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