Band versus Business – 5 Lesson I Learned About Entrepreneurship from Playing Music

I’d like to begin this article with a disclaimer.

I am not a towering CEO or an enterprising risk taker. I am 26 years old and I have only just begun my journey.

I was always obsessed with music. Some of my earliest memories are of singing along to the Elton John covers my father played me while I was in the bath, or jumping off the walls as The Eagles or Queen blared through the household sound system. I would play drums on anything I could find.

I’m surprised that I waited until the age of 12 to pick up the dusty classical guitar my mother had played as a child to fumble desperately over the chord shapes I found in my father’s ‘100 Rock Classics’ music books. After my first afternoon of practice I could only barely muster John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. My fingers were blistered but I was hooked.

I spent the next fourteen years chasing my dream of becoming a musician. I played in my friend’s garages, in seedy Boksburg clubs I shouldn’t have been allowed into, 1pm slots at questionable metal festivals and in every conceivable coastal pub you could imagine.

Eventually, as the singer and guitarist in a band called Dance, You’re on Fire, I realised modest success. We weren’t the biggest of bands, but we played to thousands of people, heard our songs on radio in South Africa and in Germany, toured the country relentlessly and featured on TV and in magazines. It was an incredible journey.

In 2013, after recording and releasing one EP and two full length albums, I made the choice to take a break to concentrate on growing my business and becoming a dad.

In the time since I’ve come to realise that being in a band and chasing the magic fame dragon isn’t all that different to being an entrepreneur. The two share a few common truths that can be applied to almost any situation. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a Fender strat or a Macbook.

Oppikoppi

Here’s what I learned.

Perception is Nine Tenths of the Law

In March 2010 we had our first single, Blockade, playlisted on 5FM. We thought it was huge. I remember hurtling down the M2 and freaking out after being informed that the playlist committee, after the fifth consecutive week of submission, had unanimously agreed to spin the track on national radio.

This was it, I thought. Soon the phone would start ringing with offers to headline festivals and to embark on nationwide tours. We were officially ‘famous’.

Almost nothing changed. Three months later I was standing on a stage in Krugersdorp trying to sing through a debilitating round of bronchitis to 15 people who looked like they had accidentally stumbled into a meeting they weren’t invited to.

No one knew who we were. We didn’t have an album out, we hadn’t done any press and we’d played only a handful of shows outside of Johannesburg.

Things only started to gather momentum after a year’s worth of exhausting work with two spectacular PR agents. For eighteen months we jumped at any chance to promote ourselves. I remember playing acoustic shows on any radio station that would have us, spending hours with any blogger willing to chat. That’s what made the difference.

Two years later we were awarded the MK Award for Best Indie act, we’d played Oppikoppi three times and we had started to build a loyal fan base. In 2012 we played Cape Town on 13 separate occasions.

It was all perception. The more popular we seemed to be the more popular we became. The same rule can be applied to business.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the minutiae of everyday corporate activity. Building a business, like building a band, requires the outpouring of blood, sweat and tears into several containers. Putting all your effort into publicity and none into ensuring you offer a good service is a recipe for disaster.

Ignoring your public reputation, however, is also a mistake. Perception is nine tenths of the law.

There have been times that we’ve forgotten the importance of this lesson during the course of Clockwork Media’s growth so far. It’s an intangible element. It can’t be seen or touched like a warehouse full of product or an impressive management account, but it’s critical.

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This Happened a Lot

It Might Not Be Comfortable, But You Can Sleep on the Floor

Touring the country is not as glamorous as it sounds. Most of our adventures throughout South Africa were punctuated by evenings spent on friend’s floors/couches or in rickety backpacker bunk beds.  I quickly lost count of how many nights we shared Long Street bedrooms with drunken German tourists or public bathrooms with packs of Alsatians in Grahamstown (seriously).

We couldn’t afford hotels. Neither could the promoters who booked us. We’d drive 12 hours, soundcheck, wait another seven, play a show, drink, sleep on a blow up mattress until 4am, shower and repeat.

By the time we had decided to call it a day we were enjoying a measure of comfort on tour. Hotels and guesthouses had become the norm. Sleeping in a bed and enjoying a private shower was something we savoured because it took three years to achieve.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is that the journey towards your goal should be somewhat uncomfortable. Glitz and glamour is never what it seems. If you’re one year into building a business and you’re spending your time in presidential suites and eating caviar (figuratively speaking and unless that is your actual job) something has to give.

Success should be earned. Many of the world’s greatest organisations were borne out of garages. Apple, HP, Oracle, Facebook and Microsoft all emerged out of humble beginnings. Keep those overheads low and slum it for a while.

See?

See?

Don’t Be a Dick

This was the hardest lesson I had to learn. I can be intolerant and difficult to deal with when I feel my own high standards aren’t being met. Unfortunately, this translated into impatience and touchiness at times when I really needed to be more gracious and kind.

My often shitty attitude hurt our growth as a band. It’s something I only realised after it was all over. It was a key contributor to some of our most frustrating moments as a group.

There is no excuse for being an asshole, to anyone. There is a lot to be said for patience and an open minded approach. These are business assets that cannot be measured, but that undoubtedly hold a lot of value.

Don’t be an asshole. That’s all I have to say about that.

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Educate Yourself or Suffer the Consequences

I still possess only a rudimentary understanding of who owns our music. As a consequence of this and other contractual maladies I spent 18 months extracting us from a nasty legal situation that sapped my passion for writing and performing music like a giant bloodsucking corporate leach.

We were so excited to work with a large management agency, record and publishing label that we signed deals that would ultimately see us handing over a large portion of the scanty income we made to individuals who had done everything in their power to stop us earning it.

I won’t get into the details, but it’s left me feeling pretty embittered towards the industry. The trouble is that we were to blame.

We never took adequate time to investigate what we were getting ourselves into. Dance, You’re on Fire never really expected to make any money – so who cared where the nonexistent treasure went, right? Wrong.

It’s a harsh lesson I wish we had never been forced to endure. Never sign anything of significance unless you’ve had a trustworthy lawyer review the contract, and don’t sell yourself short by agreeing to terms that don’t benefit your personal interests. No one cares as much about your business venture as you do.

The corporate world is littered with intricacies that are easy to smooth over by saying “it will all work out in the end”. Every time I’ve said that, it’s come back to bite me in the ass like a rabid police dog at a protest rally.

Take responsibility and educate yourself.

*Note – I am not referring to Just Music, our most recent label. Karl and his team is a lonely island of kindness and ethical compassion in the swirling vortex that is the international music industry.

Touring is Not as Glamorous as it Seems

Touring is Not as Glamorous as it Seems

Timing: It’s Important

Timing is pretty critical to success as a musician. The inability to play a song in unison is often (always) a direct contributor towards failure as a band.

This is perhaps the most palpable example of teamwork in a business-like relationship. If you belong to a group that is simply unable to communicate well onstage and execute a tight set, chances are slim that you’ll be putting food on the table for long.

Over the years our live performance waxed and waned according to how much effort we put into rehearsals and communicating as a group. When things were bad and tempers were fiery we often played a lackluster show. When we were enjoying ourselves and appreciating the opportunity we had to share our music with the public we gave them a performance to remember.

It’s not my place to judge our ability as a band. For all I know, we could have been terrible.

What I can say, however, is that communication and teamwork is essential to business success. As such, we’ve put a lot of effort into maintaining an open platform for debate and discussion within Clockwork Media at a managerial level. Sometimes we argue, but we know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. I think that’s important.

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Common perception is that playing music for a living is about as far away as one can get from the corporate world. It’s easy, looking at bands like Motely Crue or Guns and Roses from a fans perspective, to assume that these people are stupid or unwilling to play the game.  The opposite is true. I learned a great deal about business in general by slumming around the country with a guitar and few of my closest friends.

We also had the good fortune of making mistakes along the way. I’m glad for the near death van experiences, for the legal letters and for having the money we’d worked so hard to earn gnawed at by smiling sycophants. These experiences taught me valuable lessons. The most important thing I learned, however, was to have fun.

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Band versus Business – 5 Lesson I Learned About Entrepreneurship from Playing Music

8 Responses

  1. Great piece.

    Gary Meyer February 24, 2014 at 9:52 am #
  2. I really enjoyed reading this!

    femmegypsy February 24, 2014 at 10:09 am #
  3. Awesome read!

    I can definitely relate to the slumming it part of the article, business is a roller coaster ride and sometimes you just want to get off and go home, but its in the times of pain and struggle that I learned the most.

    Difficulties and challenges chip away at the rough stone and help you make something far more amazing than you’d ever imagined.

    Matthew John February 24, 2014 at 10:37 am #
  4. Brilliant! I wish more young musicians would read this and learn!

    David Chislett February 24, 2014 at 11:40 am #
  5. Well written bro. Note to Musicians: There are courses now that you can take to educate yourself about the music business. I personally recommend Nick Matzukis'(Academy of Sound Engineering) short course in music business as he teaches you all the intricacies of Entertainment and specifically Music Contract Law. In the course are tons of examples of Musos that got burned. We as Musos therefore have no more excuses and can only blame being schnaaied on our own ignorance and lack of education which is the painful, but now, unnecessary lesson of this article.

    Aleksandar Jankovic February 24, 2014 at 12:04 pm #
  6. I enjoyed reading this article. Smack bang on the nail (knowing from experience)
    I believe that most young people think that becoming a musician is just practicing and gigging.
    But, like any start up company, it requires hard work to refine your product(in and out of the studio), constant marketing, business acumen and dedication.
    Also, never rely on other people marketing you, even if they are the manager or agent; sure, it is very useful, but ultimately you have to market yourself 100% of the time.
    There are no short cuts (unless you are incredibly lucky)

    Tilo von Brandis February 24, 2014 at 2:17 pm #
  7. Dude… Brilliant. I have been following your ventures for a while, but this is the most honest piece of writing that I have ever read. Great job.

    Heinrich February 25, 2014 at 11:25 am #
  8. Great read. Must read for any aspiring musician or businessman !

    Marc Forrest February 25, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

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