Some digital detoxing has really helped with increasing my focus on reading books over the last couple of months. I found my appetite for reading dropping a lot in the Autumn, and laying off digital media a bit seems to have helped.
I’m also trying to cut down on shorter form content (including blog posts — yes, the irony of this article is not lost on me) and to focus more on journals and books in subjects that I’m curious about.
The sources of discovery for this book list has been very mixed; I’ve been given some excellent recommendations for new (and old) titles from people who know I’m getting close to the launch of my next venture; additionally a couple got found in pretty unorthodox ways, as you’ll read below…
So without further ado, here’s my current reading list — a mix of art, audience, A3 licenses and architecture.
The $12m Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
Economics professor Don Thompson delves into the contemporary art industry, profiling dealers, gallerists, artists and market forces that make this sector so hard for outsiders to understand.
I got particularly interested in this when thinking about what other entertainment sectors can learn from how modern art works. The key takeaway is branding, provenance and patronage are the center, with Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian being the leaders in the latter and often also the former.
Outside of the business side of the modern art world, a recent visit to the Chisenhale Gallery in London further perplexed me. Whilst the concept behind the exhibition was interesting and made sense, the execution didn’t feel like art at all to me. Thus, can the idea alone be considered art?
The Mayor of London: An A-Z of Planning and Culture
Something a little more obscure: I came across this in the reception area of a company I was visiting. It felt like a slightly peculiar item for them to have, but nonetheless it’s a very handy and interesting little booklet.
In the Autumn, Mayor of London Boris Johnson called on planners, developers and local authorities to put culture and creativity at the forefront when planning and designing developments in the capital.
However, London is set to lose 3,500 artist studios in the next five years, a third of the capital’s creative workspace, whilst a third of grassroots live music venues have disappeared since 2007. Second Home’s collaboration with Bold Tendencies to create 800 artist studios in Peckham got rejected last year, and rents in well-known creative districts such as Shoreditch are continuing to increase at a bewildering rate.
I’m becoming increasingly interested in the new ways in which physical space can be used for work, education and entertainment, and this guide was a good primer ahead of delving deeper.
I look forward to seeing whether the next London mayor is set to increase or reverse the shift of creative workplaces being turned into (high-end) residential.
I was a bit dubious about this when I picked it up.
Does the world need any more thought leadership, trend forecasting and brand activations around various flavours of millennial bleeding edge influencer tastemaker early adopters? Probably not, but that definitely ain’t gonna stop anyone…
Considerable dose of cynicism aside, there’s a lot of interesting insight between the reassuringly heavy duty cover pages, and I found the data, views and new company tip-offs around social good and sustainability particularly engaging. Nicely designed and a tight concise read, worth checking out.
My discovery of this came through (maybe fittingly) an Airbnb listing in Los Angeles. In one of the listing’s photos, an edition of Offscreen issue 12 was on the table at the edge of the shot. Some of the features looked interesting, so I checked out their website, loved the story behind it and went to my local stockist to pick up a copy. (The Airbnb booking got cancelled by the host a week before arrival, but the inadvertent recommendation made up for it…)
Offscreen is an independent magazine that takes an in-depth look at the life and work of people that use the internet to be creative and build successful businesses. It’s founded by a chap called Kai Brach, based in Melbourne.
The design is as wonderful as you’d expect, and the features are insightful and relatable — ways to improve productivity, reasons for failure, behind the scenes of projects and a whole lot more. They also have a well-balanced attitude to advertising; partners are clearly picked carefully and the relationship between them and publication feels very authentic.
Whilst Offscreen is aimed more at designers and developers, as more of a ‘business’ person I still got a whole load of goodness from it. Go grab it!
this article originally appeared in edition 3 of The Manifesto, a publication for the modern music business.
One of my favourite articles from the past eighteen months is a piece in the consistently excellent Fast Company magazine by Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Chairman and CEO of advertising agency Ogilvy One. Entitled ‘Here’s what you really need to get right about work’, Fetherstonhaugh shares his views on career trajectories and says that most people only think about the immediate next step, not a pathway.
Simply put, the article suggests careers can be split in 3 chapters of roughly 15 years apiece, with a different strategy needed for each.
The chapters are;
Taking on Career Fuel (Transportable Skills, Meaningful Experiences, and Enduring Relationships)
Pouring Gasoline on your strengths (finding your sweet spot, and setting high ambitions);
Passing the Torch (mentoring and staying fresh).
There’s also an introductory section around ‘Career Math(s)’ which emphasises the need to think of careers as marathons rather than sprints, and the need to ‘fuel up’ right from the off.
The world of advertising isn’t always the most nurturing of places for career development but this piece really hit the spot with me, and I’ve referred back to it numerous times. The ideas in these three chapters are simple and effective and also actionable. Rather like the best advertising in fact.
However, one thing that he proposes that I’d challenge is that the passing the torch should only happen in chapter three (i.e. after fifty years of age). The vantage point may be higher then, but I believe it can and should happen much earlier. One industry that would benefit enormously from more torch passing, mentoring and knowledge sharing of all kinds and at all stages is the music business.
Same as it ever was? Or worse?
So what happens if nothing changes? In an industry shifting and writhing as much as music is, I’d suggest that some or all of these things are likely to happen if development of executive talent stalls:
executive talent goes elsewhere
executive talent doesn’t fulfil their potential
artistic talent doesn’t thrive to their potential
deals within the industry decline
there is a ripple effect to wider creative industries
These are pretty dire consequences, but they are imminently possible if the business talent within music doesn’t thrive and help create a supportive and connected ecosystem.
The best way I can think of to prevent these consequences is through effective mentoring and the building of a virtuous circle where the next generation are guided by those that came before them.
Mentor mumbo jumbo
One definition of a mentor is this:
‘Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise.’
The first rule of mentorship is to understand why you want one, and that probably means taking a step back and properly thinking about what you really want. This thought process will help you identify who the right mentors may be.
Be respectful of a mentor’s time. Their time is often their most valuable resource and should be respected as such — it’s something all of us only have a finite amount of, after all. Ironically, if you keep to time when meeting with a mentor and know when to bring the meeting to an end, they’re more likely to give you extra time.
When I’ve sought out mentors, I’ve learned to ask clear, tightly formed questions. It took me a while to learn this but I noticed the results I got improved dramatically.
If you’re emailing them be specific about why you’re getting in touch, why you think they may be a good fit for what you’re looking to achieve, then ask no more than three well-formed questions. Only expect a call or in-person meeting as a bonus if they have the time. This gives the mentor a chance to politely pass on one or all of your methods of request with neither party feeling aggrieved or uncomfortable.
A mentor relationship can come in many different forms. It could be conversations once a week in-person or once a year via email; someone you met once ten years ago, or the person you haven’t yet.
Make the preparatory steps first, and as the saying goes ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’.
Let me dispel a few mentoring myths:
they have to be from your industry / area of expertise
they’re considerably older than you
you have one mentor, not many.
Myth 1 is sometimes the opposite of where a mentor should come from. This example from a friend sums it up:
“A few years ago I decided to reach out to my old thesis supervisor at University. We hadn’t talked really since I graduated. I remembered that he always pushed my analytical thinking and made me want to be better. So I just casually started the conversation. Since that time we meet whenever we are in the same city. we email every three months. And I always ask his opinion when I need that sort of critical eye.”
Regarding myth 2, mentorship is not necessarily about age or decades of experience. It’s important to put ego and fear to one side, and to be mindful.
I’ve been recently been getting advice from someone too young to get my cultural references but their guidance in a couple of specific areas I’m working in has been extremely valuable.
And as for the third myth, whilst having a huge number of people to call on occasionally for sage advice somewhat defeats the point, I have found that getting a broad number of ideas and perspectives both clarifies things and also brings up new questions to ask.
If you’re looking for mentors, they can come from almost anywhere — it’s more about being curious and discovering people who you find interesting and do work you admire.
My experiences then and now
Running my own company several years ago I looked for mentors, but coming into the business as a relative outsider I found it extremely difficult to identify these people. I was seeking a fellow entrepreneurial soul who had climbed up the ladder a few rungs further than me but my requests for advice were generally met with indifference or a tenacious PA who spurned my advances.
Through a bit of serendipity and looking in alternative places I struck up relationships with a couple of mentors outside the music business, but having an industry expert’s view to complement those other perspectives would have benefited me enormously.
In the middle of 2015 I made the decision to leave my role as a booking agent to explore my interests in other industries. As I sensed a career crossroads approaching I embarked on something of a discovery mission to help ascertain where my path would lead. The voyage of discovery comprised mainly of seeking out people in divergent fields to ask for advice and find out more about their career paths, challenges and forecasts on what’s going to happen next in their line of work.
Looking back on the approaches I made and notes I took from the meetings I had, there are a few ham-fisted early attempts (later remedied by the framing I mention earlier), plus some wildly differing opinions, a few bits of feedback that were cast-iron in their consistency, and several new doors opened.
Most importantly, my brain had to work harder — reaching out to someone smarter, more worldly, more experienced than you means going out of your comfort zone. This was pretty scary at first but has without doubt made me more open, confident and also mindful as a result.
Where the music industry is lacking
Running a small industry networking event and talking to lots of peers earlier this year, there was a strong sense that the music industry is lacking in the following key areas around mentoring and knowledge sharing;
influence from complementary and divergent industries
transparency, clarity and insight from those in a position of influence on what it takes to become a success (‘hard work’ is the party line, surely there is something a little more to it?)
knowledge gaps and also assets; an overly aggressive stance, or putting up the defences to avoid the perceived threat
support to those who are nearing the middle or end of the ‘Career Fuel’ stage (i.e. late twenties to mid thirties)
This is emphasised by a recent ‘brain drain’ among executives that has been highlighted in prominent industry publications. It seems this drain is most prevalent among people in their late twenties to mid thirties. To me it feels like the career equivalent of teen angst — fleeting success and trying to make your mark on the world colliding head-on with new pressures and growing frustration.
Being in the middle like this is hard — some of the reasons I’ve heard for people either stepping out or getting close to it include simple burn out, frustration with monetisation, frustration with major label ways of working, artist and executive demands increasing alongside an insular viewpoint, and negativity breeding negativity in the industry.
All the more reason for mentors to provide guidance through this difficult adolescent chapter in a career.
Where can the music industry can take note from other areas, and who’s doing it well?
I’ve been interested in technology since my teens, and having kept a keen eye on it throughout my time in both advertising and the music business, it’s only relatively recently I have pushed myself headlong into the world of startups.
Yes, startups are the hip thing right now, so there’s bound to be a buzz of activity around them, but upon getting more involved I was still surprised at just how many events there are each week in London devoted to both the wider startup scene and many smaller niches. Most of these events are free, many have prominent speakers sharing a few secrets, and the majority of attendees are happy to pass on useful information and make introductions. The openness and lack of fear around hoarding ideas and information is refreshing. As the saying goes, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.
Meanwhile in the hospitality industry, a new venture has started called Journee. It’s a collaboration space in the heart of Manhattan, offering a professional setting for a meeting, a place to study for a sommelier’s exam, or simply somewhere to connect with new friends and colleagues.
People may argue the music industry is consolidating more tightly than hospitality and doesn’t have the scale of tech, so why would we share important information, or be able to set up a collaboration space? I’d suggest that this is even more of a reason that things need to change.
I’d urge you to think about torch passing whatever stage of your career you are in. If you’re at entry level you can help a school/college student understand the paths available to them; if you’re in your late 20s/early 3os there’s ample opportunity to mentor interns and junior executives; if your age is around the forty mark there are a large number of thirtysomethings who could use your advice.
Why? It empowers the mentee, makes the industry more robust, and it’s good for your soul. In particular I’d recommend that perhaps you make a recommendation between two individuals whom you feel should meet with this idea in mind.
One of the reasons I left the music industry was the lack of mentorship and knowledge sharing; it shouldn’t be the reason for other people to do the same.
Let’s pay it forward and build for a stronger, more connected community of tomorrow.
Thanks to Michelle Sullivan, editor at The Manifesto, and Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for their feedback on the drafts of this article.
Two things that are ingrained in many countries’ cultures are football and music. To an extent they go hand in hand — both blend art, commerce, fashion and entertainment, and have huge numbers of passionate fans.
In both businesses (and they are businesses, like it or not), there’s often one person in a quarterback position who is more likely to get fired than get the limelight, and arguably has a thankless task no matter how much success the wider team accrue. That’s right — the manager.
In music, I see a manager as CEO of an artist’s business. The artist themselves is the visionary founder, and the majority of artists are best off following that visionary creative path rather than moving into a CEO role (although they should never take their eye completely off the business side…that’s a very dangerous position to be in).
A football manager may not be the CEO of the club, nor the players’ individual businesses (that’ll more likely be the agents), but just like the artist manager they have a close connection to talent, and this article in the Financial Timesreally resonated with me. It’s definitely pertinent for talent managers, but the advice here can be translated to almost any other area of business where star talent is a key to success.
What the artist manager and the football manager do when it comes to identifying and developing talent can also be compared to the technology industry’s recent wave of startup studios.
The Startup Studio
I came across the startup studio concept fairly early on during the journey towards setting up my new company Rozel. It’s very well summed up in this post by the guys over at Makeshift.
Note: It’s also worth checking out their product Attending — I’ve used it a few times now and it’s a very useful tool for all sorts of event planning. (I’m not on the payroll, by the way)
In the Nesta session that Makeshift were part of, they identified the following attributes that were part of a startup studio. Taking each one of these in turn, I see strong correlations with how talent managers develop their rosters:
1. focused on building multiple products / startups simultaneously
a talent manager will often have several clients on a roster, and to a growing degree more than one of these clients will be active at any one time and need servicing accordingly.
2. generally own the majority of all the things they work on from an equity perspective
the area of music rights isn’t getting much clearer (companies like Kobalt notwithstanding) but most likely that at an early stage, the talent and the manager will be the only two people due income or owning IP.
3. generally have full time staff working on design, dev and marketing
consolidation at the top end of the music industry as well as a shift towards direct-to-fan models and the rise of the attention economy has seen management companies have a need to build teams to take care of their clients’ growing design and marketing needs. Whether the majority will be in-house remains to be seen, but having a retained team of some sort is likely to continue as the lines blur further.
4. attempting to make their process additive — i.e — more value from each thing as you do it
generally, an engaged fan base for a musician are tribal. if what’s being added is of good quality and fans want is, the value derived from each fan should increase.
5. “lab” is frequently used to describe a startup studio because they conjure up a “digital workshop” more so than an agency or accelerator. They’re a place to tinker away on different ideas and build multiple things at once.
whilst talent managers may not consider what they do a ‘lab’, the nature of their setup is much more akin to this to an agency model (whether booking, marketing, etc) where projects and clients are rotated at a much more rapid rate.
Managers as Startup Studios
Taking the idea of a manager being CEO of an artist’s business one step further along, it could be said that early-stage artists can themselves be considered as startups. This is because they usually;
are high risk
have a very small chance of breakout success
have no product-market fit defined
need to make something people really want if they are to succeed
are able to grow rapidly
The manager’s role as the startup studio is to develop a number of these startups at one time, with the hope that one or two will become big hits (i.e. a ‘Unicorn’ in startup parlance), and maybe a few others become solid ongoing businesses, whilst the rest will unfortunately face the inevitability of not reaching the heights that the founders set out to achieve at the beginning (i.e. in effect they will fail).
Furthermore, managers, just like founders and startup studios, are now more often called upon to make their own investments of capital.
In the technology world, a lot of startup studios are being backed by an exited entrepreneur, or in the case of music it may be a talent manager with a big breakout artist on their CV. I see a future where these studios increase in popularity, but without as many big names above the door (simply because there are proportionally not enough of these available, especially in a music market where the big breakout successes are growing in scale but dropping in frequency).
The main challenge for a relativity fledgling manager/entrepreneur wanting to continue develop their ‘studio’ offering is therefore one of capital. In technology, this typically means angel investors or VCs.
But what about the music industry?
I’ll be looking at a few ideas around this, and also what a future music industry accelerator/incubator could look like, in part 2… coming very soon 😉
Travelling on a train from London Fields to Liverpool Street last week, I came across this article via Pitchfork’s Twitter feed, focused on English band Arctic Monkeys and their success in South America.
I got 2 paragraphs down and emailed the link and a note to a friend.
One paragraph more and I followed up to the same email with two more notes.
Another two paragraphs, another note. I decided to read the rest before brain-dumping any more ideas to my friend who already suffers from inbox overload (and the train had arrived at my stop).
This article really resonated with me and I found myself generating ideas with more fervour than anything else I’ve read recently, so I thought I’d write a few words around why that may have happened, and some of the ideas I had.
Some of the people who knew me in my time as a music agent will be aware that I ended up (half by design, half by accident) booking tours in a really broad range of territories.
In 2014 I booked shows in about 65 countries; I’m sure there are a bunch of agents that do more than that, but relative to my experience and size of roster it was still pretty high.
There were a number of reasons I ended up working this way. Two of the main ones that were more by design than happy accidents were;
I felt there was growth in developing areas within a consolidating industry, and that there was a need to diversify a client and customer base in line with that
If I could help develop a live career for an artist that was strong and stable across many different countries I felt they would experience more longevity and be more immune to the trends, cycles and fads that inevitably come and go (now more than ever)
Most people often actively avoided this way of working, and with good logical reason; higher risk of failure, more unknowns, customers you haven’t worked with before, challenges with currencies and exchange rates, difficult logistical hurdles, things being lost in translation/time difference between teams, etc.
(Sounds kinda like working at a startup, no?)
Despite all these challenges (some more clear and present than others) I still dived in, and one of the most challenging yet also rewarding territories I did business in was South America.
From Angel Falls to Patagonia, plus Bebeto’s baby
Like a lot of people, I love to travel, and have been intrigued by South America in particular for years. The landscapes, the food, the people, the music… and the football.
I think my interest first came about through watching the 1994 World Cup — Maradona in overdrive, the tragedy of a Colombian defender who was murdered for scoring an own goal, Bebeto and the ‘baby’ celebration, and Jorge Campos’ dayglo goalie kit. Growing up in suburban England, these guys were like something from another world.
South America was also one of the reasons I started learning Spanish (I’m still pretty rickety but can keep it together in most everyday conversations), and I got to make a visit a few years ago which was a genuine life-changing experience.
One of the things that was really stark whilst on that trip is that there are a ton of parallels between music and football, and in South America I think the two are as closely linked as almost anywhere in the world.
Now I’ve got my minor football digression out of the way, it’s time to go back to the Pitchfork article.
Ways of working
There are a bunch of learnings from the Pitchfork piece which I think are worth expanding on a little bit with regard to breaking the market.
Leverage partnerships, think laterally
There are a lot of products and services that may not be well known in an artist’s home country but are huge elsewhere. Think about combining medium and message, like the actress in the Arctic Monkeys’ music video (see below)
For example, services like Uber are becoming very popular in Mexico (yes, they are in most places — but it’s worth looking at what’s nascent in the region and thinking about strategic partnerships that can increase reach and visibility far more than a targeted Facebook post can)
Don’t ignore or shun cultural differences, embrace them
Arctic Monkeys used a very well known telenovela actress in a recent music video — this kind of leverage can be huge. Local star + band seen as aspirational to their fans + high growth video delivery platform = Crash Bandicoot.
Street cred and star quality
Jason Borge of the University of Texas says; “[Brazilian] middle class kids, young people and intellectuals, mostly white, establish street cred through their embrace of foreign popular culture,” Borge explains. “It allows them to perform or display a rejection of the status quo, particularly if they’re embracing rebellious-seeming celebrities like James Dean or Elvis or Mick Jagger.”
I wrote about star quality in another article, doesn’t matter whether it’s a muddy field in England or an sports arena in Rio…
Watch out for streaming, and not just on the big players’ services
Smart phone ownership is growing enormously in the region (there’s still growth in Europe/North America but the curve here is much steeper), and streaming services are going hand in hand with that. There are a handful of services that are either native or lesser-known in Europe/North America that have serious traction in South America. Also watch out for video, streaming music services don’t necessarily just mean audio.
<plug> One of the companies I work with, F#, are experts in the digital music landscape and how it all fits together. If you want to know more about all this stuff, ask us, we do workshops 🙂 </plug>
Never forget how passionate the fans are, especially the core
Another football parallel; musicians can have their own section of Ultra fans, and in South America the people are enormously passionate. I know of several artists who have been playing shows in the region for nearly 20 years and the fanbase shows no sign of dilution, boredom or losing their fervour — I can testify that stuff like this that’s mentioned in the article really does happen, and you don’t need to be an arena band for it to be you. Cultivate and connect with the fans in an authentic way and they will stick with you, just like they stick with Boca Juniors, River Plate…or Crystal Palace.
Before Murphy’s final tour date, in Lima, Peru, a fan posted the arrival time for Murphy’s plane to his Facebook page. Upon his arrival, 100 to 150 screaming fans were waiting for him, the kind of scene one expects to hear described when One Direction touch down anywhere in the world.
The example above is actually a good marketing tactic that artist teams should look at — pop-up gig in the Arrivals hall? If you want to look at the sharing economy model, airports have a ton of excess floor capacity that could be filled…
Booking an artist in South America is (generally) no different than anywhere else in the world
The agent mentioned in the article states that all the money needs to be paid at least a week in advance. I’d times that by 4 and say a month ahead (at the minimum). Otherwise though, it isn’t that much different to elsewhere around the globe — just make sure common sense prevails.
Present brand and creativity in a way that appeals to the market
I’m not sure if Arctic Monkeys deliberately stylised themselves around this campaign to appeal to the specific audience in South America, but I see a lot of artists who don’t adjust their messaging to suit the market. Sure, sticking to what you’re about creatively is core, but there’s a spectrum and nudging towards one end of that for a particular market can pay dividends. A lot of the most successful electronic artists actually do a really good job of this through their social media and the design and targeting around the content they produce.
I’d like to see more clever marketing ideas in this vein — as a basic example, a couple of years ago emojis became particularly big in Singapore so the SingTel telecoms company ran a campaign where fans could enter MMS-based competitions by guessing a movie title only through a couple of emoji clues. This also ties into looking at the main media channels in a market and leveraging them.
Have that key person on the ground
This is important. There are unfortunately some unscrupulous people out there, and having a trusted and reliable partner protects against many potential pitfalls, some of which are easy to forget about because they just don’t happen all that much in developed nations.
Finding that partner can be difficult, but a good booking agent will likely know a few — and one with the right connections is worth their weight in gold. The right agent (and also the right point person in the territory) will understand the nuances between competing promoters, the politics where multi-national brands are looking to enter markets to the chagrin of the incumbents, are likely have a cross-agency map of who’s reliable and who’s not, and should have a good feel of where there are rafts of non value-adding middlemen in a process.
Most importantly, a reliable and trustworthy host can really make an artist’s tour; the benefits of local knowledge and a warm welcome is never to be underestimated.
I’m by no means a master of doing business in South America, but I’ve worked with quite a lot of people there and have seen just how amazing it can be when tours are executed well.
I think that every modern music business person should seek to gain an understanding of the market there; the mechanisms, the fans, the business, and the wider cultural touch points that make it one of the most exciting places in the world.
Things are going global, but at the same time they’re also going more local — to succeed a strong understanding of both is needed.
And if you needed any more motivation, just think about the authentic Peruvian Ceviche, Brazilian Feijoada, Venezuelan & Colombian arepas, and the unbeatable Argentinian parrilla that’s waiting for you… hopefully I’ll see you there sometime.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray) or in the comments below…
Not so long ago, when someone said ‘Stratford’ to me the first thing that came to mind was not William Shakespeare’s hometown but the Stratford Rex venue which became synonymous in the late 90s and early 2000s for its jungle and garage raves.
Now when I think about this part of East London it’s a bit of a different story — the small matter of the 2012 London Olympics, the gigantic Westfield shopping centre, heavily upgraded transport facilities and of course a lot of new high-rise apartments (with many more still to come).
Tucked away behind the older of the two shopping centres is an arts venue that opened just before the Olympics. Stratford Circus is a contemporary performing arts venue, and it was there last Thursday that East London Arts & Music (ELAM) held their inaugural industry awards.
A little about ELAM
ELAM is an academy for 16–19 year old talent who want to break into the music industry, either as a performer, producer or executive. The trainees work alongside industry professionals on real world projects and work placements, as well as having regular mentoring sessions to help them develop. The academy is a Free School funded by the Department for Education, inspected by OFSTED and completely free to attend. And it’s not just music — every trainee works towards Maths and English qualifications too.
By 2017, the Academy will have 300 full-time Trainees studying on either the Music Programme or the Digital Arts Programme (launching in 2016 — this is a really exciting addition).
Frankly it’s something the industry has been crying out for (maybe not loudly enough), and the event in Stratford was to celebrate their first 75 trainees completing their first year at the academy.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I felt strangely nostalgic about being at my first ‘school’ awards for nearly 15 years, but I was.
What made this a little different to my previous outing back in the late 1990s was that the standard of production and talent on show was on a different level (apologies to my alumni).
The live music of course was fantastic (with my personal favourite performances being ‘Dancing’ by John Parry, Tamika Watkin-Wallace and Louisa McClure, and a cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Shannon Brown), and there’s no doubt that a lot of the musicians who played on the night are going to forge careers in the future.
What was also very impressive was how confident, articulate and fearless so many of the trainees were when it came to public speaking. The majority of us (including me) get pretty petrified when it comes to speaking formally in front of an audience, but not many of these guys…
The other thing that came across so clearly was the bond that the teachers, students and academy as a whole seemed to share. The word ‘family’ gets bandied about far too much in organisations, but with ELAM I really got the feeling that what has made its first year so successful is a positive and supportive culture where the F-word doesn’t seem like it’s being thrown around cheaply.
It was a genuinely inspirational evening, full of talented, positive and determined people following their passions — both teachers and pupils.
What happens next
The trainees from this year’s intake will be back at ELAM’s new space in September, along with a new group working in both music and digital arts.
Even in a very tiny way, I’m delighted to be involved — something like this is long overdue.
ELAM may well be the pathway for the future of UK music…watch this space.
It’s also home to Winter Music Conference (WMC), a slightly misleading name as a) I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have attended the actual conference, and b) winter is these parts is 80 degrees (not exactly Canada Goose weather).
For the uninitiated, WMC is a week-long event in late March consisting of pool parties, club nights, people-watching, networking, spring breakers, tricked-out cars, new music, sunburn, more pool parties, and the huge Ultra Music Festival.
In short, you probably wouldn’t want to bring your Mum along.
During my WMC 2014 visit, I had a breakfast meeting one morning with a US-based music industry friend who I’ve known for several years. We’ve never done that much direct business together but have followed a similar path and ethos in our respective careers, so whenever we get together the conversation is always flowing from the get-go.
This time I wandered down to see him at the Mondrian Hotel, out of the glare and madness of the Collins Avenue hotels (I’ve never understood the appeal of paying $400+ a night to have a 12 hour party outside your window from 11am every day), to be greeted with a big welcome and a pre-paid large and tasty breakfast from my compadre — he was looking well; business was good.
I was wearing a slight hangover and mild sunburn (didn’t listen to my Mum’s advice), but after imbibing a small vat of filter coffee, we got chatting and conversation moved towards working with new talent.
Working with new people there’s often a lot of unknowns, particularly in a competitive business that also has large elements of gut instinct and passion involved. When it’s a new artist there’s a lot of investment involved — blood (sometimes), sweat (often), tears (before bedtime), and of course time and quite possibly money.
Therefore I feel it can be useful to have something to help guide the head as well as the heart.
During our chat, I was reminded me of an old note I made and never finished. At the time I wasn’t able to list the contents of this note verbatim to my breakfast partner, but he got the gist and we threw a few ideas around as to how it could tweaked to be a useful tool for everyone involved in creative business relationships.
This post is a much belated write-up of those ideas.
I started using this list of questions when talking to prospective clients (usually artist managers, either by email, phone or in person); some people really didn’t like answering them, and some just didn’t answer them at all, but I found that I got a lot of value from the responses of those that did.
This list was created for my music booking work but with a little tweaking it could be used in a bunch of different scenarios.
I’ve made a few notes alongside some of the questions as to the reasoning for their inclusion.
1. Who is in the team and what is their experience?
(i.e. PR, Manager / Assistant, Label, Accountant, Lawyer, Publisher; but also other people who may be Brands, Advisors etc.) An artist manager friend drilled this one into me — you’re not just taking on an artist, you’re taking on the whole team, and it needs to fit. You’ll probably know pretty quickly if it doesn’t fit.
2. Who take cares of the back-office work?
Never to be underestimated — if this stuff isn’t handled well it can create a lot of pain all round. The pain I have experienced here is broad and deep (especially when I was starting out), and definitely not for a pre-watershed article such as this.
3. What partnerships and affiliations are in place/planned?
Whether it’s brands, record labels, support gigs…leveraged partnerships can be hugely important. I’ll write more specifically about these another time.
4. Does the artist want to be famous?
This is my favourite one. I received answers that were either an instant and adamant Yes, an instant and adamant No, a very long pause for consideration before answering, or getting one answer before swapping for the other, then something in the middle. It sounds an obvious question but the answer will tell you a lot. It’s also worth noting there are different levels and perceptions of fame.
5. Who do they admire?
Which other artists and why? People in other fields? This can help both tactically and strategically. Often you hear about other artists they don’t want to be associated with too…
Without anything here, it’s unfortunately tougher to succeed.
8. Who is the audience and what demographic?
Top-line social media numbers don’t cut it — genuine insight is what’s needed. Who are we actually talking to? Where are they? How engaged are they? What are their habits and interests? Whilst a manager should know this stuff, it’s not their primary role or skill and I firmly believe there is a need for more business analysis/data science capability in the music business; not just in large companies nor as a bolted-on marketing function.
9. What makes this different to everything else out there?
In business-speak this would likely be referred to as a USP or Unfair Advantage. Hugely subjective in the music industry but still relevant. Star quality as I mentioned here is a good USP.
10. What is the happy ending to the story?
I like this one because it encourages visualisation- and it’s actually a lot harder to answer than you may think.
11. What do you want?
12. How will you know you’ve got it?
(These two are nabbed from an NLP video I saw online but are very good questions to ask, and are surprisingly difficult to answer, especially the second one; what are the things that will let you know you’ve got what you want?)
Whilst there’s not really any substitute for gut instinct and a personal relationship, I feel this little set of questions can really help accelerate a decision making process, and the strategy and plan that (hopefully) follows it.
I’d love to hear your ideas for ones to add, change or remove — you can let me know on Twitter if you like (@howardgray). For more thoughts and discussion about music, entertainment, business and technology, feel free to subscribe to my email list or join the Stems music industry meetup event I help organise.
Working with various artists, labels and collectives in the last few years, as well as trying to keep an eye on what’s going on in the music industry as a whole, I’ve noticed a number of traits that have tended to lead to success.
There’s certainly no magic formula for succeeding (if there was, things would get boring pretty quickly, even if in our more rapacious moments we may believe otherwise), but I’ve had a go at distilling down four elements that can certainly help get there.
Some artists are in the position where they have two or three of these, and a few maybe even have all four. I’d say if you’ve got at least two of them you’re in a pretty good position.
Of course, these elements aren’t permanent; they can shift, slip, expand and contract on an almost constant basis.
In this post I’ve outlined these elements, with a couple of artists who I think are good examples. I’ve put this together with electronic music in mind, I’d be interesting to hear whether you feel this applies (and to what degree) in other genres.
And I’ve left out the Fifth Element (or rather the First) as its value is too large to be dissected here — great music. That kinda goes without saying ☺
The Four Elements
1. The Tribe
2. The Niche
3. The Hit
4. The Star
1. Be part of a dominant tribe
Many things in life revolve around the concept of a tribe.
any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.
I’d say electronic music is no different.
You could call it brand (and there a lots of examples of brand and marketing being an element of success — in fact, that could be the subject of another series of blog posts on its own…), but more from a purist’s point of view I think the idea of a tribe ties in better with where all this came from in the first place.
It’s also not as easy to sum it up in the types of (buzz)words that brands tend to associate themselves with, but people want to be part of something, something that connects them. It sounds corny but music is one of the best ways of bringing people together.
If an artist is part of a tribe who have dedicated followers, that association alone can put position them in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be.
How to create, lead and bring in new members to the tribe is something for another post (I‘ll be writing about that some time in the near future).
There are a bunch of tribes out there in electronic music, one good example of where a tribe has become successful and created a halo effect around itself is the German deep house collective Diynamic, led by DJ and producer Solomun.
2. Own a niche
In an industry where there are three major labels who seem to have a stranglehold on the mainstream, it would be safe to assume that a niche is not a good place to be. The likes of Bob Lefsetz have written about this on numerous occasions, and the excellent book ‘Blockbusters’ by Anita Elberse also looks at the head vs the tail and why the Long Tail concept may be a red herring.
For the most part, I agree — things are generally moving towards being a headliners’ business, but I feel that it can be a different story if you can own a niche and a lot of people overlook the value in this.
By ‘own’ I’m not talking about the $$$/£££/€€€ (although it often goes hand in hand), but more about being a figurehead — the person or one of the people who is instantly associated with a certain genre/sub-genre/movement.
I think people underestimate the fan bases, businesses and longevity of artists in particular niches — sometimes they go onto have either fleeting or longer term crossover success, but a lot don’t and can still maintain long and successful careers.
A good example in electronic music is Chris Liebing. He’s been around a long time; honing his craft, playing challenging underground music, never really crossing over, and certainly never having breakout mainstream chart success. However he seems to be as popular as he’s ever been, with an ardent fan base and a packed worldwide gig diary. I’d also recommend his Resident Advisor exchange — an insightful look into his history as a music fan and DJ.
When I think about heavier, underground, full-tilt techno — he’s one of the first names that springs to mind. He’s a figurehead, so much so that for me his name is almost an adjective for a particular sound.
3. Have a hit (or a few)
This one is more obvious, but a hit track can change everything for an artist almost overnight.
The explosion in popularity of house music (particularly in the UK) over the last couple of years has included numerous top 10 national and international chart hits for artists that were otherwise relatively unknown and underground up until that point where the sound tipped into the mainstream.
The traction an artist can suddenly get from a hit track seems to be as strong as it’s ever been, especially in the live arena (but certainly in other areas such as sync). Festivals need to be able to sell many thousands of tickets and booking an act with national radio support, high chart placings and Shazam virality is going to get the attention of customers who may not be familiar with only niche and underground names.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s a headliners’ market right now and the rewards for being one can be significant, especially when compared to a middle that is often squeezed.
The other side to this coin is that when there’s only 1 or 2 hits and the next release doesn’t connect, things can get much tougher. One of the harshest examples of this is when an artist is perceived to have departed the scene that they came from (aka ‘selling out’) and are unable to find a place in the underground again. The risk of this is arguably getting greater as the speed of turnover on all fronts increases, so it’s about good management and positioning to ensure an artist protects against the downside when they start to crossover.
The examples of artists who have had a number of hits and risen from underground to overground are pretty numerous and obvious; a few from the last year or so include Sigma, Gorgon City, Breach and of course Disclosure. (always good to see a ‘Howard’ representing…)
4. Star quality (or an unforgettable impact)
One of the first festivals a close friend went to was The Big Chill festival (in 2007 I think — feels like aeons ago now). On his slightly dishevelled return after 3 days in the wild, we went to the pub for a catchup.
The first thing he told me was about a DJ who played the previous afternoon. This particular act was playing a set of big bass-heavy music, which was just starting to become popular in the UK at the time. More notable though was that he was pulling the needle off the record currently playing, rewinding tracks at seemingly random times, letting tracks finish without having the next cued up, and various other faux pas — possibly due to a degree of intoxication.
The crowd went nuts, and DJ was a guy called Skream.
Whilst inebriation may not necessarily equal star quality, it’s worth remembering why people admire rock stars (and arguably DJs too).
It’s not just their musical ability, it’s that they’re larger than life and ignore the rules; they operate in a way that regular people can’t, don’t or won’t.
Whilst a purist would say it’s all about the music, particularly in a live event setting people want to be entertained and to feel a connection with the performing artist. A slightly bored bloke looking at his laptop doesn’t always hit the spot here. Skrillex stage-diving or Steve Aoki riding a dinghy across a crowd more likely does (whatever you may think about that…).
I think a good example of someone who has a big personality and projects it well is Eats Everything
So if you can be part of a tribe with a global band of ardent followers, own a particular niche or movement, notch up some hits, and happen to possess that elusive star quality and buckets of charisma, you’ll probably do ok.