One of the great things about large-scale festivals like North By Northeast is that it’s not just about live music. It’s about keeping the independent music industry alive and well in our country, from coast to coast. On Thursday, June 13, I was able to sit down with bands from all over, from Winnipeg to Wales, and speak to them about their experiences getting to where they are now (those pieces are on their way). But one of the highlights for me was attending a NXNE panel discussion on music industry entrepreneurship hosted by Executive Director of MusicOntario Scott Honsberger. I have a lot of respect for Scott and what he is doing to help not only musicians, but people in all corners of the music industry here in Ontario.
The panel included Scott as the moderator, PledgeMusic founder Benji Rogers, small business guru Katherine Roos from the City of Toronto, and Derrick Fung, founder of tunezy.com.
The panel began with an interesting discussion on what it actually means to work for yourself, whether in business or as an artist. Benji offered his view that people who want to go down their own path need to stop thinking like “entrepreneurs”, and start thinking more like a business. His point was well thought out, as he explained the differences between just going with a gut feeling that entrepreneurs often do, and actually approaching your craft (whatever it may be) from a business standpoint. Can you balance your books? How are you putting gas in the tank? Benji’s career as a musician certainly helped him define his view as he’s seen the challenges on both the artist and business sides of the music industry.
One interesting point that was raised was whether streaming was a good idea for musicians. As an artist struggling to get your music heard and make money, do you put your work online for free so more people can access it? Or do you charge and make some profit, but risk your music never being heard by the masses? Daft Punk and Adele have rejected the idea of streaming music for free, and it works for them. But, then again, they don’t need any help getting their music out there, nor do they face the same kind of issues musicians hoping to break out do.
Derrick brought up an interesting analogy. He compared starting a business like jumping off a cliff while trying to build an airplane on the way down (yes, he emphasized the ‘jumping’ part, as it is an intentional venture). Maybe this was a little extreme, but the analogy works well to demonstrate his point. In order for an airplane to safely fly in the air, there needs to be trained pilots (company founders), the wings (company founders), fuel in the tank (cash/revenue streams), maintenance people (your team), and people to fill the seats (customers). If these things don’t come together, the risk of your business failing is higher. Pretty simple.
Benji chimed in with his idea, that there’s two ways to start a business: First, the methodological approach, which sees the founders taking every precaution before startup to ensure the time is right and that the company is poised for success. Second, the JFDI approach, which is self explanatory: “just fucking do it”.
Katherine also had some interesting points. Businesses come in all shapes and sizes. One needs to measure the goals of the business against the owner’s objectives. That is to say, no one approach is ideal, as it all depends on the owner’s end goals. She drew the parallel between artists and small business owners, and proposed that true entrepreneurs are excellent risk mitigators. This is true for artists as well, as calculation of risk is part of the process of achieving a certain level of success – whatever your definition of success is. What decisions do I need to make in order to have a lasting career? Who is my audience, and how do I monetize what I’m doing? Counting receipts on the road, for example, might just be the difference between breaking even or ending up short and paying for gas out of artist’s pocket.
Benji also brought up a helpful analogy about realizing goals. It’s really important to imagine the end product, because without having an idea of what it is you’re trying to do, it is much easier to go astray. Imagine the Empire State Building. Someone imagined what it would look like before it was built, an idea of the overall product after everything is done. It all has to come together, but other people need to be involved in building it. At one point the person creating needs to believe that the world will be better off with his or her product (or song, or album) in it. It’s a matter of attracting the right people, and getting the right people on your team.
Knowledge sharing is crucial, no one knows everything – especially as a startup. Knowing your industry is important, but getting people on your team that are specialists at management, finance, social media, or whatever piece of the puzzle may be. Asking questions about aspects of your business only helps one learn the intricacies of the company’s operations or structure. One can’t be expected to know everything about an industry or market right off the bat, but adapting and learning are ongoing processes.
Another concept that was discussed was “pivoting”. Pivoting is a point in a company’s life cycle where a significant and deliberate change in the business approach takes place, potentially opening up a range of new possibilities. Startups often do this when their idea is established in the form of an operational business, but not gaining traction. Obviously, in order to pivot properly, decision-makers must be connected with their consumers so as to get important feedback from the marketplace in which they operate. Sometimes the questions that must be asked are simple: how do I monetize what I’m doing? Do I know my market well enough?
Things wrapped up with a brief discussion about building the right team, whether in your business or as an artist with those around you. The old cliché that team must be bigger than the sum of its parts works in the case of startups (and artists), because the people who a new entrepreneur surrounds themselves with really dictate how things get done. Get the best on board, and the best results can be expected.
I found the discussion very interesting and helpful, especially being someone who has an interest in leaning more about the music industry and business side of how things work. Scott Honsberger did a great job moderating the discussion, timing his interjections well and ensuring the topics flowed. However, time did seem to fly by and I thought there would be more discussion pertaining to artists as entrepreneurs and selling their product as a way to make a living. There were times where the panel touched on this, and Katherine in particular kept bringing the artists back into the fold when speaking. Of course, I didn’t expect the discussion to be centred around artists as entrepreneurs, but even some more questions or feedback from artists in the audience would have rounded things off. Minus a bogus audience question about EDM (electronic dance music) which chewed up time, the panel was succinct in their points, and more than happy to share their words of wisdom to us. NXNE Interactive is a necessary component to the festival, as the dissemination of knowledge can inspire new creativity and give direction to those needing some direction. Thanks to Scott and all the panelists for giving us newbies to the business side of the music industry some food for thought!