Internet is for musicians what a market taking place in a football stadium is for famers: too big and crowded with other merchants to be able to hope that the “right people” will simply find you.
    In terms of egalitarian ethics, the playing field is equal for most independent artists trying to build a following. They all have access to Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms but what matters most is not if, but how they use these tools to communicate and find those that care.
    It is also worth repeating that all of the above is for naught if the product (music, vegetable, etc) is awful. It does not matter how adept you are at tweeting if you have nothing worthy of discussion or sharing.

  15. You’re really undermining yourself here with your comments on marketing. Marketing as a one way conversation has been under attack at least since The Cluetrain Manifesto and that’s old in Internet years!
    In fact, a huge number of posts on this site are about marketing as something other than a one way conversation.
    An entrepreneur who is leery of marketing is a crippled entrepreneur.
    Given that a lot of musicians have a response to the word business as do you to marketing, maybe you need to dig in a bit more and round out your game.
    It does make me wonder if you’re making the same mistake as did Fred Wilson who posted an attack on marketing and then said that startups should instead do a whole list of things, most of which are now considered normal forms of marketing as something other than broadcasting:

  16. In fact, Marketing Without Advertising by Michael J. Phillips and Salli Rasberry predates The Cluetrain Manifesto by almost 15 years.
    Of course, with the move towards interactive forms of advertising, even advertising is moving away from traditional one-way broadcast modes.

  17. I do not believe marketing is inherently evil nor do I believe business is. It is entirely dependent on how marketing and business are done.
    Perception of what a word means is for all intents and purposes everything. Some musicians are hesitant about the word business but almost everyone is leery of the terms advertising and marketing. Perhaps I should have written “For many, marketing also implies a one-way conversation which is no good.”
    I am NOT leery of marketing-a marketing plan is crucial to the success of a band or any other business.
    What I am leery of is people’s perceptions of the term much like I am with musicians and business. I am very careful with word choice and understanding people’s preconceived notions of what a word implies. Like business, the public’s definition of marketing needs to change before we should be comfortable using the term but this does not mean that we should stop practice progressive marketing strategies in the meantime.
    Many successful businesses have marketing strategies that do not revolve around broadcasting. One of my favorite examples is Boloco (https://www.facebook.com/Boloco), a local Boston restaurant chain. The way they talk with their customers forges a much stronger bond than broadcasting could ever have done. The problems and issues their customers post on Facebook or tweet yield positive stories when Boloco quickly and efficiently acknowledges the mistake then rights the wrongs in a public setting for all to see.

  18. Managing perceptions is part of the game. Everybody’s marketing when they present themselves publicly whether or not they use the term or think that’s what they’re doing.
    I’m not advocating musicians saying, hey check out my new marketing post on my blog. Or how do you like the marketing conversation we’re having?
    No need to use the term with the general public unless they raise it but definitely use it when honestly discussing what you’re doing in a business context.
    For example, I like the way you’re marketing your brand with this post and these comments but there’s no reason to say that’s what you’re doing unless it becomes a part of the discussion.

  19. I appreciate the comments Clyde,
    The post you linked to about Fred Wilson proves that like business, while marketing has evolved rapidly, the perception of it is much slower to change. What once wasn’t marketing in Wilson’s mind now is. If a credible VC has the “wrong” perception of what marketing is, how could anyone expect the general public to have the “correct” one?
    The takeaway is that the word does not matter as much as the actions and ideas that are categorized underneath it. It does not matter if Wilson calls it something else if what he is suggesting are actually forms of modern marketing. In fact, using a different label could be cause for these ideas to be taken more seriously since they are not tainted by a term that carries so much baggage.

  20. Here’s my final take on this topic, not that I couldn’t always say more (lol), meant in a spirit of dialogue and greater effectiveness in our business endeavors.
    I think it does matter what terms we use. Fred Wilson gets a lot of attention for his posts and he got a lot of ridicule for that one as well as just some gentle clueing in from people like Seth Godin.
    His lack of knowledge about the widespread and now longterm use of the word marketing to encompass all sorts of things undermined his brand.
    But, as I suggested in my post, it does mean that when you’re pitching your startup to Fred Wilson, you should use other terms for your marketing efforts.
    But here’s one example of what turning discussions of marketing into covert or forbidden dialogues can lead to. Here’s Mark Andreesen on considering startups for VC funding from Peter Thiel’s class:
    Marc Andreessen: The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses not to do the hard stuff of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call no distribution strategy a “viral marketing strategy.”
    Peter Thiel: We’ve discussed before why one should never take it at face value when successful companies say they do no sales or marketing. Because that, itself, is probably a sales pitch.
    Marc Andreessen: We hear it all the time: “We’ll be like Salesforce.com—no sales team required, since the product will sell itself.” This is always puzzling. Salesforce.com has a huge, modern sales force. The tagline is “No software,” not “No sales.” AH (Andreesen Horowitz – his vc firm) is a sucker for people who have sales and marketing figured out.
    Obviously he’s discussing sales as well as marketing but my point is that there’s a lot of naivete around these topics from young product-oriented founders who could be considered analogous to young music-focused artists when they haven’t learned about what constitutes marketing. It undermines them in a business sense.
    So that’s why I think coming up with new terms rather than educating people about the terms we use is a mistake for entrepreneurs of all ages.

  21. Exactly, I am all for marketing (as witnessed by this guest post) and dialogue (that is why I make sure to respond to the people that take the time to comment on what I have written). A post on Hypebot is only a broadcast until a conversation is started from it either here in the comments or elsewhere.

  22. I love the insightful comment!
    As you pointed out, some folks want to hear you talk about your “marketing” strategy while others prefer a different term. What they all really care about is how you will sell your product and what the market is.
    The product almost never sells itself and that is why understanding the way to present and bring your product to market is so vital while the term you use inside your company is less important just as long as everyone understands that it is essentially marketing 2.0.
    The meaning of marketing has changed greatly through the years and it will take time to reintroduce this term to the public. I’m sure someone has a marketing plan for that…

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