Between Art and Business: A Musician As A Startup

Tommy-darkerBy Tommy Darker of Think Beyond The Band.

It all starts with a problem…

I'm Tommy and I'm a musician. I moved to London 10 months ago, knowing nobody. Early days, I didn't want to feel alone, so I started peering with other musicians, asking them about music in London. The most common  - not so surprising – answer was inevitable: "I can't figure out how to make a living from my music!", despite London's vastness of opportunities. "Why?", I tended to ask?

Their response — which I didn't see coming: there were so many tools, they just didn't know what to use, many music industry blogs, but they didn't know which one to spend time on, many so-called 'professionals', but no idea who to spend their precious money on.

"Big headache", I thought. They're not the only ones in the world.



What is everybody's goal in life? Success. Everyone's success is different, though. Do you want money? Fame? Legacy? Freedom? It all depends on how you define success. We'll all agree, though, that success doesn't grow on trees, it requires some work to be achieved.

The question is: how do you, as an independent musician, know what kind of work to do to pursue your success path?

It used to be easier, a company would lay down a plan for you and they would have the network to make it happen. Musicians would have to agree with everything the label proposed, because 'they knew best'. Now musicians need to bootstrap that work for themselves and, one step further, ask questions.

"Should I keep doing what labels used to do? Do these practices make sense now, in today's world? Are there more beneficial, cost effective and fun ways of getting my shit done? Is the kind of success I have in mind meaningful?"

Just like the London musicians were asking themselves, how do you silence the noise and lay down a new plan for your music that works for you personally, something that is equally fulfilling and financially rewarding?


London, January 2013. A month after many meet-ups with various musicians, I invited everyone to join me in a group discussion with a music business expert. Andrew Dubber came to London one rainy afternoon and talked in front of 18 musicians, under the hashtag #DarkerMusicTalks. The whole thing was bootstrapped in a week: venue, attendees, speaker, website, branding, camera. We talked about Music in the Digital Age, with Andrew proclaiming: "Don't broadcast. It's all about the conversation". (Thanks, Andrew)

I was encouraged, as the musicians gave me great feedback on how to make future sessions better. I saw happy faces: for me, that is a good indication that things go well. Being a naturally optimistic person, I always find reasons to believe in new ideas. I like getting them out there as soon as possible, and then finding clues that they're worth carrying on. I translated those happy faces that night as an indication that there is a need for more interaction between musicians, knowledge and 'knowledge keepers'.

Those happy faces are the reason I created this series of free monthly discussions in London.

Essentially, Darker Music Talks had just started, and it's still the same today: an informal discussion between experts and musicians.


Why do I keep doing this? Because knowledge is a vital asset. It propels ideas forward and helps people be more creative. It opens up the possibilities of this world. It encompasses what musicians need at the moment and empowers them to become the future disruptors. The shape of the music industry — and creativity as we know it — will change from within, not by companies who want to maximize profits through content.

But in order for this to happen, musicians themselves need to see the bigger picture and take action.

They will solve a big problem. The problem is that I see a great disconnection in today's music industry. There are two types of parties involved in 'supplying art' to the world:

1. the companies, marketers and mediators who care about profit, scaling up and see music as 'content' and 'product'.

2. the music creators, who are emotionally attached to their creations, want to make a decent living making art and are afraid to market their art themselves.

Do you see what I see? There's nothing in the middle!

Musicians need to develop their entrepreneurial spirits and skills through knowledge. Since only they know how valuable their art is, they have to be capable of communicating that value to the world at large. If this communication does not happen, the market value will be driven down by companies seeking maximum profits from minimum investment. Music will become content, the people who make it will become an exploited commodity and innovation (the core meaning of art) will cease to exist.

As a fellow musician, this is not the scenario I'd like to see unfold. It's high time we took some action.

Why should we care about the Musicpreneur?

The music industry is meaningless, without musicians benefitting from it, both financially and creatively. We don't want musicians to create 'content' and conform. We need them to know what they do and innovate artistically. And by 'we' I mean 'society', 'other musicians', 'culture', 'the world'.

An industry is supposed to be a system created to streamline value and benefit all parties — the creators, the audience and the middlemen as well — not only the latter. Today's music industry doesn't follow that premise.

The business stakeholders will also find many underlying, long-term benefits. My auspicious prediction is this: since more and more musicians will start becoming their own business, they will also have new, unforeseen needs. Independent individuals or existing organizations will see opportunities and economic incentives to cater those needs with new services or standalone startups, that will then create more jobs and attract capital (the latter is a big pain for musicians at the moment).

Why do I suspect all this will happen? I tend to use this analogy: if you give people a bit of grass and sun, they will have a picnic. In other words, give them the medium and proper circumstances, and they'll figure out the optimal thing to do with them. Musicians have the chance to be that square of grass (and attract the sun back!) to create an as yet non-existent ecosystem that will make a lot of people (and themselves) happy.

But this culture of knowledgeable musicians is not easy to emerge in a mainstream fashion. Some ingrained habits need to be the subject of change, both for musicians and the audience. This will occur gradually, just like it happened with the startup world.

A musician as a startup (or a Musicpreneur, as I call it)? Why not. The framework is there and we've seen how it works.


So, is this really another kind of music academy?

No, it's something more simple. It's a series of discussions. Held between musicians and experts, about music-related subjects that would not be addressed in a music academy, at no cost. We learn and discuss entrepreneurship, design, psychology, branding, new media and other topics, and their relationship with music and the industry, using proven experts that graciously share their knowledge.

Up to this point, around 50-70 people join each discussion, promoted through word-of-mouth. Volume is not the goal though; I prefer having meaningful conversations that bring value. The long-term goal is to build the biggest e-library of knowledge for musicians, as well as to spread free knowledge all around the world with similar events in many countries.

There is a strong vision behind the project: to inspire the culture shift towards musicpreneurship.

The discussions follow some brand protocols, but not in a way that dilute the experience of an informal discussion with a knowledgeable person. If you're wondering how it feels like to be part of one, musicians have used words such as 'actionable knowledge', 'inspiration', 'interactivity' and 'in an intimate and informal environment' to describe it. Or just watch one of the filmed sessions.

I praise the importance of revolving these discussions around the academic and exploratory nature of the topics, and avoid creating another series of how-to's that spoonfeed musicians with easy conclusions and memetic behaviour. For some habits to change, actual brainwork needs to be done.

Free Darker Music Talks around the world

My goal is to deliver free, self-contained discussions to musicians by real experts and spread globally, creating a series of independently organized events.

A business model has been set up for the initial stage, so the discussions can distribute value optimally, but also make a profit to become self-sustaining and not rely on third parties that will get in the way. Not having mediators is crucial.

I'm going to travel around the world early next year in order to personally assist with the talks. If you're interested in getting involved as the talks go global and help organize one in your country, join me on 22/11 for this Google Hangout where I will explain more about the plan. Fill this Google Sheet and I will get back to you soon.

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and my website, I'm ready to listen to anything you might have to say, talking with people is my passion.

You never actually own a piece of knowledge. You merely look after it for the next generation. It's our duty to pass it on.

 [Thumbnail image courtesy David Riley.]


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  1. Darker Music Talks around the world? Ambitious!
    For musicians that say “I only do it for the art. Screw that business stuff.”, I’m pretty sure they aren’t a full time musician.
    Why? Because a full time musician needs to pay the bills.
    This isn’t to say you can’t perform your art and passion, but you need to know the business side of how things are done.
    If you want to be playing music the rest of your life, you need to treat your band like a business. Even more so, you need to treat YOU like a business.
    There’s a huge middle class of musicians, making original music and making a living doing so, arising across the world. Unfortunately, they don’t get much attention from major media outlets.
    Though these musicians are under the radar, they are living their dream. They are treating their music like a business.
    Cheers, Tommmy. I look forward to hearing more about the Musicpreneur!
    – Seth

  2. I agree with your point that investors have to understand the potential. But this thing is not going to happen through pitches; only through real life successes of musicpreneurs. Investors need proof of concept. Thinking like a startup is the key.

  3. Thanks man. Exciting things to come, that’s for sure. I already have a specific framework in mind about how the Musicpreuneur can go lean and create a startup around their art. More on that soon.

  4. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, Tommy. One of my favorite quotes, which I believe fits well here is by Butch Walker. I’m taking it a bit out of context, but it’s this one line I thought was so important for modern day artists… “[it’s] not about the commerce of art, [it’s] the art of commerce.”
    One of my favorite Musicpreuneurs is Moldover, & his controllerism movement. If you’re unfamiliar w/ him you should look him up. I think he’s right up your alley with this.
    Good stuff!

  5. Cheers Erik.
    I will look up what you mention, the issue is definitely very nuanced, as nuanced as the system we live in, so there’s still long way to go!
    Thanks for the support.
    PS. I shared your blog with a vinyl-lover musician who is about to fund this vinyl-rewards-only IndieGoGo campaign http://igg.me/at/theronation/x/5234650. He’ll love it. Keep up the good work!

  6. It happens consistently because this business sense doesn’t necessarily come naturally to artists, nor do these artists usually surround themselves with people/resources that introduce new business ideas to them.

  7. Great piece. You are proposing a great recipe to success in the music business (because I think there is no unique formula) with important ingredients: networking, an open and creative mind, entrepreneurship and transcendence through education. I think the result is gonna be fantastic! 🙂

  8. Brilliant, I agree with both comments Jeff. The latter is important. Constant exposure to business ideas and education is the key. Then business and marketing won’t sound so daunting anymore.

  9. First and foremost, solid article Tommy!
    Diving in, I want to reiterate & wholeheartedly confirm that the safeguard & development of innovation & all relevant paths leading to it is what it’s all about. At least, to me.
    I’m a young electronic music producer from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To be frank, it is one of the poorest and uneducated country(musically speaking of course) on Earth with the flip side being that it’s also a country that is full of so much musical potentials. The environment I’m in is quite open for change. I see lots of talented youths coming up alas there are no sustainable set of infrastructures that enable and encourage them to pursue their work.
    I sense that what you have going on right now is exactly what needs to cut through the global music industry be it in developed or developing countries/cultures.
    I remember in my business of music class in my junior year in college, the professor always said “the modern musician/band needs to be able to put on different hats to get a handle on his career”. I’m sure you guys would have the most interesting conversations!
    Again keep up this grand work. Who knows how many lives you are going to change for brilliance.

  10. It’s encouraging to have such comments in this space. In my head, there is a need for change in the air. Glad to see clues that this might be true for some people.

  11. It takes a lot of heart and soul to become a musician and that too as a startup, but if you got it in you, the world is your arena !

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