The Music Business Made Me Better At Business

I’m (mostly) gone from music, but the lessons I learned stuck with me.

Five years ago, I came to a logical conclusion after over a decade in the music industry: Music is a terrible place for people in technology field. I decided it would be wise to spend my time focusing on things that could make the most money. Yet, for the dozen years I spent inside the machine, the music business and its hyper-competitive atmosphere molded me into a money-making innovator.

(As a small sidebar, I do still work with two bands I’m not going to plug here, because I believe in following through with my commitments. I’m just not taking on new projects.)

If you see someone with music business experience on their resume, give them an interview. 

Allow me to make something abundantly clear: There is no money in music. Compared to any other industry, it’s at the far end of most people’s disposable income. You’re basically picking through fractions of Spotify streams, small cuts of ticket sales, and the errant sales of shirts and vinyl. Compared to literally everything else in someone’s budget, entertainment usually comes last.

You have to be extremely creative in order to make money in a business that consumers see as a fixed-price service (Hello Spotify!), rather than a commodity. So when someone has carved a niche, and made money, they did something incredible — even if that amount of revenue seems small.

During my tenure at Sony Music, I thought I’d finally “made it” because they had marketing budgets that seemed huge. It wasn’t until I recently worked on a campaign with [Popular shoe company name redacted], that I realized how tiny music budgets really are. It turns out, selling soccer cleats for $130 or more is much more profitable than convincing people to stream an album or purchase a concert ticket for $20. Who knew?

When you have to make a dollar stretch, you’re forced to innovate.

Dealing with tiny budgets means you have to be conscious of every expenditure. You learn to cut out the fat, do things yourself, and save time. When you’re dealing with hyper-thin margins, any advantage is critical to the success of whatever you’re working on.

When I was dealing with artists and labels, I couldn’t afford to hire out for everything, but I often needed professional results. This meant I had to get on Lynda, YouTube, or Code Academy, and teach myself what I needed to know. Sometimes, the initial results were a little amateur-hour, sure… but I figured it out over time.

It forces you to become a salesperson.

Charisma, charm, and social skills aren’t something taught in any classroom. I met plenty of Belmont graduates with degrees in Music Business (yes, this is a real, useless degree they offer) who couldn’t make friends with a Golden Retriever. If I’m trying to lock down a music video, or a website, or a massive marketing campaign, I’m going to make sure you like working with me. If I’m asking you to choose Decaf Grunge over any other production company, I know we all have access to the same camera rentals, DP’s, and editing software. At some point, you’re choosing people you enjoy, because that’s just how people work.

You think Dave down at the Ford dealership in Midland can sell trucks? It’s easy to sell trucks in Texas. It’s hard to sell a record label executive at a conservative country label to try out auto-tune on their biggest star, or take a risk on a music video concept that may be too controversial.

When you’re in music, you’re constantly selling something. Even at an event like SXSW, you’re always networking, passing out cards, and trying to make a buck from every angle possible. That’s why music business people always move on to better projects — because in retrospect, it makes everything else seem easy.

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