A musician with a business education was once a little suspect.
Mick Jagger’s rebellion and raunch could be undercut by pointing out his business studies at the London School of Economics. Or take Pink Floyd’s Have a Cigar, one of the many rock diatribes against moneymen (even though the band was so happy they could hardly count their success at the time).
But that was then.
Today, a musician with MBA skills is the envy of others. Musicians now have to set themselves up as entrepreneurs, within an industry in disarray – effectively, they have to be small business owners. Some business skills are essential, and a B-school degree can only help, some say.
For the Toronto-based, Latinesque singer Amanda Martinez, getting her International MBA from York University’s Schulich School of Business was part of a circuitous, lifelong path that led her to music full-time.
“Music was always in my heart, but I never looked at it as a career option. I had parents who were very adamant that I get an education and that I pursue something very practical,” she said.
Ms. Martinez had worked in sales for clients such as Cadbury and Pepsi, far from a life of performing (even though she says her knack for sales presentations helped resurrect her inner performer). After her MBA, she moved to trade finance, working for TD Bank and specializing in Latin America.
Then came “a total early midlife crisis … I realized that I had never taken my dream seriously as a musician. I took some time off, and then just went head first into music.” This was in 2000. She was in her late 20s.
Her MBA skills kicked in as her music career progressed, she said. One skill was to disassociate selling her music with creating it. Like her days peddling Cadburys chocolate bars to retailers, she didn’t take it personally if some record stores didn’t stock her album.
Another key skill is to work effectively as a team, which can mean very different things working with musical and business teams. She has business partners, even though she still handles scheduling and business details herself, which is that much harder now as a mother of a five-year-old and twins turning two.
“The last thing one gets to do sometimes is the music. If I were to do a SWOT analysis [a typical business school skill, analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats], I think that’s a threat as a musician. For me, the best thing is to make sure you have a team with you to do some of that. When you try to do it all yourself, it really can be overwhelming,” she said.
But “you are still the CEO of your own business, your own life,” she added.
Ms. Martinez also found it surprising how much she has relied on business-school colleagues for help.
“When you are your own product and brand – no matter how much I am able to walk into a store and talk about myself or present myself on the phone – it’s even more important for people to give you an outside perspective and to have other people give you really honest feedback on how you are seen in the marketplace. And that’s where I go back to drawing on a team,” she said.
“People say to me, ‘Oh my gosh, what a waste. It’s too bad you did an MBA when you could have been studying music.’ … I know my parents were, like, ‘You’re throwing your life away! You’re throwing this degree away!’ But it’s funny how much I’m using it,” she said.
For Calgary-based singer-songwriter Amy Thiessen, growing up in a business-minded family on a cattle farm, music wasn’t a career option either. “It was understood that you need to do business, or you need to do something that was going to be tangible and offer some security.”
She was half-heartedly studying undergraduate commerce at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business when, in the middle of her degree, her sister died. Ms. Thiessen took time off, travelled to India and immersed herself in yoga and meditation.
“And that’s when I realized I wanted to change my life. I wanted to work in music and wanted to work in healing in some capacity.”
She likes the tenet of service to one’s chosen path, doing what it takes to follow that path, a notion she got from Calgary poet Sheri-D Wilson. For Ms. Thiessen that meant returning to business school and finishing her Bachelor of Commerce degree with a vengeance. As part of her studies, the singer, now 32, used a self-directed class to draft a business plan for her musical career – a career that also includes training yoga teachers in order to provide herself with additional income and a financial base to support her music.
Still, the challenge of music as opposed to a business career “is that I can’t apply the same idea of linear or tangible results to things like career progress. I can give myself financial benchmarks for sure. But things like getting into certain festivals and getting picked up by this or that radio station, you can do your best, and yet you’re still in a situation where it’s dependent on them,” she said.
Lindsay May, also a singer-songwriter, who lives in the B.C. Interior, talks of her business degree and previous career as a sales rep and account manager for Kraft Foods in similar, left-brain and right-brain terms.
Ms. May worked in Vancouver in sales while also performing on average 50 shows a year. “It was pretty crazy there for a long time,” she said. “When I was doing the two-job thing, I would look at the top performers in life, whether they are CEOs, executives or Olympic athletes. I actually read a ton of books on peak performance. It occurred to me that if I want to be on the top of my game, I was going to have to manage my skill set.”
Her day job provided a cushion, but then her own life-changing experiences pushed her into music. Her mother, grandmother and dog died in a span of three months.
Still, cost-benefit business skills direct her music career. For instance, calling from the recent Folk Alliance industry conference in Kansas, she noted how she had set up a showcase room at the conference hotel, in which she and others could perform for industry people. A DIY trick, taking business into her own hands.
“I get performance opportunities, and I get to stand at the door and meet all the industry people coming by. They come to me, rather than me having to search them out,” she said.