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The lean rock band

May 20, 2013

They don’t tell you this at your first guitar lesson, but to succeed as a musician you need more than just killer chops and a refined ear. You need the skills of an entrepreneur.

Music and art are often held as ideals too lofty to be tainted by mere commerce, but any musician who has been around long enough will tell you that the life of a starving artist is no fun. The problem is that they don’t teach you how to run a business with four co-founders (read: a band) in music school.

Many musicians read articles by successful bands who say things like: “We just write songs for ourselves and don’t care what people think.”

Most successful bands have target markets

It may sound romantic, but it isn’t true. Most successful bands have a careful target market in mind (be it tween girls, 20-something hipsters or suburban hip-hop kids) when they write their music.

In fact, any major label will demand a customer profiling session and will conduct a series of focus groups to determine the marketability of a song. The looks of the band members and the design of the band’s website and album cover all need to resonate with a particular demographic. In short, the band’s brand needs to be consistent.

Concerts as focus groups

Speaking of focus groups, there is no better focus group setting than a concert where your current early adopters (that is, your die-hard fans) are all assembled in one place. You can try out new products (songs) and then carefully gauge your audience’s response. The trick is to not push your new product too quickly, but to weave in the new features with the old to make a seamless transition (“play the hits!”).

Just like startups, the product that allows a band to scale is often not quite the same as the product that got the band its early traction (Exhibit A: The Black Eyed Peas’ first couple of albums). Usually, a pivot is in order. Band members are fired by venture capital investors (big labels), lengthy legal contracts are signed and the band’s focus goes from pleasing customers one by one to making as much money as possible.

This leads to discord among the co-founders, which means that most bands don’t make it past this stage of the venture. I’m not sure of the stats, but I’d bet that the same ratio of startups make it to scale with venture money as bands make it through the process of signing a record deal.

Labels and venture capitalists

Venture capitalists usually only write cheques to startups that have been introduced to them by people they trust. Similarly, labels usually sign musicians that have come through one of their existing networks. For musicians, that means heading out to shows, handing out business cards and buying people drinks. Sound familiar?

In our growing economy, entrepreneurs are usually assumed to be working in the high-tech industry. The reality is that entrepreneurial skills are crucial in any profession where you are trying to stand out from thousands of others, all of whom have the same dream as you: to make it big.

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Joseph Wilson @ MaRS

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Joseph is currently an education advisor at MaRS. He also writes on issues of technology and culture for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events.

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